a sermon for Reformation Sunday on Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Romans 3:19-28
preached on October 30, 2011, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
There’s something wonderful about remembering our history and celebrating where we have been. We had such a great day last Sunday as we celebrated 140 years of ministry in this congregation. Today we celebrate a milestone birthday for one of our members and think about the incredible gifts and lives that people bring to our community of faith. These and all the remembrances of our lives can and should inspire us to many, many more years of faithful life and living.
Today is actually another chance for us to remember our history as we celebrate Reformation Sunday. Today we especially remember that day in October 1517 when Martin Luther posted a list of his “95 theses” of complaint and petition to the doors of the church in Wittenburg, Germany. But Luther’s actions on that day were only a marker in a much larger movement that had begun before him and continued long after him. Luther himself didn’t walk away from the Roman Catholic church of his time but took many years to begin the branch of Christianity that now bears his name. With the rise of the printing press some years before, the text of the Bible had become more accessible to those who literate, and new ideas were more easily spread. Other church leaders of Luther’s time took advantage of a general sense of anger and frustration directed toward officials in Rome to build on the work of others who had been calling for a different way of being the church for centuries. Even some who remained in the Roman Catholic church sought to bring change to the institution that so many had rebelled and protested against.
All these saints encouraged the church to return to its roots, to clear out some of the accumulated baggage of 1500 years, to reclaim its identity in scripture, and to build the most faithful institution possible around these key tenets. And so new leaders emerged across Europe to give shape and form to this emerging way of faith and life in the particular contexts of that day and age. So today, nearly five hundred years later, as we celebrate this important shift in the history of the church – a shift that still shapes and forms our practice of life and faith today – I think we best remember these things by doing exactly what our forebears did and returning to the core principles of who we are by listening for the spirit of the Reformation.
Our two readings today do exactly that. First we heard the beautiful text describing the coming of the new covenant from the prophet Jeremiah. At their heart, these incredible words remind us that God is always seeking to be with God’s people in new ways. If one way of relationship doesn’t fit the need, God will keep trying until another one does. Jeremiah insists here that God changes minds and hearts and lives, that God breaks into our humanity to “be [our] God” so that we can be God’s people. To top it all off, God promises to be in relationship with each and every one of us – and all of us together – so that we can be renewed amidst our missteps and restored to life.
The apostle Paul picks up on much this same theme in our reading this morning from his letter to the church in Rome. Paul takes the prophet’s ideas of renewal and restoration and new life and connects them directly to the life and death of Jesus Christ. He suggests that the law of God cannot save but can only condemn, and so Jesus’ life revealed the full righteousness of God to sinful humanity. Paul declares that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” – and yet God’s grace becomes effective in us and through us in faith and brings us back into relationship with God. Paul insists that this is not any of our own doing – responsibility for all this belongs only to God.
These two texts bring us some of the key ideals of the great Reformation of the sixteenth century and bear the spirit of that time into our own, but they don’t always translate into our day and age right away. The spirit of the Reformation should always be before us, as one of the great principles that has emerged over the centuries reminds us: we are not just the church once reformed; we are also the church still being reformed according to God’s Word and Spirit. As we make our way into our 141st year of ministry in this congregation, we have to sort out what these things mean for us to make the spirit of the Reformation our own. What is it for us to reclaim these great ideals of relationship, self-sacrifice, and trust in God for the church and the world in 2011? How do we live out what we have learned about being in relationship with God in this changing time? How do we help others to see what we have seen and experience the presence of God in our world? Asking these kinds of questions is, I believe, the most faithful way we can be church together in this changing day and age.
Looking closely at what we are doing and how we are doing it to see how it fits into our new reality in Jesus Christ and our changing world is our greatest challenge – but also our greatest opportunity. Helping people sort out what it means to believe and have faith in 2011 and beyond ought to be at the center of our mission in these days. And all along the way, we must embrace the questions that will come up and honestly face the difficult decisions that come before us, for it is in those moments that we truly have the opportunity to embody the spirit of the Reformation in our own time and place.
So as we journey together in the coming months, as we face the change that is certainly coming our way, as we work to wind up some things that have occupied our minds too much lately, as we sell our beloved manse and purchase something new, as we make a new space for the work of the church in this building, may the spirit of the Reformation continue to call us to ask the tough questions, to sort out what it means to be the people of God in this time and place, to remain confident of God’s presence in the face of everything that changes around us, and to keep showing the face of God to everyone we meet throughout the good days and bad. Thanks be to God for this confidence, this hope, this challenge, and this way of life in faith together in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.