If I had time in the service (but I don’t) I’d preach this sermon next week………….


October 31, 2010

Reformation Sunday


“Reformed Particularities”

Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4



You cannot help but notice the red paraments and stole this morning.  Hopefully you noticed that one hymn was written by John Calvin, another by Martin Luther, and finally one by Henry Harbaugh, a German Reformed pastor who served for many years in Lebanon County.  This hymn has been referred to as the national anthem for the German Reformed church.  The affirmation of faith is not from an ancient creed, but an old catechism, the Heidelberg Catechism. I do this to give you a bolus dose of reformed thinking and theology.  Think of it as your annual booster shot to protect you from errant ideas.

What you may not realize is that within Protestantism, not everyone is of the ‘reformed’ family.  All Protestants are ‘children’ of the reformation but from that point on there is a great Diaspora of belief and practice.  In fact, within our own denomination we have church ancestors that do not consider themselves reformed; at least in the way I (and maybe you, too) understand it.

In our part of the country it is easy to forget that our own church is inherently diverse.  The United Church of Christ is the product of mergers.  Some of you remember them.  For almost two hundred years the churches in this region were going along, quite happily, carrying forth their religious traditions they brought here from the Palatinate region of Germany.  We were what became to be known as the German reformed church.  In Wernersville, of course, there were Lutherans.  See, in Penn’s woods, in every little hamlet there was a ‘Reformed’ Congregation.

Often, we shared space with the Lutherans.  In some churches, union churches we call them, there were only two things that changed every Sunday: the hymnal and the minister.  One was Lutheran and the other was Reformed.  Sometimes these folk got along pretty well and at other times, well, it was just like siblings are in most families.  The fact of the matter is that during the reformation itself, Luther and Zwingli (one of our predecessors) met and agreed on virtually every tenet of faith, save one: the nature of the Eucharist, Holy Communion.  Luther stayed as close as possible to his Roman roots, insisting that although the physical nature of the elements did not ‘change’ at the moment of consecration, there was a change in spiritual substance and in that in the service Christ was present “in and through” the elements.  It was for Zwingli a “mystical presence.”  He, with Bucer and Calvin believed that the “power and effect” of Christ in some essential way came through the sacramental elements, but for those who received the sacrament without faith, it was mere bread and wine. At the Marburg colloquy in 1529 these two reformers agreed on fourteen articles of faith, but agreed to disagree on the Eucharist.  So it was that in 1530 Lutherans and Reformed folk went their separate ways.

What you have are two stubborn and uncompromising men who managed, during their lifetime at least, to stand in the way of any definitive union.

If you have been sitting there, thinking I’ve been engaging the examination of useless theological minutiae, wait till you hear how we (being Reformed folk) treated the Anabaptist, or Radical Reformers.  You know who I mean, the ancestors of the Brethren, Baptists, and Mennonites.  Those people were dangerous fanatics, utopians, and revolutionaries even!    One Reformer even referred to them as “the enemies of the truth, the opponents of God… the greatest threat to the existing order, the state, and Christendom.”

I have a dear friend who studied with me at Princeton Seminary, who is a Church of the Brethren pastor.  I would take my confirmation class there to visit and with out fail he would address the students and offer forth his Anabaptist theology, you know, adult baptism, pacifism, foot washing, plain decorations in the church, and all that fanatical stuff.  And I would remind him that, “this is precisely why we burned you people at the stake.”

As if we have not split the hairs of Christianity fine enough in the “Age of Reform,” we continued to attempt to ‘get it right.’

One such argument is evident here, right in front of your eyes. Our own sanctuary is physical evidence of our theological heritage.  It is, architecturally at least, in the Mercersburg tradition.  It is a ‘divided’ chancel, pulpit (large pulpit emphasizing the importance of the preached word) on one side and the lectern for reading scripture on the other.  But the highest and most central point in the chancel is the altar.  In a physical and theological sense ‘high and lifted up’ just like the Eucharist, which in the old service we said, “The celebration of the Lord’s Supper has ever been regarded by the Church as the innermost sanctuary of the whole Christian worship.”[1]  Philip Schaff and John Nevin, professors at Mercersburg and fathers’ of the movement, saw themselves as “evangelical catholics,” (small c), as the rightful extension of the one great church, birthed on Pentecost.  They pointed, with their Reformed ancestors, to “the Word of God, who is himself the truth; and this becomes thus consequently the highest norm and rule by which to measure all human truth, all ecclesiastical traditions…”[2]   These reformers were not willing to throw out the liturgical baby with the bath water, but instead sought out a middle way between empty traditions and forms and what Schaff called ‘a false spiritualistic tendency and an utter miss apprehension of the significance of the corporeal and outward…by which religious ideas were sweetly interwoven with common life.”[3]  It is so much easier to cast away than to recover.

A colleague, who came here from New England where they once did a great deal of casting away of religious tradition, a place fairly devoid of stained glass windows and liturgy, recently called me and asked: “What is this ‘Mercersburg Theology’ business?”  I tried my best to hide my horror and explain in shorthand the gist of this theological position.  I am not sure I gained any ground, for this idea, me being so thoroughly drenched in Reformed particularities which was quite foreign to my Congregationalist, Puritan, friend.  I wondered, silently, how we ever let people like that in our church?

See, it was not a stretch for us to unite with the Evangelical Church in America in 1934; for they were German Reformed folk from the second great wave of German immigrants and shared much of our theology and practice.  But in 1957 we moved toward further union with, of all people, Congregationalists and Disciples.  Some of you remember this.  I know of pastors who look upon this union with a jaundiced eye, a union with people who believe that the Eucharist is purely a memorial, and others who practice Adult baptism.  While all were children of the reformation, there were some who believe that others went too far, calling them ‘radical reformers.’ 

So now, when I say that the United Church of Christ is diverse in its worship and practice and we cannot expect the same sensibilities we have regarding our faith to be shared across this denomination.  But in various regions there are distinctive identities, places where the worship and practice has not degenerated into a generic, modernistic, goo of entertainment.  If you don’t know it, our worship form is inspired by a very old form, or ordo, whose roots are particularly reformed: The gathering, contrition, the Word, our response and thanks, and the sending.

So, we can thank God that we have not been lead astray to such emotionalism as in those ‘happy – clappy’ churches.  We do not hold folk emotionally hostage. You are not assaulted by power-point presentations and mindless choruses accompanied by electric guitars. We do not equate the efficacy of God’s action with the feelings of individual believers.  We celebrate the centrality of the Scripture for all to read, we hold onto the significance of God’s action in and through the sacraments, and yet we cherish the ‘priesthood’ of all believers not just the ordained clergy.  Isn’t it good to recognize and remember that we are doing all the right things and so we are good and faithful?  In a similar time, the prophet Habakkuk received a vision.  He said this to self assured people like us:

2:2 Then the LORD answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.

2:3 For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.

2:4 Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.

Perhaps this means, in church, we should be careful with certain celebrations.

As a Protestant I am thankful for the Reformation that we celebrate at this time of year. Some of my waving of the Reformed flag this morning has been sarcastic; because I am also painfully aware of the carnage, the fragmentation, and the institutionalization of the Gospel that followed in the Reformation’s wake. Aware of my own faults and failures, the slow pace of my progress as a believer, and of how far short I fall of the Gospel ideal, I’m uneasy about obsessing about the hypocrisy of the church or of other Christians. Instead, my mind returns to an important dictum that emerged among Reformed communities: ecclesia reformata sed semper reformanda, “the church reformed, but always needing to be reformed.”

Returning to that reformed truth of the primacy of scripture: The prophet reminds us that we should not, however noble, rest on our tradition and practice.  The work of genuine reformation, whether of the institutional church as a whole, an individual congregation, or of an individual life, is never finished.  We in our own strength can never be done. Nor is the Spirit who strengthens those who seek the mercy of God.


[1] Evangelical and Reformed Hymnal, “Alternate Order for Holy Communion,” p. 32.

[2] Schaff, Philip, The Principle of Protestantism,  Wipf and Stock: Eugene Org., 2004, p. 106

[3] ibid, p. 112