Grace Presbyterian Church
October 31, 2021, Reformation
Always in Need of Being Reformed
October 31, 1517 is commonly reckoned as the day on which a young monk named Martin Luther nailed a document to the door of the cathedral in Wittemburg, now part of Germany. The document outlined ninety-five “theses” or arguments against what he saw as corruptions in the established church of his time. Even amongst the many other documents or broadsides likely nailed to that cathedral door, this one did get attention, and the established church did exactly what you’d expect; set out to discredit and then disfellowship Martin Luther. Nonetheless his arguments caught on with many, some from genuine theological or ethical concern, others from political expedience. Eventually most of Germany and other northern reaches of Europe took on Lutheranism as their establishment church. In later years differing reformation movements broke out in France and Switzerland and later in England; the former of those is the tradition from which our own Presbyterian denomination was born.
Some observers have suggested that this is something the church goes through every five hundred years or so. About five hundred years before the Reformation (and these numbers are extremely approximate) was the Great Schism, when the eastern and western branches of the church separated, resulting in the traditions we know now as Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches. Five hundred years before that, give or take, came the fall of the Roman Empire with which the church had become closely intertwined, ultimately progression over many decades to the great reform of the church initiated by Pope Gregory. (You might say things moved more slowly then.)
Even rudimentary ability at math will tell you we’re right in that 500-year window following the Protestant Reformations. With all this in mind you’ll not be surprised to hear that more than a few observers of the church are suggesting that it is due for reformation, if not right smack in the middle of one already. To be fair, it’s hard to blame folks for that suggestion, as the state of the larger church these days is frankly low-hanging fruit for its critics:
- A large segment of the church has disintegrated into little more than an appendage of a political party.
- A large segment of the church more closely resembles a media/entertainment empire than an agent of mission or worship.
- A large segment of the church, in the face of evident decline in membership and finances, has taken up the mantra of “survival at all costs,” again without regard for mission or worship.
- A segment of the church (perhaps not so large) resorts to social outlets and “gatherings” without much commitment or challenge.
- And a segment of the church has basically given up, resigned to playing out the string the same way they always have.
- To be sure, these characteristics overlap and intermingle across all reaches of the church.
And that’s just the church in the United States. We’re not even getting into what challenges the global church.
What has any of this, you might ask, to do with today’s reading from the gospel of Mark? Perhaps everything, if we pay attention to what question is asked, and how it is answered.
Since last we left Jesus at the end of Mark 10, a lot has happened. Jesus and his newly-enhanced crowd of followers have entered Jerusalem (that thing we celebrate on Palm Sunday), and Jesus has disrupted the commerce surrounding the Temple. A fig tree got cursed. Jesus has since been under siege from one group or other of the religious elite of Jerusalem, putting up with “gotcha” questions and attempted rhetorical trappings. Jesus fended them off with some straightforward traditional answers right out of the Torah, some debunkings of the questions themselves, a parable about wicked tenants overthrowing their landlord that was clearly directed at those religious authorities, and probably a few facepalms – you know, that gesture that happens when it’s all you can do not to exclaim how ridiculous or just plain stupid someone else is being.
One of the scribes has been observing the humiliation of his fellow scholars and perhaps wondering if he truly wants to be affiliated with them right now. He cuts in with the most basic question possible: “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus’s answer, far from being radical, is about as Torah as you could get, directly citing what we have in our Bibles as Deuteronomy 6:4-5. There are two interesting additions here: Jesus adds the phrase “with all your mind” into the mix, which likely pleased a scholar of the law, and added a second commandment from Leviticus 19:18; “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The scribe agrees, sounding out his agreement even that loving neighbor as self “is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Jesus’s semi-cryptic answer, “You are not far from the kingdom of God,” ends not only that conversation but the whole trap-question campaign – “no one dared to ask him any question.”
As cryptic as Jesus’s last comment might have seemed in that instant, it’s not so hard to figure out in context. Think back to chapter 10 and the rich man who went away sorrowing when Jesus told him to sell all his stuff, give the proceeds away to the poor, and follow Jesus. Think also of Bartimaeus, from last week’s reading, who “immediately followed him on the way” after his sight was restored (and was presumably among the crowd that had accompanied Jesus into Jerusalem). The difference, you’ll remember, was in the doing. We get no indication at all of how this scribe responds; Mark’s account moves on quickly to more teaching, and we never hear of the scribe again – after all, we are just three days before Jesus’s crucifixion.
The implied challenge before the scribe is, I submit, where a modern impulse towards reformation might be centered. How much of what the church does and says and clings to in today’s world and across this country can’t be reconciled with those two greatest commandments? How much of the behavior of the church across this country looks at all like loving God with all one’s heart and soul and mind and strength, and loving neighbor as self?
You know what? I’m going to give our denomination credit. The PC(USA) is trying. It might not always be clear or effective, and you can be sure not everybody is on board, but with such efforts as the Matthew 25 initiative, of which our presbytery is a part, there is at least the attempt to act upon that commandment about loving neighbor as self. It is, at the least, not going away sorrowing over the call to give up our possessions.
Two caveats need to be applied here. Other commandments don’t go away. Jesus doesn’t dispose of the law with this statement, even if he does assign a hierarchy to it. Loving God and neighbor comes first. Any one thing, anything at all that puts us in a position in conflict with loving God and neighbor needs to give way, no matter how righteous it might seem or might have been intended to be.
The second caveat applies to the whole idea of reformation itself. One of the earliest quotables from the Reformed tradition – the branch we come from, that is – is the catchy Latin phrase ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda. It commonly gets mistranslated as “the church reformed, always reforming.” That’s a problem, because reformanda doesn’t really translate as “reforming,” but as “being reformed.” Grammar fans understand the difference, hopefully. Is the church acting, or is the church first being acted upon? From whence comes the initiative for being reformed, as opposed to merely reforming?
Whether or not the church is truly entering a season of reformation depends tremendously upon this understanding. Given some of the behaviors and characteristics noted earlier, it’s not unfair to wonder whether much of the church has at all, at any even remotely recent point in its history, engaged in the simple yet profoundly challenging exercise of waiting upon the Lord. How often does the church or its leaders simply read scripture, instead of hunting and cherry-picking passages to prop itself up or denigrate its chosen enemies? How often does much of the church or its leadership, instead of praying for a lot of smiting of those chosen enemies or for the appointment of judges who will do what they want, simply pray “your will be done”? How often does the church love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, and all our strength? How often does the church love its neighbor as it loves itself?
Any 500-year upheaval, any new reformation in the church will almost inevitably have to be preceded by a season of listening. Listening to God. Listening to those neighbors. Listening to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned. Listening to those who aren’t white, or male, or straight. Listening to those who know what it means to be under somebody’s heel, and who have too often seen the church propping up that somebody instead of lifting up the oppressed.
And all of this goes not just for the larger church, but for the individual church too. Without such a season of listening, of being in scripture and in prayer, and of making ready for and seeking the prompting of the Spirit, no church is going to come out on the other side of this pandemic time or this post-uprising time with much of a future, or even much of a reason to go on. There’s a challenge for everybody and every church, from the smallest family church to the largest megachurch.
Let us pray, let us listen, and let us await being reformed.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #624, I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art; #—, O Love Your God; #275, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God