Being Re-Formed

Text: John 8:31-36

Grace and peace be unto you from God who is our Creator and from Jesus Christ who is our Savior and our Friend. Amen.

For fun, let’s begin with a little Reformation Q and A. What event sparked the Reformation on October 31, 1517? Martin Luther nailed the 99 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany.

And in what country was John Calvin born? France. What did he first study to become? A lawyer. Was Calvin ever ordained? No.

In what town did Luther live with his family and serve as a professor? Wittenberg, Germany. In what city did Calvin govern the church and write the Institutes of the Christian Religion? Geneva, Switzerland.

The following question will be easier, I think, to answer for Luther. If you boil down Luther’s theology, the heart of the Reformation for him, what would it be?

We are saved by grace through faith, and not by works.

Would anyone like to answer for Calvin? What is the heart of Calvin’s theology? The sovereignty of God and the majesty of God. However, this theological emphasis in and of itself does not make him a Protestant, or a Reformer. A Catholic theologian could also emphasize the sovereignty of God and the majesty of God.

What made Calvin a Reformer is the primacy of scripture. He said, as all the Reformers did, that scripture is the authority we turn to for faith and life, and not human tradition.

Why are Presbyterian and Lutheran worship services different? Because Martin Luther did not make a complete break from the Catholic mass. Instead he modified it, but kept the general format, so Lutheran worship reflects that today. Most Lutherans receive communion every Sunday.

John Calvin, on the other hand, started over completely and created a service without the set calls and responses of the mass. He placed emphasis on preaching and music and removed images and artwork and the like from the worship space, finding them too close to idolatry. Interestingly, both Calvin and Luther wrote hymns.

Today we are celebrating the Reformation. Both Knox Presbyterian and Thanksgiving Lutheran Churches remember their roots and at the same time look for the ways that God is at work reforming us today, and asking God to lead us into God’s future.

Jesus said to his Jewish followers, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free."

They answered him, "We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, "You will be made free'?"

It’s an odd thing to say when we consider that Israel’s entire identity was based on their history of being freed from slavery in Egypt by God. But perhaps these particular speakers meant that they personally had never been slaves.

Whatever it is they meant, they were missing Jesus’s point, and he clarified. He was talking about spiritual slavery, about sin.

Jesus answered them, "Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

This is a text about freedom from sin, which is one of the ways that we are saved. When God liberates us from our slavery to sin, which is both part of our human nature and also a condition of the material world and its structures, then we are freed to be in a saving, life-giving, wholeness creating, loving, strengthening, and enduring relationship with God! Amen?

But the freedom we have in Christ has a specifically Reformation kind of meaning, and it is this. God is at work to free us from that old sin nature, from that part of us that keeps us focused inward on ourselves, so that we are free to become more like Christ and serve our neighbors.

What is it that holds us back, that keeps us in bondage? One of the things is fear. I’m going to tell you a story about that, and before I do, know that I asked for and received permission to tell it.

Lin Campbell has shared with me that one of her sons is an alcoholic. As his illness became more and more serious and he lost his job and marriage, she found that her life and her peace were in bondage to fear over what would happen to him. Always filled with worry, always bailing him out, she realized she couldn’t continue to live that way. She felt crushed by fear. He was in bondage, but so was she.

She asked herself, “If I stop bailing him out, if I stop trying to save him and let him hit bottom, what is the worst thing that could happen?” And the honest answer was, “He could die.” “Well then,” Lin said to herself, “Other parents have lost children and survived. If he dies, I can survive that, with God’s help.” And she let go of the chains of fear.

Now let me be clear. Lin does NOT want her son to die. Just the opposite. And she loves him, prays for him, and supports him as much as she can. But his disease is no longer her disease.

Her son continues to struggle, but that is his story to tell. I have shared Lin’s story of faith because this remarkable testimony to the power of God to free God’s children is not a Presbyterian story or a Lutheran story, it’s a Reformation story, because God was and is reforming Lin just as she and Sunny pray that God reform her son.

Now I want to talk about fear and liberation and reform, and the two congregations God has called me to serve right now in this time and place: Knox Presbyterian Church and Thanksgiving Lutheran Church.

The whole relationship between the congregations seems to be of God. From TLC reaching out to Knox at a time when Knox had space to rent, to the remarkable and pleasing compatibility between the congregations, to our shared vision of serving the neighborhood, to my being available to serve Knox in its transition, all this is Spirit at work.

And now both congregations have made a significant decision. You are setting aside fear and stepping out in faith. You have decided that while you are separate congregations, you will work together to call the same pastor, thus offering a full-time position to your future pastor.

Why would you do this? It’s practical, yes. You’ll get a better pool of candidates, absolutely. But more importantly you are hearing God’s voice calling you who are the heirs of the Reformation to continue to be re-formed.

In the paraphrased words of St. Paul in his letter to the Romans, chapter 23, verse 22, “…There is no distinction [between Lutherans and Presbyterians] [in that] all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; and [in that] they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Amen?

Holy Spirit has plans! Holy Spirit is re-forming this congregation. The old, old story of Jesus and his love has not changed, and the call to love and serve our neighbors as Christ loves and serves us has not changed. But Holy Spirit is reforming the church now, today, in this time and place, just as Spirit did through Martin Luther and John Calvin, 502 years ago.

This is not about either congregation losing its heritage. It’s not about losing at all. But it is about changing. Everything that is alive changes. Plants and children grow, and they are still the same plant, or the same person, but different, and more, than they were.

As people in a relationship become closer, they change. They love and understand each other better and behave accordingly. They let go of old habits and develop new ones that are pleasing to both parties. Different, but better.

Being re-formed means, with the Spirit’s guidance, discerning what needs to be let go of, and what can and must be made new, in order to be more like Christ and to serve the Kingdom of God.

The good news is that God wants us to be free, not slaves to sin, or fear, or the past, or whatever it is we’re holding on to that keeps us from being open to and seeing what God is doing right in front of our eyes. Sometimes we just have to get out of our own way. Members of Knox Presbyterian Church, children of God, heirs of the Reformation, will you let go of fear, and be re-formed? Amen.

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