Still Reforming

Romans 5:1-2, 6-8, 15; Ephesians 2:8-10, Matthew 19:16-26

Rev. Doug Van Doren, Plymouth UCC, Grand Rapids, MI; 10/29/17



This is Reformation Sunday. As you are likely aware, Tuesday is the 500th Anniversary of the date marked as the beginning of the Reformation, when Martin Luther's 95 Theses were published. Luther was an Augustinian monk and university lecturer in Wittenberg [Germany] when he composed his "95 Theses," which protested the pope's sale of reprieves from penance, or indulgences, basically buying one's pardon for sin. Although Luther had hoped to spur renewal from within the church, in 1521 he was summoned before the Diet of Worms and excommunicated.

At about the same time, Urlich Zwingli was preaching a similar message in Geneva, Switzerland, and 20 years later, John Calvin, a French Protestant, fresh off from writing his "Institutes" settled in Geneva, which by that point was a hotbed for Protestant exiles.

The Reformation changed the whole world, not just the religious landscape. There were several elements that made it possible. Key was the invention of the printing press not long before, so Luther was able to get his pamphlets published far and wide, as well as his translation of the New Testament into German. There were those who went before him, brave souls who dared to speak out, and criticize the church - for which they paid with their lives. But also, his ally in a position of power - Friedrich of Saxony who sheltered him, without whom Luther would certainly have been burned at the stake like many before him.

So at the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, it seems we ought to reflect just a bit on it. Especially us in the United Church of Christ - if you don't know, you will see why in a minute. We are also coming up on Consecration Sunday in a couple weeks when we make our pledges for support of Christ's ministry through Plymouth Church. What do those basic principles of the Reformation have to say for how and why we give?

First a little review of religious history. There are four branches that came out of the Reformation:

The German Lutheran

The Swiss-German Reformed

The Anabaptists and

Anglican (Church of England)

The United Church of Christ is the only Protestant denomination that has roots in all four branches of the Reformation.

The German Lutheran branch (primarily following Luther) became the Evangelical United Churches of Germany. A group with roots in that church immigrated to the United States in the 1800's coming up the Mississippi River and settling just outside St. Louis. They became the Evangelical Synod of North America. One of our predecessor bodies.

About a century earlier, a group from the Swiss-German Reformed branch of the Reformation (primarily following Zwingli and Calvin) came to the U.S. and settled in Pennsylvania. They, along with some early immigrants from the German Reformed Church that had settled in the same region became the Synod of German Reformed Churches. Another of our predecessors.

The German Reformed Church and the Evangelical Synod of North America merged in 1934 to become the Evangelical and Reformed Church.

The third branch was the Anabaptists, from the Latin which means "to baptize again." That was a name given to them, not one they chose, but it came from their belief only in the validity of believer baptism, not infant baptism. They were also known as the "Left-wing" or "Free Churches" as they did not believe in much church hierarchy or structure. They were also known as the Radical Reformers.

In the United States they were a loose configuration of some Virginia Methodists, some New England Baptists, Kentucky Presbyterians, and several churches that just called themselves "Christian." They came together to become the General Convention of Christian Churches. A third predecessor

The fourth branch is the Anglican branch or the Church of England. That is where the Congregationalist, the Plymouth Pilgrims, and Massachusetts Bay Puritans came from. Eventually, they became the National Convention of Congregational Churches. In 1928, the Congregationalists merged with the Christian Church, to form the General Council of Congregational Christian Churches. (Church bodies just love those long names!)

Then, in 1957, the Evangelical and Reformed denomination (that previous merger) and the Congregational Christian denomination (that previous merger) came together to form the United Church of Christ, uniting all four branches of the Reformation. By and large, all these church bodies had avoided getting hung up on the theological, ecclesiological disputes that divided many Protestant bodies, like the nature of Communion or Baptism. They understood that human interpretations are fallible. One must function from one's own strong conviction, but with humility and love, or as our German Evangelical forebears put it, "In essentials unity, in non-essentials diversity, and in all things, charity."

Out of the Reformation came two bedrock beliefs:

Justification by Grace through faith. Paul, Jesus' earliest and best interpreter, understood this to be the clearest expression of God's love shown in Jesus life, death, and resurrection. Unlike the practice of the Church before the Reformation, where one earned, by works, merit, or in the crassest sense, could buy, your way into heaven. Paul and Luther understood that Jesus' Good News was that we are all children of God. We are forgiven, made whole, saved - that is liberated by God's grace alone. We are liberated from all that denies our status as beloved children of God, be it our own actions or that of others. All we have to do is believe it. That is, to have faith in a God of such incomparable love.

The other major tenet of the Reformation is reliance on Scripture alone for proper belief and authority. That is, Scripture, not the Pope, or a Bishop, or a Conference Minister is the authority. This lead to an understanding of the "Priesthood of all believers." It is a totally Biblical, but heretofore ignored understanding that the Spirit moves in each of us, and among us as a body. Individually, and together, we are to perceive God's call in Scripture, as well as interpret it, and decide what it calls us to do in our time and place.

That means two things: The first is actually reading the Scripture! So you can see why the invention of the printing press was essential to the success of the Reformation. The second is to understand and be humbled by the trust God puts in us as Stewards of the word and ministry. It isn't up to somebody else, like the Church leaders alone, it is up to us. Authority is in the Head of the church, Jesus Christ. The body, which is the church, has to figure out how to carry out Christ's mission.

That changes the whole dynamic. We as a church of Congregational polity have taken this truth more to heart than most denominations. We are a non-hierarchical church. We even have a healthy skepticism about the place and authority of the pastor (well, mostly healthy!).

The "Priesthood of all believers" determines our understanding of stewardship as well. It means that we, together, "take ownership of, responsibility for" the ministry. No one above us tells us what to give to the church or the denomination. We don't have dues, or assessments, or apportionments. And we don't tell our members what to give, nor do we imply that they are going to hell if they don't give generously.

As tempting as that is!

We all know that if we want the church to exist and thrive, if we want to provide the ministry, nurture, and fellowship we have experienced and provided to others to continue, we have to be part of it.

But that is fundraising, which is important, but for me, it isn't Stewardship. Stewardship is, as I said, "taking responsibility." It is a calling to be who we are meant to be - those who "till and keep the garden," and to keep our brothers and sisters.

It is also a radical, demonstrative defiance of the world's values and ways. Those values, those ways, say that one can never have enough, so "me first" and too bad for anyone else.

But we know better. We worship a God of abundance. We believe that there is enough. We believe that we can live without a sense of scarcity. We can live as life givers, as generous spirits - through our attitudes, our sharing of self and wealth.

That was the problem with the rich young man who came before Jesus. His wealth was killing him. It was god; it was robbing him of his ability to be a generous spirit. So in love was he, so addicted was he, that the only solution was total abstinence.

Jesus did not need this man's money. Certainly the poor did, but that wasn't the point. The man needed to give. He needed to control his money rather than it controlling him. As I am fond of saying, "We need to give, even more than the church needs the money."

Of course, the church is more than happy to be the recipient of your need to give. It is a "win win" situation!

Because the rich young man's money was his god, he could not see and respond to the True God whose representative was standing there in the flesh, right in front of him, because he was blinded by the $ signs in his eyes.

We all have to ask ourselves. "Is my attachment to money, and the security I think it brings, preventing me from seeing and responding to the Christ in front of me?"

At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, the people ask, When did we see you? And Jesus answers, "In the least of these, you saw me."

Are you still a Reformer - understanding that Christ alone is the head of the church, and of your life?

Can you engage life generously, because you realize that you don't have to justify yourself, God has already taken care of that. You don't earn God's love; rather you respond to it, you grow in it, like a well-watered garden.

As the old saying goes, God loves a cheerful giver, but will also accept from a grouch! But I want you to be a cheerful giver. Not that there isn't pain in giving generously. (When we think of all the stuff we could buy - and don't need!) Though one of our members long ago had it right when he counseled us, "don't give until it hurts, give until it feels good!" As those who are still Reformers, we can know the joy of being all in, with God, and with these genuinely good, albeit a little quirky, people that are called Plymouth Church. May it be so.