October 29, 2017: Rev. Dr. Buz Wilcoxon
Reformation Sunday, 500th Anniversary
It was a rough morning for James. Getting the kids up and ready for church was impossible. It was all he could do to wake them up, get them dressed, fed, teeth brushed and hair brushed. He lost his temper more than once and yelled at his kids. They finally made it out the door, and he looked down and realized that none of them had matching socks on. That’s when he lost it. He yelled the questions that some of us ask as well: Why am I doing this? Why does it matter? What’s the point of the church?
Elizabeth’s experience has been different. She grew up in the church but left as soon as she was old enough to have her own freedom. The church she grew up in didn’t seem interested in any sort of peace, justice, or reconciliation. All she saw was a congregation that mirrored the divisions and discord in the rest of the world. She didn’t go the right school and so she never felt like she belonged. She thought: Why would I care about the church, it’s just a bunch of hypocrites? Who cares about organized religion? What’s the point of the church anyway?
That’s a mighty good set of questions for us to ask on this day that we celebrate those in our tradition who were brave enough to question the status quo and reform what they saw that was broken in the church and in society. On this Sunday we remember the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
As important as this anniversary is for us, as Christians our memory goes further back that just the last 500 years. Yes, much much further back. Today we remember all the way back to a group of 12 wandering disciples, who were sitting around a table for the final meal, the last supper, with their master, their teacher, their friend, their savior. While they were eating the meal, Jesus looked up at this motley group. He looked at each one of them with eyes full of piercing truth and deep love. He knew their stories, where they had come from. Some of them used to be smelly fishermen, some used to be crooked tax collectors. Some of them were so dense that they constantly misunderstood his teachings. Others of them didn’t know when to keep their mouth shut. He looked at each one of them. He knew them all better than they knew themselves. He saw a table full of followers and doubters. That very night one of them would betray him, and the rest would deny and abandon him. He looked around the table at each and every one of them, looking them in the eye and then he said, “I am the vine, you are the branches.”
I am the vine, you are the branches. It’s a simple, and yet deeply profound image of unity and connection, hope and love. To this small group of his closest friends, the seed that would grow into the Church, he gives this gift of meaning and purpose, this growing spreading, fruitful glimpse of who we are called to be. Still today, he looks at us. At each and every one of us. He looks at you, at the real you, the one you keep hidden away. He looks at you and he says, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” We are the individual sprigs and twigs that branch off of the one vine. The one vine. None of us is any more important than the other. None of us can be ignored or dismissed as belonging any less. He is the one vine, and all of us, twisted as we may be, are the branches.
Jesus speaks these words as an invitation. He says, “Abide in me…abide in my love…abide in me and bear fruit.” He invites us to find our connection, our purpose, our strength and nourishment in him and to bear fruit. He says whatever isn’t bearing fruit, let God remove it and burn it away. Let yourself be pruned so that what is removed can make room for more growth.
In a sense, that’s precisely what we remember and celebrate on Reformation Sunday, God’s pruning of the vine so that it would bear more fruit. Those first Protestant Reformers, folks like Martin Luther, and Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin, and countless others stood up for what they believed to be true. But their efforts were not attempts to split off and form their own churches. Division is never the goal of reformation. No, they wanted to reform the church from within. They wanted to prune what was not bearing fruit, to remold a self-serving theology and outdated hierarchy that had become more interested in power and authority than serving the needs of the world.
So they looked back, all the way back to the pages of scripture to be re-minded and re-membered and they worked tirelessly to re-form the Church in ways that were true its original purpose.
With all those different ideas floating out there, eventually efforts began to consolidate and coalesce around three main themes that they called the Three Marks of the True Church. They said these should be the goals of churches that were seeking to be true to their purpose. They said the church should be a community where 1) the Word of God is preached and heard, 2) worship and sacraments are done right, and 3) discipline and discipleship is taught. These marks of the church give us a vocabulary rooted in our heritage to answer those questions we asked at the beginning of the sermon: What is the point of the church? Why does it matter in my life?
Let’s unpack those just a bit. First, the true preaching and hearing of the Word of God. In other words, the church should be a community in which we hear the good news, where we encounter the risen Christ in what is proclaimed. It may sound like a great deal rests on the shoulders of the one who preaches (and trust me, we take this responsibility very seriously). But preaching and hearing is a two-way street. What are we hearing? How are we hearing? Are we, all of us, pastors included, open to letting the word of God shake us up and mold us into something new, or do we close our ears to anything that doesn’t conform to what we want to hear. What’s the point of the church? To proclaim itself and its own importance? Or, to share the word of God, the good news of the one who was crucified and rose agian for us. Jesus told his disciples to be cleansed by his word and to let his “words abide” in them. That’s what a community of proclamation and hearing is all about.
The second Mark of the Church is the right administration of the sacraments. In the days of the Reformation, different understandings of the sacraments were a major point of controversy. That’s another talk for another day. But for our purposes today, this theme of the reformers invites us to consider the character and purpose of our worship. What’s the point of the Church as a worshipping community? Do we gather together to be entertained or distracted? Is the service structured around our own individual experiences, how the music makes us feel, what emotions the prayers illicit, whether the children’s sermon made us laugh? Or is our worship focused on God, on giving glory to our Creator, giving thanks for the gift of freedom in Christ, following the call of the Holy Spirit to pray for the needs of our world and to follow our prayers with action? What’s the point of the church? Well, our worship and sacramental life should show our answer to that question.
Finally, the third Mark of the Church is to be a community of discipline. We may hear the word discipline and think of negative notions of punishment, but in reality “discipline” comes from the same root as “disciple.” Discipline means teaching, teaching people to be disciples, followers of Christ. As a mark of our identity, we continually ask ourselves, how are we making disciples? Are we merely providing child care or teaching our children how to put their faith in action? Do we seek to be a church that welcomes people’s questions and makes room for growing deeper and deeper, or do we ask people to turn off their brains and deny the complicated realities of their lives and settle for shallow, cheep, easy answers? Do we mold life-long disciples, through service and mission? Do we put our faith to work beyond these walls reaching and teaching one another in our community? Do we seek to live in ways that grow in stewardship, sacrificial living and giving? Do we hold one another accountable and confess the truth of our own sin and failures to live up to God’s covenant of grace? Or do we provide self-help, self-righteous, self-serving half truths? Do we structure our life together in ways that open us up each day to being molded into the image of Christ?
I know I’m biased, but I think we do a pretty good job of being faithful to these Reformed Marks of the Church in this congregation. But we still need these reminders from our past to focus our attention and energy in the right direction for years to come.
Jesus tells each and every one of us that he is the vine and we are the branches. That without him we can do nothing. But let’s be very clear here, the Church and Jesus are not the same thing. He is the vine, he alone. The church is not the vine, but rather we are the assembled community of branches, the motley crew of doubtful believers. Like that ensemble of fishermen and tax collectors sitting around the table, we gather in the presence of the one who died and be rose again for us. The church is the family of faith that is called out to serve him by serving our world in its many needs, bearing fruit together. The church isn’t Jesus, it is a tool he uses to point us to him, to connect us to him. And any time the church is tempted to confuse itself with the one who is its Lord, well, then its probably time for another round of Reformation.
What’s the point of the church? 1) To proclaim and hear the good news of the gospel. 2) To worship the Risen Lord. 3)To answer the Spirit’s call to discipleship in all of life. That’s what our Protestant forbearers taught. May our memories of them, inspire our hopes for the church today and tomorrow. To God alone be the glory!