Today we celebrate Reformation Sunday, remembering the courage and integrity of Christians who, almost five hundred years ago, stood against the corruption and moral decay of the church around them and sought for God’s renewal. Yesterday I was part of a celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, beginning with Martin Luther’s 95 Theses in 1517. The Presbyterian Church in Canada has sponsored this celebration, running from 2013 to 2017, focussing on one of the famous mottos of the Reformation: Sola gratia, Sola fide, Sola Scriptura, Solus Christus, Soli Deo Gloria. Yesterday we talked about the theme “Christ Alone”.
Today we look at two passages of Scripture to give shape to our thoughts: 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4 and 11-12, and Luke 19:1-10. After we look a bit more at these two texts we ask what they tell us about the continued need for reformation in the church today.
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
3 We ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love all of you have for one another is increasing. 4 Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.
11 With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may bring to fruition your every desire for goodness and your every deed prompted by faith. 12 We pray this so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The introduction to Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians is interesting. He begins with thanks to God for their growing faith and increasing love. They are people he likes to hold up to others as examples of how to persevere in the face of trouble and persecution. So he prays for them that they will remain this kind of people.
There is in verses 11 and 12 a hint of concern that they might not follow through on the great promise they have shown so far.
- We pray that God may make you worthy of his calling.
- We pray that God may use his power to bring you to full maturity and faith.
- We pray that Jesus may be glorified in the way that you live by God’s grace.
But did not Paul already thank God for doing these things in them? It sounds as though they are wonderful examples of Christian faith—who need to be careful lest their good example goes bad.
From this caution we can infer that we are always on the edge of reformation. Consider what the word means. To Re-Form: to form or take one’s proper shape again. The word implies a malformation, a disease of shape, a failure of vision. In the 1500s the existing Roman Catholic Church had lost something of its original strength and goodness. Corruption in the form of indulgences and corruption within the ecclesiastical process generally resulted in a misshapen church, different from the true church of Jesus Christ.
The Reformers did not usually seek to found another church, but to bring the Catholic Church back to its original vigour and strength. Official reaction, seeking to preserve official privilege, pushed the reformers out of the Catholic Church. This reaction was not a Catholic response only; the Anabaptists similarly were forced out of the Reformed Church in Zurich, under Ulrich Zwingli. There was in fact a movement along many parallel tracks, some within the Roman Catholic Church and some without, which led to the re-formation of corrupt structures and people. We also become malformed, misshapen, even when we seek to be faithful. We also live on the edge of needed re-formation.
19 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. 7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
The story of Zacchaeus tells a similar story, but this time from the perspective of one individual. Zacchaeus was a tax collector, a man of means and official power, but also despised by the people and a social outcast. However much money he had made from collecting taxes corruptly, he clearly felt his “uncleanness” within his social context. So when he hears about the travelling rabbi, Jesus, who has healed so many people and can even cleanse the social outcast, he climbs a tree to see him. Jesus stops under the tree and calls Zacchaeus down to host him at his house. Jesus willingly accepts the status of unclean himself in order to re-form the socially diseased tax collector. The result is Zacchaeus’ complete repentance, so that Jesus pronounces his salvation.
The need for re-formation may exist at the institutional level. It exists also at the personal level. Institutions are made up of individuals who choose right or wrong, personal privilege over integrity, personal comfort over charity, personal benefit over the equity of a truly just society. Sometimes the church goes bad and needs to be re-formed. Sometimes people in the church go bad and need to be re-formed.
The church today, and Christians today, are in need of re-formation. We have become misshapen, malformed, people who need God’s presence and God’s work in our lives. Sometimes the church is pressed into a mould dictated by our surrounding society. North America, for example, values personal fulfillment defined by maximizing personal pleasure. The North American church has followed suit, so that we rarely the call to duty of a past generation. Do you remember the hymn: “A call to keep I have” by Charles Wesley?
A charge to keep I have, A God to glorify,
A never dying soul to save, And fit it for the sky.
The last verse runs thus:
Help me to watch and pray, And on Thyself rely,
Assured if I my trust betray, I shall forever die.
This is not our language today. We sing about loving God, and being loved by God, more than we sing about doing our duty. In many ways we have become more North American than we are Christian. I could expand on this point, but leave it here for now. It is enough to say that we need re-formation. We need God’s Spirit to “melt us, mould us, fill us, use us.”
When I was young there was a preacher in our church named Luke Keefer, Sr. He preached often on being filled with the Holy Spirit—what we called “entire sanctification”. In the first years of his ministry he added to entire sanctification what he called “sinless perfection”. That is, when the Holy Spirit fills you fully, God can remove the root of sin from your person, so that you no longer have a desire to sin.
In the 1960s Keefer left the pastoral ministry in Pennsylvania and went to teach in our church in Zimbabwe. He spent about 10 years at Ekuphileni Bible Institute there, teaching and preaching about the work of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life. I believe that God used Keefer to prepare the Brethren in Christ Church in Zimbabwe for the difficult times of the liberation struggle, which led to an independent Zimbabwe in 1980. These years of teaching and preaching also changed Keefer.
When he returned to the United States, he announced that his ministry in Africa had convinced him that the doctrine of sinless perfection was not true. I don’t know why he changed his mind. I don’t know if he found sin in the lives of mature believers there, or if Africa revealed continuing failures in his own life. In either case, he went back to the churches of Pennsylvania and preached to them that he had been wrong: Even mature Christians can become misshapen and malformed and need the re-formation of God’s Holy Spirit to make them new and whole.
Or Can Someone Be “Perfect”?
As I was preparing this sermon, my mind went to another group of people—a very different situation than Keefer preaching in Africa or Pennsylvania. I have told you before about the community of Taizé, near the village of Macon in France, close to the Swiss border. Lois and I with our sons visited Taizé in December 2003. I have never been in a place so filled with peace. Peace permeated the very soil of the place to a degree I have not experienced elsewhere.
This peace comes from a daily re-formation of the soul, through regular prayers held three times a day. The rhythm of prayer forms the soul each day. At 8:15 a.m., 12:20 p.m., and 8:30 p.m. the Brother of Taizé are joined by some neighbouring Sisters and by travellers who are visiting for the week. There are perhaps 300 people in the regular weekly community and anywhere from 30 to 3,000 pilgrims who join in for the week. The prayer begins with repetitive chants in a simplified style, which help one to become silent within. Then comes a Scripture reading in French, German, and English, followed by some more singing. These chants lead to the heart of the prayer time, a 10-minute silence before God. The sound—or silence—of several thousand young people is indeed an amazing experience. The service closes with a chant designed to help one re-enter the world outside the prayer time.
Brother Roger founded the community in the early 1940s as a place of refuge for Jews. It became a place of refuge for Germans after the war. It continued as a place of peace and refuge for all travellers. One of those travellers was a mentally-disturbed woman, who, on August 16, 2005, jumped over the simple dividing wall between the worshippers and the brothers and stabbed Brother Roger to death. He was 90 years old.
Jason Brian Santos was a young man who had received permission from the Brothers to write a history of the Taizé community. The night Brother Roger was killed happened to be his first day at Taizé. Here is how he describes the aftermath:
… the day after Brother Roger’s death, during the adult Bible Introduction, a German brother addressed the feelings and struggles that many of us were facing. He graciously answered all the questions we had about Brother Roger’s murder, and though he was somber, he was noticeably void of hatred, malice, resentment and vengeance. … From the quality of his voice to his body language he emitted a sense of peace—extending it to all those who were present that day.
The German brother repeatedly emphasized the freedom we have been given in Christ. He said that we were “free to forgive,” “free to love” and “free to embrace others because Christ freely embraced us.” … I heard many discussions that week about the strange sense of peace that seemed to dwell with the brothers. I know I didn’t feel free or a sense of peace, but they did. They were free to accept us in the midst of their loss and they were free to embrace the Romanian pilgrims visiting that week with open arms. This freedom, however, extends beyond the daily structure and ethos of the community and actually penetrates the most sacred part of the community: the prayers. Many pilgrims linked their experience of peace with the prayers. (A Community Called Taize, 137-138)
I would go further and say that the peace came from the daily re-formation of their lives through prayer. The peace was God’s peace, mediated through close relationship with God, moulding and re-moulding their souls to the shape of God’s love active in the world. Jesus put it this way (John 14:26-27): “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”
Excursus: I did not have time to use this example, but one could refer to the West Nickel Mines shootingin Pennsylvania 10 years ago. We have heard how the Amish Community enfolded the family of the shooter, who had killed five of their daughters and left three others injured before taking his own life. The community immediately extended grace and forgiveness to the shooter’s family—his wife and children, and his parents and parents-in-law, a practice rooted deeply in Amish faith and ethos. The practice reminds me of the example above from the Brothers of Taizé. I read one story in the New York Times on the 10th anniversary of the shooting, describing the way that one survivor lives in a paraplegic condition. Her father stated that he finds he must forgive the shooter again each day, as he sees his daughter. At the same time the shooter’s mother has become one of the girl’s regular caregivers. Grace and forgiveness run deeper even than the greatest evil in our world.
An old hymn from the old BIC hymnbook puts it this way (“Hidden Peace”):
I cannot tell thee whence it came, This peace within my breast;
But this I know, there fills my soul A strange and tranquil rest.
There’s a deep, settled peace in my soul, There’s a deep, settled peace in my soul,
Tho’ the billows of sin near me roll, He abides, Christ abides.
Actually, I can tell you where it comes from. It comes from God’s repeated re-formation of our innermost, as we focus our lives on God. We face the pressures of this world, battering and bruising our souls, and God’s heals and remakes us and gives us joy and love and peace beyond any human understanding, so that we become a truly Re-Formed People.
Grace Bible Church
30 October 2016