Thursday, October 26, 2017

Reformed and Always Reforming - a sermon for the 500th anniversary of Reformation - Acts 10:9-16

Acts 10:9-16

About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. 12 In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” 15 The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 16 This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.

          If you walk into an Episcopal Church you will find in the pews a hymnal and a Book of Common Prayer.  The prayers in that book are beautiful and well written. 

          Many years ago I visited an elderly woman and at the end of the visit we had a prayer, and I used the opening line from one of those prayers.  I had always thought that opening line had such beauty. 

          “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid…”

          What I did not know was that this woman had grown up in the Episcopal Church and had memorized many of the prayers in the Book of Common Prayer, including that one.  She joined in and began to say the prayer with me.  Unfortunately for me, I didn’t know anything but that opening line.

          The prayer book was originally written in 1549, but has been revised many times.  One such revision was in 1928, and it was not revised again until 1979.  Most revisions were minor, until 1979.  Words such as “thee and thou and thine” were replaced with “you and your and yours.”  Throughout the book the language took on a more contemporary feel. 

          Not everyone was happy with the change.  A small number of congregations refused to change and continued to use the 1928 version.

          Many years ago, I was on vacation and attended a church where the 1928 Book of Common Prayer was still used.  The congregation was small.  As I met some of them before worship, I could sense that they were, in every way, inflexible.  In conversations they talked about how they didn’t like computers or cell phones.  I almost expected them to complain about the new fangled automobile. 

          When the minister came out to begin the worship service, he was in a wheel chair.  He had an oxygen tank and there was a tube running up to his nose to provide him with oxygen.

          I was the youngest person there among the almost one dozen in the sanctuary.

          I enjoyed worship that day, using the 1928 prayer book.  But I was saddened to be in a congregation in which a church was so resistant to change that it was about to fade away.

          You may have heard it said that the church does not like change.  That is not really true.  The church is the most flexible organization in human history.  It is always changing. 
But what doesn’t change are the local units of the church.  Congregations.  Congregations resist change.  But look beyond the local congregation and examine the global church, and you will see the most flexible organization humanity has ever experienced.
We are always changing.

Which is good, because it means that God is at work, and we are growing.

This morning, we, along with thousands of churches in the Protestant tradition, are celebrating one of the great changes of our church history.  Today is Reformation Sunday. 

I know that this is not as exciting of a day for many of us as Christmas Day, or Easter, or July 4th, or one’s birthday, or International Talk Like a Pirate Day – but it is a significant day and THIS YEAR, it is especially significant because today it is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

It was on October 31st, 1517, that a Roman Catholic Priest, Martin Luther, nailed a statement on the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany that listed a list of 95 issues Luther had with the church.  He wanted the church to address what he considered to be bad theology and non-biblical teachings.  It was the beginning of a split that would divide the Christian Church. 

Splitting the church was not Luther’s intention.  What he wanted to do was to reform the church.  In his mind, he was trying to correct the church.  The last thing he wanted to do was to fragment the church into the Lutheran, and eventually the Presbyterian, Baptist, and all of the hundreds of other Christian denominations we now have.

Whenever we say the Apostles’ Creed, we declare that we all believe in the holy catholic church.  The term ‘catholic’ there does not mean the Roman Catholic Church, but rather refers to the term ‘catholic’ that means universal.

In spite of all of the visible fragmentation of the Christian church into so many denominations, we still believe there is an invisible unity in the church that binds us together.  That unity is obscured, because of denominations,  but it is still there.  All of us still believe in Christ.  All of us still believe in God. 

One of the key mottos that emerged out of the Reformation was the phrase, “Reformed and still reforming.” Meaning that the Christian Church was always meant to be undergoing change.  We are always supposed to be listening to the voice of God as we move forward in history.

If we are not open to change, we die.

We can celebrate the past, but if we cling to it, the future passes us by and we left behind.

It is a sometimes a difficult thing to accept change in the church. 

Change was difficult for the Apostle Peter.  We see this in our scripture reading today.  Peter had received a vision from God.  In that vision, Peter saw a sheet and inside that sheet were all sorts of animals.  These different animals had one thing in common – they were considered unkosher, which meant that they were forbidden to be eaten.

Peter was a faithful man of God, and he obeyed the Bible.  And in the Old Testament there are lists of food that a godly person should never eat.

Peter knew that it was not lawful to eat camel or vultures – well, who would want to?  And Pigs!  Which means no bacon!  No pork chops, ham or pulled barbecue pork sandwiches.  Lobster?  That’s out.  Shrimp?  Forbidden.

And Peter followed these dietary laws of the Old Testament faithfully.  But in this vision, God shows Peter lots of unlawful, unclean food, and he commands Peter to “Get up, kill and eat” the food.

Peter responds by saying, “But God, we’ve never done it that way before!”  Well, not in those words.  What he says is “No, Lord! I will not!  I have never eaten anything that is not pure and ‘clean’.”

This happens not once by three times, and Peter is left struggling with what this vision meant.

What it meant was that the church needed to change.

One change was that the dietary laws God had given the Jews, were no longer to be applied to Christians from the Gentile culture.  So that means that for lunch tomorrow, I think I’ll have a cup of lobster bisque.

Another change it meant was that Peter was to accept converts to Christianity who were not Jewish.  The Book of Acts tells the history of the earliest years of the church.  The earliest followers were Jews who were accepting Christ as Lord.  When Paul was converted to Christianity, he shared the Gospel with the whole world, including non-Jews. 

What a shock for poor Peter!  We’d never done it that way before!  Peter struggled with that concept of inviting non-Jews to accept Christ, and in this vision he was being taught that God had not declared any human unclean.  The church was having to accept a change – welcoming not only people like themselves, but people of every race and culture and language.

Peter’s initial response was to stand fast and resist change, but God says to Peter, “Do not call unclean that which I have made clean.”

Those were uncomfortable words for Peter to hear because they are words of reformation.

God is on a journey of reformation, and the Lord can call to us to transcend that which has always been accepted or practiced. 

We can accept change.

In our New Testament Lesson, the church is called to change, to progress, to reform, to evolve and to move forward.

The Christian faith is, at its core, a faith that demands change and reformation.

We say that today is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, but reforming and changing did not start when Luther nailed a document on a church door in Germany. 

It began with this vision that Peter had in which he was challenged to change his belief that certain foods, and certain people were unclean. 

It really began before that, when Paul began to share the Gospel with Gentiles and began to welcome all people into Christianity.

It even began before that, when a radical Jewish Rabbi named Jesus questioned the religious teachings of his day.  He dared to heal the sick on the Sabbath, contrary to the interpretation of Scripture at that time.  He touched the unclean and the unworthy and extended forgiveness to those who had transgressed the laws of God.  He overturned tables and spoke words of truth.

To be a follower and disciple of Christ is to follow the greatest reformer who ever lived.  When we call ourselves Christian we are committing ourselves to be a people who will be open to new things.

We will learn new things.

We will follow new directions.

We will not fall into the trap of saying, “We’ve never done it that way before.”

Years ago I was doing some research in church history.  I came across a diary that had been kept by a student a century earlier.  In one entry he wrote about a new pastor at his church.  He was concerned that all of the adult leaders were rejecting this new pastor, while all of the college students adored this new pastor.  As he reflected on why the older people rejected the pastor, the young college student wrote in his diary, “The adults have two main complaints about our new pastor.  First, he is clean shaven, and the adults wonder how a pastor who is too young to grow a beard can be trusted to teach spiritual truths. Second, the sermons are only 45 minutes long at most, and the adults say nothing worth hearing can be said in such a short time.”

It was nothing more than a time of change, and when viewed a hundred years later the resistance to change seems silly.

When I was a teenager, white congregations were having to decide whether or not to allow African Americans into the doors of their churches to worship.  Now, some 50 years later, it seems shameful that there was such resistance to changing what Martin Luther King, Jr., referred to when he said Sunday morning was the most segregated hour in America. 

When I was in Seminary, students would preach at churches on Sundays when the pastor of that church was on vacation.  We called it “the preaching circuit” and we all loved signing up to go to different churches every Sunday.  One student was not welcome in these pulpits, and the rest of us stood in solidarity to refuse to preach in those churches until our fellow student was allowed to preach there.  You see that one student was not welcome in the pulpit because she was a woman.  Today 42% of our seminary students are women and it would be intolerable to deny someone a presence in a Presbyterian pulpit because of gender.  We used to say, “we’ve never done it that way before,” and now many young people do not even know the struggle women pastors had – and some cases still have.  Things change.  And that is good.

In more recent years we face issues of sexual orientation and gender identification. The church is never able to say, “we have arrived.  We are finished.”

No, we are reformed, but we must always be reforming.  We are always discovering that in some way the church has declared as unclean what God has declared clean, and we must be challenged.  We have to be open to change. 

Every day we have to wake up and look at the world and ask, “Where is the Spirit leading me today?”

Like Paul, and Peter, and Martin Luther, and Martin Luther King, Jr., we can hear the voice of God say, as he said to Isaiah, “Look, and see.  I am doing something new!”

When the church changes, never respond by saying, “We’ve done it that way before.”  Instead, be open to the spirit of God and be willing to walk in what direction God leads.

Copyright 2017. 
Dr. W. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved

Ministers may feel free to use some or all of this sermon in their own ministries as long as they do not publish in print or on the Internet without ascribing credit to the author.