Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The One Foundation

“The One Foundation”
Matthew 23:1-12
October 30, 2011
Reformation Sunday/All Saint’s Day

            “The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord.  She is His new creation by water and the word; from heaven He came and sought her to be His holy bride; with His own blood he bought her, and for her life He died.”[1]
            This is a hymn that I grew up singing.  The tune was written by Samuel Sebastian Wesley, grandson of Charles Wesley, one of the leaders of the Methodist movement in England. 
            Although this isn’t one we would consider a typical example of a Reformation hymn, I do think it represents the underlying purpose of the Reformation which was to get back to what really mattered in faith, our one and true foundation – Jesus Christ. 
            Isn’t that what Martin Luther wanted to make clear when he nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenburg Castle?  He wanted the church to address the ways that it had gone astray from the teachings of Christ.  He wanted the church to acknowledge that it had forgotten its foundation.  Luther wanted reform, not for the sake of reform alone, and certainly not to start a new church in his name, but to get back to what was the true foundation, the one foundation – Jesus the Christ.
            John Calvin, the spiritual father of Presbyterians, also took up that battle cry.  What is the true foundation of the church?  Is it church doctrine?  Rules?  Regulations?  Church law?  Or is it God in Jesus Christ?  And if it is Jesus Christ, then what is the first and foremost source of our knowledge?
            The answer to that question was scripture. Sola Scriptura.  Scripture alone. Not doctrine or teachings created by the church, but scripture.
            In an article on the Reformation and the purpose of celebrating Reformation Sunday, writer Lukas Vischer reminds us that the time of the Reformation was not as idealized or as romanticized as we sometimes make it out to be.  The Reformation was a time of struggle and conflict, often violent conflict. 
            Luther carried a price on his head, and it’s actually amazing that he was able to live out a relatively normal life span.  Many of the reformers were persecuted for their willingness to defy the traditions and teachings of the church. 
            John Calvin was originally banished from Geneva by the very people who had asked him to come there and to bring reform to the entire city.    
            And I’ll never forget my first Presbyterian minister, Al Tisdale, telling us in officer training that John Knox didn’t come to this country just because he was eager to bring the principles of Reformation to America.  He came because he had to get the heck out of Scotland. 
            The days of the reformation were often dark ones.  As Vischer wrote, “The Reformation was a turbulent period.  It was characterized by harsh debates and struggles.  It led to a deep rift in Western Christianity, and even to violence and military conflicts.” [2]
            But at the heart of the Reformation was the realization that the true source of the church was nothing that it could create itself.  It was only Christ.  Christ was the true source.  Christ was the one foundation. 
            And what was true for the reformers is true for the church today.  What is the true source of our very being?  It’s not our traditions, although we love them dearly and tradition itself is not inherently bad or wrong.  It’s not our structures or our polity – and trust me, I may not have grown up Presbyterian, but I am a good one.  I resonate with our church governance as much if not more than some people I know who come from generations of Presbyterians. 
            The source of our being as Presbyterians, as Reformed Christians, as Christians in general, is Christ. 
            Christ is our one foundation.
            I contemplated seriously just ignoring the gospel passage this morning, although when I started off the week I was determined to preach from it.  It’s another challenging passage from Matthew’s gospel, and we’ve had so many challenging passages in these last weeks that, frankly, I’m just worn out from them. 
            And I know I’m not alone in this, because even on the sermon podcast that I listen to, the biblical scholars and professors were eager to move on as quickly as possible from these verses in Matthew and talk about the other scripture passages for today.  So we were all in the same boat as it were when it comes to preaching this passage.
            What’s really daunting about taking on these opening verses from Matthew 23 is that Jesus is talking to the religious teachers and leaders, you know, people like me, rather than just the folks in the crowds around him. 
            So if I were preaching this passage before a gathering of my minister colleagues, it might be more appropriate.  It would call all of us to task for what we do and say.  It would call us on the carpet as to whether we practice what we teach or if we just like the attention that we get because we’re in positions of authority.    
            Yet even as I say that, I think this passage has particular meaning in what we observe and celebrate today on Reformation Sunday. 
            As I understand it, Jesus is challenging the religious teachers and leaders for caring more about the external trappings of the faith than for what faith is really about.  He’s saying, “Listen, you ask the people who put their trust in you to carry burdens that you won’t carry.  You care more about showing off how faithful you are, than you do about actually being faithful.  You love the benefits of your position more than you love God.” 
            Isn’t that what the Reformers asked of the church?  Isn’t that what we have to ask of ourselves?
            Luther was driven not only by his own feeling of never being worthy enough for God, but also by the burdens the church laid on the common people.  In essence the church asked them to buy their way to heaven by buying indulgences, a way of buying their way or a loved one’s way out of purgatory into heaven.  These indulgences supported the cost of being the church.  Luther could not abide by that.  So he questioned that practice and others.  And his willingness to question, to challenge began a process of change, of reform. 
            Calvin believed our whole lives should reflect the glory of God.  For him it wasn’t just about the reform of the church.  He wanted reform to be widespread, in our actions, our teachings, our living. 
            Both of these men and so many others wanted the church to find again its one foundation.
            Perhaps that’s what our celebration of this day really needs to be about.  It’s not about celebrating the Reformers themselves.  As Lukas Vischer made clear in his article, John Calvin would not have wanted to be celebrated for himself.  None of the reformers would have wanted that.  Luther, Calvin, and the rest of the reformers were not trying to point to themselves, they were pointing to Christ. 
            So when we celebrate this day, we also have to figure out if we’re pointing solely to our structures and traditions or to Christ.  It seems to me that that’s what the Reformation was all about.  It was a reorienting back to the true source of the church. 
            And even though the historical Reformation happened centuries ago, we can never stop asking the same questions that the original reformers asked.  Have we forgotten our true source?  Have we gotten so caught up in the external trappings of our faith, that we forget why we’re here at all?
            What reformation needs to happen today? 
            That’s a loaded question, because I guarantee that each one of us would answer that question differently and use scripture to justify our response.  But to me that just proves that the Spirit which guided the Reformers is alive and well and breathing new life in the church today. 
            That’s the one factor that we can’t forget.  The Holy Spirit.  I have no doubt that the power of the Holy Spirit was moving during the Reformation, calling new life into old ways.  And I give thanks everyday for later reformers who were also guided by the Holy Spirit to challenge old ways.  Without them, without their courage and conviction, a woman would not be standing in the pulpit before you this morning. 
            So on this day of remembering, of reformers and saints, let us remember that our one foundation, the only foundation is Christ.  We are the church because of Christ.  We are here because of Christ.  The Spirit of Christ guides us, calls us, pushes us, moves us.  Our past is in Christ.  Our present is in Christ.  Our future is in Christ.  God in Christ calls us to be reformed and ever reforming.
            “Yet she on earth has union with God the Three in One, and mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won:  O happy ones and holy!  Lord, give us grace that we, like them, the meek and lowly, may live eternally.”  [3]
            Alleluia!  Amen.

[1] The Church’s One Foundation by Samuel Sebastian Wesley and Samuel John Stone; The Presbyterian Hymnal, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 1990.
[2] Vischer, Lukas, “The Significance of the Reformation in Our World Today”.
[3] The Church’s One Foundation by Samuel Sebastian Wesley and Samuel John Stone; The Presbyterian Hymnal, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990.

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