“A Story of the Church”

In my absence, South’s Associate Pastor, the Reverend Katrina Hebb, preached the following for Reformation Sunday.

October 29, 2017 South and New Life
Rev. Katrina Hebb
500th Anniversary of the Reformation
Ephesians 2:4-10
A story of the Church

Theme: The church is constantly changing; What reform is needed today?
Ephesians 2:4-10

But God, who is rich in mercy, out of great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.  For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.  For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

Sermon

When I was in seminary

(just like Barb Woodruff / Summer, and Marylee),

 

I had to take an entire year’s

worth of classes on Christian history.

 

Can you imagine?  That’s a lot of history!!

 

We started at the very beginning with the early church,

and Paul—

who really was what one can call the Founder of the Church.

 

(Jesus is certainly the head of the Church,

but Paul was its founder, who converted people,

and organized those converts into a loosely-bound alliance of believers—  the Church!

 

all over the Ancient Near East,

the northern edge of Africa, into the countries

we now know of as Turkey, Greece, and Italy

 

and even headed east, as far as India, where it is believed that Thomas took the Good News!)

 

 

In any case—I digress.

 

We studied Paul, and the beginning formation of the church, and the mix of Jewish believers

and Gentile converts—who had to figure out how to live together.

 

and we learned about how women were active leaders in those early days.

 

And also about Roman persecution

of these “Christians”— as they began to be called.

 

(Which, by the way, was a derogatory name Romans threw at believers of “The Way”—the name they referred to themselves by to explain that they were followers of Jesus of Nazareth, whom they regarded as the Jewish Messiah.

 

 

Romans slandered these “Christians,” as they called them, because they refused to serve in the Roman army,

or engage in the civic and cultural life of the empire.

 

….In the very beginning, followers of “the Way” were very much radical “separatists.”

 

//

 

As we moved along in our history classes,

We learned about how Constantine

(who became the Roman emperor in the early 4th century),

 

looking to overthrow any rivals,

and establish himself firmly at the head of the Roman empire,

went to battle as the underdog against these rivals,

 

but the night before the battle,

had a dream in which he believed Jesus the Christ (the head of the “Christians”)

was talking to him—telling him to paint the symbol of the cross on his soldiers’ shields.

 

(The cross, being both the source of Jesus’ death,

 

but also, the most torturous of Roman execution devices used on the most hardened and dangerous of criminals).

 

Anyway, Constantine heard “the voice of Jesus” telling him to paint these crosses on his soldiers’ shields

 

to signify that they went into battle under the name of this bizarre, new fangled religion,

which up to then,

 

the Roman empire despised and persecuted.

 

//

 

After Constantine, the underdog, won that decisive battle and became the head of the entire Roman Empire,

 

we then learned about how The Way became usurped by Roman culture.

 

You see, Constantine decided to make what was now being referred to as “Christianity,”

 

as the state religion of his empire.

 

Consequently, we became aware of how an institutional,

state-funded,

and state-driven structure

 

took over the once loosely tied bands of believers of The Way—who had originally identified themselves as pacifists who denounced the Roman way of life.

 

//

 

Under Constantine’s insistence, however, violence and a form of power based in domination

began to permeate his new state religion,

 

which now needed

a unified belief system,

and codified rules,

and a canon—an authoritative “instruction manual”

 

….in order to—as some would argue—

to back Constantine and his newly forming government.

 

//  //

 

//

 

Phew!  That’s a lot of history!   Don’t ya think?!

 

Only today we’re not taking the nickel tour of Christian history;

this is the dime-store tour,

so I’m going to keep going a little further, ok?

 

 

After this, we learned about how the structure and institution of this new religion grew and grew over the centuries,

and as it grew,

 

disagreements took place among the leaders,

all of whom were vying for Constantinte’s type of power and influence.

 

This, in turn, brought about a major split in Christianity—east and west—in 1087.

 

 

IN 1087, the Western church had to re-group to some extent,

Leaving room for mysticism to blow through the culture of the Church.

 

I could keep going here, but in order to get to the important part for today, let’s fast-forward a few hundred years…

 

//

 

At the beginning of the 1500’s there was a Catholic priest—

a somewhat nerdy geek,

 

who loved to think deeply,

and held sharp opinions about the things he thought deeply about,

 

and who loved

to argue and debate with his fellow priests, and scholars about these very things he thought about all day long.

 

His name was Martin Luther.

 

Now, Luther had been reading his Bible a lot—and was beginning to think that the Church – the institution

had gotten way off track

 

from what Jesus had taught,

and from what Paul had set up in the early church.

 

//

 

“For by grace you have been saved,” writes Paul in Ephesian 2,  “through faith.”

 

Paul’s message spoke directly into Luther’s heart.

And this message became a theological rallying cry for him.

 

You see, at the time, the Church believed that it held the reigns to people’s salvation.

 

The Church had become exactly what Isaiah rails against in the Hebrew Bible, and what Jesus challenged the Pharisees and Saducees about in the 1st century.

 

“Believers” had fallen into the trap of thinking

 

that just showing up to a church service,

or saying the right prayers,

or fasting on the right days,

 

and paying enough money to the Church

would somehow “guarantee them” a spot in heaven.

 

These works, they had come to believe,

were all it took to “be in” with God.

 

//

 

You didn’t have to engage in your heart—the Church taught—

or fall head long into grace, or rely on God.

 

All you had to do was pay enough money and say the “magic words,”

 

And if you did those things, a priest then had the power to say that you were “good with God.”

 

//

 

Now, as you can imagine,

the “Powers that Be” didn’t like Luther’s message—or those who came after him, preaching the same message—

 

other Catholic priests like Ulrich Zwingli,

and later John Calvin and John Knox (who both helped form and establish our very own Presbyterian tradition).

 

These priests, like Luther,

believed that people’s relationship with God

needed to be meaningful,

 

and that it was rooted at its core, in the grace of God,

 

…and not the power of the Church institution.

 

They believed that the people themselves had access to God (meaning, you didn’t have to go through a priest to get to God).

 

 

//  //

 

//

 

 

Now, back to my history class for a minute.

 

//

 

As I took all of this history in during my seminary courses—

furiously taking notes in my notebook—

I started to see a pattern emerge.

 

It seemed to me, that about every 200-250 years a major shift took place in the church.

 

In the very beginning, in the first century, the Spirit

blew here and there and everywhere,

and people were empowered, and came to believe…..

 

but there was little to no organization.

 

And people ….well….  we’re not good at living in such a state of “loosey-goosey”-ness, are we?

 

We long for order.  And structure.

 

Boundaries!!

People, we need boundaries.

 

By the time of Constantine, 200ish years later, the pendulum began swinging strongly in that very direction.

 

And the Church, proper, was established.

 

//

 

But the thing about human nature is—

we can’t handle too much structure,

or too much bureaucracy.

 

We get brittle in our spirits,

and start to die in our souls from the calcification

of too much order.

 

This, partly, was what happened in 1087,

when what we now call the Eastern Orthodox Church

split from what has come to be known

as the Roman Catholic Church.

 

The Spirit needs room to breathe in our souls!

 

And a spiritual renaissance, of sorts, was taking shape at that time through mysticism.

 

Ah!  But not toooo much Spirit—not too much renaissance!

 

It’s hard to live in a place without formal boundaries, isn’t it?????

 

And so, the Church swung, yet again, back to a place where power became centralized in the institution.

 

So that…. By 1517, the people were in desperate need for another breath of fresh air.

 

And boy did they get fresh air!

 

Luther, and Calvin, and Knox, and Zwingli—they put everything sacred in the church up for re-evaluation at this time.

 

The songs they sang,

 

the Church’s attitude towards the Bible and towards Communion,

 

the buildings they worshiped in and the way they were decorated,

 

the role the people themselves played in the church,

 

Heck!   Even the very language the church services were spoken in—

 

Everything was open for debate and up for C-H-A-N-G-E!!!!!!!

 

//

 

And it caused a ruckus.

 

It caused a stir.

 

//

 

It caused heartache.  And conflict.

 

It spurred war, even.

 

//

 

But it was needed.

 

The people needed a breath of fresh air.

They needed new life to fill their lungs full.

 

 

//  //

 

//

 

Now, here we are 500 years later,

 

And I have to wonder……

 

Ha!  No, not really wonder.

 

I… well, I have to laugh….

 

Aren’t we back to that same place we found ourselves in 500 years ago?

 

A Luther, or a Paul, has yet to emerge upon our collective landscape—

a central, “global” figure to coalesce around.

 

But we are ripe for change, again.  Are we not?

 

Those of us sitting here in this room today—we know this.

 

We ourselves have felt the need for fresh air—

to blow through our congregations and bring us back to life again.

 

//  //

 

//

 

The Church (church with a capital ‘C’),

in some ways, has become, once again, brittle and calcified.

 

On the whole, it is not too far out in left field to say that we,

as the universal Church,

have become stale and ineffective—

 

in our very own lives, and in the world around us.

 

//

 

Abraham Heschel, the great 20th century Jewish rabbi, once wisely noted:

 

When faith is completely replaced by creed,

worship by discipline, love by habit;

 

when the crisis of today is ignored

because of the splendors of the past;

 

when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority

rather than with the voice of compassion,

 

its message becomes meaningless.

 

 

//  //

 

//

 

Heschel, also once prayed,

Dear Lord, grant me the grace of wonder. Surprise me, amaze me, awe me in every crevice of your universe. Each day enrapture me with your marvelous things without number. …I do not ask to see the reason for it all: I ask only to share the wonder of it all.

 

 

//

 

In my mind’s eye,

I can see the likes of John Calvin and Martin Luther praying this prayer—

 

which in essence, is the heart of Paul’s words to us today—

 

For by grace you have been saved

…and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God….

 

//  //

 

Surprise us, O God, we pray on behalf of your Great Church.

 

May we be filled with your gracious wonder—in our individual lives, in your universe, and right here in your Church.

 

May we be filled with amazement and awe,

at what you are about to do in our shared story,

 

and may we be a part of it, we ask—whatever it happens to be.

 

//

 

Put us where you want us, O God, and show us what to do…

 

 

Amen.

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