Reformata, Semper Reformanda
Exodus 19-20, Luke 19
October 31 2004
*Exodus 19.1-20.21* “Reformata…”
Can you imagine what life would be like if we didn’t have any rules? I wish that I could say, “Well, human nature is actually nice and logical and we would probably all just get along fabulously.” Unfortunately, that isn’t the case and hasn’t been since Eden—when there were only two people who had to get along anyway. No, it’s likely that if there were actually NO rules—not even the ones we think are common sense, natural law, so obvious and ingrained that we can’t imagine the possibility of living without them—then things in human community would not go very well.
Instead, it seems that life has a lot of rules. Rules about how fast you can drive, rules about what you can and can’t wear to work or school, rules about buildings and safety and animals and business. In church we have rules about who can stand up here and preach, who can stand behind this table and celebrate sacraments, who can be ordained, and more rules for how we make decisions and do things. In Exodus we find the beginning of a code of rules. Before this we had basics: don’t eat of the tree, circumcise your male babies, etc. Now we have a full blown set of rules, and these ten are the foundation for life in community.
They seem so obvious, but it’s possible that several thousand years ago, when the Hebrews first heard these rules, they weren’t common sense. Sure, to us they feel super obvious, natural, the normal state of being. Don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t cheat on your spouse. But maybe they weren’t so normal back then. Especially that very first one: no other gods. That’s a new development for these people! It’s much better to hedge your bets, have several gods and keep them all happy so you don’t have to worry about whether it will rain this season or not. But Yahweh says that is unacceptable, and insists that the people acknowledge only ONE God. After that radical change in thinking, who knows what the people must have thought about all these other rules. But in any case, these ten rules that may have been strange at one time became the foundation of their life together—and continue to be the foundation of law in many places.
As Christians in the Reformed Protestant tradition, we acknowledge several layers of foundation for our life together. This first set of rules, the Law, the Torah, is one of them. But, as you may have noticed, before we get to the actual “Ten Commandments” we have a whole chapter of rules about how to get ready for God to speak. Moses goes up and down the mountain several times—which, let me tell you, is no easy task! The people wash their clothes, take care to be especially clean and pure, husbands and wives sleep on separate mats, the people gather behind the ropes at the bottom of the mountain, and Moses goes up to speak to God, totally alone. But just in case, God sends Moses BACK DOWN the mountain to make sure the people aren’t trying to sneak over the fence like kids at Six Flags who are bored with standing in line and crawl under the fence to play in the dirt and rocks on the other side. I would not have been happy with this at all—I was in so much pain just going up and down once that I can hardly imagine doing it two or three times. And after all that, the people are so afraid that they just tell Moses to talk to God for them—they’ll happily just wait down here.
All this rule-making about speaking with God led the medieval Roman Catholic Church into some pretty serious corruption. The people couldn’t talk to God—only the priests could. The people couldn’t even have both bread and wine for communion, because they might come too close to the mountain. And, of course, with all the rules to follow and the difficulty of confessing everything, getting forgiveness was pretty difficult. Since the church needed money to maintain its political power, they decided to sell forgiveness to people. Imagine: the minister only pronounces the assurance of forgiveness after you’ve put enough money in the offering plate. How much is enough? The minister gets to decide. Maybe this week it’s $5 per person. On pledge maybe $150. On Christmas and Easter we’ll be looking for $10 from Bob, $100 from Sue, and $76 from Mike—in direct proportion to how many Sundays other than Christmas and Easter we’ve seen them in church.
This is the kind of corruption Martin Luther was worried about. He would very conscientiously confess every sin he could think of, but was constantly plagued by the thought that he had missed something. He would leave confession, and then run back in a panic. Finally his confessor told him that if he was going to confess for hours, he should at least go out and do something worth confessing! Then, while reading the letter to the Romans one day, Luther realized that there was nothing he could do to earn forgiveness, but that God’s grace had made him righteous because of Christ. This epiphany was profound. He became so upset with the sale of forgiveness (called indulgences) that he wrote up 95 theses, which were designed to be discussion points, things he wanted the church to talk about. On October 31, 1517, he nailed them to the church door in Wittenberg. He didn’t want to start a new church. He didn’t even necessarily want big changes in worship. He just wanted to talk about forgiveness and grace and the idea that we could sell God’s grace to the highest bidder.
This new idea that God’s grace was free was radical to the medieval Church——much as some of the Ten Commandments must have seemed radical to the Hebrews, newly escaped from Egypt. This once-radical idea is now another part of our foundation. The Law is part of the foundation of our life as a community. The free grace of God is part of the foundation of our life as a community. It seems the two might contradict, but they didn’t for the apostle Paul, so they didn’t for Luther. The Law tells us how we are to live with God and with one another. The fact that God’s grace is a gift, something we can’t earn but is given to us anyway, tells us that we can’t sell forgiveness, and we can’t decide who gets grace and who doesn’t. God decides, and God freely gives grace to everyone. As Reformed Protestant Christians, these two radical foundations are part of normal existence, they seem obvious and “common sense.” The rules that form our foundation no longer seem radical—which is one way we can tell that we are “Reformata”—the past tense which means “Reformed.”
*Luke 19.1-10* “…Semper Reformanda”
Has anyone ever invited themselves over to your house? I will admit to having done it myself, actually. As a student, I sometimes suggest to people that it might be great if we could have dinner sometime—at their house. Or I might say “hey, wanna watch a movie tonight? Since I don’t have a TV, how about your place, 8 o’clock?” But I have never, ever just walked up to someone and said “come here, I’m having dinner at your house tonight.” How incredibly rude!
And, of course, the person we see doing this very rude thing is Jesus, breaking the societal rules and making new ones all over the place. For all his claiming to fulfill the law rather than abolish it, he sure does break a lot of rules. Who invites themselves over for dinner? Then again, who stands around outside the tax collector’s house and gossips loud enough that the subject of the gossip can hear them from inside?
Can you picture it? Zacchaeus, who’s probably about as tall as I am, rushes down from the tree and guides Jesus, the rabbi, the healer, the Messiah, out of the bustling crowd and into his living room. Suddenly he hears some less-than-discreet voices outside. He turns red, then turns to Jesus and declares that not only will he fulfill restitution laws but he’ll actually pay from his own pocket to anyone who has been the victim of his tax-collector overcharging practices. Because, you see, tax collectors were Jews who worked for the Romans. They didn’t get paid, so they would charge more than the Romans wanted and take the difference as their salary. For Zacchaeus to offer to give back four times any excessive charges is essentially to offer his entire income and then some.
And then rule-breaker Jesus says things like “this man too is a Son of Abraham” and suddenly all the people outside feel that maybe they were the ones breaking the rules. Jesus has come to say “you have heard that it was said… but I say to you…” Is this rule-breaking, or rule-reshaping according to the way things were meant to be?
The Reformed church has said that we are “Reformed and always being reformed by the Word of God.” Maybe this is what it means to be reformed by the Word—not just by Scripture but by the Word with a capital W: Jesus. He’s just sauntering through and invites himself to dinner at the house of a sinner who he proclaims has been saved by the free grace of God. Jesus has just turned the foundations of community life in Judaism upside down. This community has been reformed by the Word of God in a very startling way!
Sometimes we experience the same kind of startling reformation. The Protestant Reformation in the 16th century was startling and upsetting. Martin Luther and John Calvin turned Europe’s church system upside down. They also recognized that if they claimed to set a once-and-for-all system, then they would be falling into the same traps the medieval Catholic church had stumbled on. Instead they insisted that we are to be always open to continuing reformation.
This kind of reformation may take many forms. For example, many protestant churches now allow women to be pastors—something that was unheard of for hundreds of years. The Presbyterian church in many countries is uniting with, or at least in agreement with, several other denominations to share worship, ministers, buildings, or other resources. Many churches are experimenting with their worship styles, with new music, or with liturgical resources from other countries. In some places it may be in prayer style, or in new lifestyle or mission commitments. The reformation of the church is to be ongoing, according to both Luther and Calvin.
We all have a part to play in the ongoing reformation of the church. Because of the printing press and the protestant reformation, we can all read the Bible. We can pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We can gather in community to discern where we are being called and what the Word says to our context. We can ask the hard questions, pray together, and so be involved in the reformation.
In addition to the reformation of the church, we can follow in Calvin’s footsteps and participate in the reformation of our society and our government. As we approach the national election day, we all have a part to play in our nation. Calvin said that all Christians have a responsibility to be involved in government and civic life. Voting our conscience, being active and vocal for the things that are important to us, praying for our leaders—all these are ways we can be involved in the ongoing reformation of our national community.
But, for all the things we can do to be involved in the reformation, we must remember that it’s not WE who are doing a new thing, but God who does the new thing. We don’t bring in the kingdom, God brings the kingdom. Reformanda is the passive form of the verb—we are always being reformed by the word of God, not by our own ideas. When we are acted upon by the Word of God, however, we do take action. We do have something to do, a part to play, a responsibility to respond when we are called.
So we build on the foundations laid for us by God’s people of ages past. We don’t simply repeat everything they have always done: someone has said that the seven last words of the church will either be “we’ve always done it that way before,” or “we’ve never done it that way before.” But neither do we throw it all away and start from scratch. The rules and concepts that form our community, that shape our life together, come to us from Scripture and from the tradition. Then we discern the movement of the Holy Spirit and form and shape our life in this place and time according to the Word. Sometimes we may need to try a new thing. Sometimes we may need some startling discussion questions to lead us in a re-shaping of the way things are meant to be. Sometimes Jesus needs to invite himself over for dinner at the sinner’s house so we can see the way things are supposed to be. Because he comes to seek out and save the lost, we pray that we might be found and that we might hear once again that God’s free gift of grace has come to this house. That openness, that prayer, that expectant hope that God is always doing a new thing, is the sign of the Reformed church: Semper Reformanda, “Always being re-formed.”