“The Church Reformed and Always Reforming”

“Heritage Sunday” July 29, 2012  Joshua 4:1-7; John 6:1-21

Joshua 4:1-7

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1 When the entire nation had finished crossing over the Jordan, the LORD said to Joshua:  2 “Select twelve men from the people, one from each tribe,  3 and command them, ‘Take twelve stones from here out of the middle of the Jordan, from the place where the priests’ feet stood, carry them over with you, and lay them down in the place where you camp tonight.’”  4 Then Joshua summoned the twelve men from the Israelites, whom he had appointed, one from each tribe.  5 Joshua said to them, “Pass on before the ark of the LORD your God into the middle of the Jordan, and each of you take up a stone on his shoulder, one for each of the tribes of the Israelites,  6 so that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’  7 then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the LORD. When it crossed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial forever.”

John 6:1-21

After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him,

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because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself. When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.

“The Church Reformed and Always Reforming”

Reading the text from Joshua makes me smile.  I’m sure whomever wrote it was a parent who had raised children.  Every parent knows about the question stage  that children go through.  They want to know “why” about everything.  Why is the sky blue?  Why do stars twinkle?

So right in the middle of telling us about this amazing Jordan River crossing, in the heart of the explanation about how this event is supposed to be memorialized by means of the stone monument, the author pictures a child in the future asking “why?”  You can hear the child reasoning: “Twelve stones don’t just happen together.  Someone must have put them there.  What does it mean?  Why are they there?”

Forgetting Our Story

What would it mean if the father didn’t know?  What if the memory of that day of crossing from the wilderness into the promised land was forgotten?   What would they think about their identity if they didn’t know themselves as people with a past as slaves in Egypt?  What if they didn’t remember Moses, Sinai, the stone tablets, the whole Torah?  What if they forgot the years of wandering in the wilderness, the manna from heaven, the water from the rock, the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night?

What if they did not remember that they had been formed as nation by a covenant?  That each of the twelve tribes represented by those twelve stones was connected to each other by the bonds of that covenant?

A community knows how it is to live by knowing who they are, their identity.  A community knows its identity through its history.

This is a powerful truth that can be used for good or evil.  Remembering and rehearsing a family story of victimization can lead a new generation to seek vengeance.  That is exactly what fuels the conflicts between Hatfield’s and McCoy’s, Serbs and Coats, Hutu’s and Tootsie’s, Palestinians and Jews, and, dare we say also, Christians and Muslims?

This is why remembering and retelling the story is so crucial, and why it is so important to tell the right version of the story.

Remembering our Story

This is what we are doing today, on Heritage Sunday.  Look at these walls: what do these stones mean?  Where did we come from?   How did we get here?  Who are we now?

We American Presbyterians trace our history back through the Scottish people who came to this country at its very beginning.  That’s why,

Knox

later today we will be hearing bag-pipes. In Scotland the word for church is kirk, which is why each year the Montreat conference for small churches is called the “Wee Kirk” conference.

Knox

John Knox was the leader of the Protestant Reformation in Scotland.  He was one of the primary authors of the Scots Confession of Faith which is in our Book of Confessions.   His name is part of our Presbyterian publisher’s name today: the Westminster/John Knox Press.

It was the Scotts who called the Reformed church Presbyterian, a name that announced our organizational system.  The word Presbyterian comes from  a Greek word for elder, signifying that our church is governed not by Bishops and priests but by elders; teaching elders (pastors) who are authorized to preach, teach and administer the sacraments, and ruling elders who are responsible for all aspects of the church’s life and mission.

Knox was grounded in Reformed theology by his study with John Calvin in Geneva.  John Calvin was a brilliant man whose writings, especially the Institutes of the Christian Religion are foundational for Reformed Theology around the world.

Calvin

Calvin also wrote commentaries on most of the books of the bible. Stop and consider this for a moment.  For us today, thinking of a theologian writing biblical commentaries seems as normal as a Scottish person playing the bagpipes.  But in the 16th century, it was not so.  It was more common to find theologians writing about other theologians; the tradition of the church, built up over the centuries.

Calvin

The great slogan of the Reformation was “ad fontes”  or “to the fountains” meaning “to the sources.”  The source of what we Christians believe is the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments which are for us, the written Word of God.  In the scriptures we learn our story and learn who we are.

It is from the scriptures that we learn “what do these stones mean” so that we can tell new generations.  This is exactly why we are interested in the “Reading the Bible in 90 Days” even though we know it’s not going to be easy: we Reformed Christians continually return “to the sources.”

Always Reforming

This quest to go back “to the sources” for guidance is the fruit of the Reformation of the 16th Century that has great significance for us today.  The motto of the Reformed Church is “Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda” or “The church, reformed, always reforming.”

We as Reformed, Presbyterians are not merely Scottish-nostalgic.  Nor are simply attempting to preserve the insights of the 16th century for all time.  The church  that experienced such a powerful reformation in that time knew that the need for reform would never cease.  The truly Reformed Church is always being reformed, as it continually returns to the fountains, the scriptures.

We continually return to the scriptures asking the question: what needs reforming in our day?  What are we missing?  What have we distorted?  What have we been blind to?

Blind Spots

Can you believe, that even though the central story of the whole Old Testament, the foundational narrative for the people of Israel is the exodus story, the story of being set free from slavery, nevertheless, it took the church nearly two-thousand years to see that we had been blind to the injustice of slavery?

Can you believe that after all this time, there are still people who can read the Genesis stories which tell us how this precious planet was created and pronounced “good” by God himself, who feel no obligations to protect the earth from degradation?

Why is it that so many  Christians can read story after story of Jesus feeding people and healing people and not see the biblical mandate to eliminate poverty and hunger and to bring decent, affordable health care to people made in the image of God?

How can we read stories of the enormous abundance that God provides for his people, from manna in the wilderness to twelve baskets of leftovers after the 5,000 were fed, and still believe in the narrative of scarcity that says, “don’t share; there may not be enough.”

How can we read the stories of Jesus’ table fellowship with tax collectors and sinners, his ministry to non-Jews and to marginalized people, his embrace of all kinds of people and feel free to exclude anyone?

Back to the Jesus Story

Thank the Lord we Reformed Christians have at least learned where to go to hear the stories that tell us who we are,  and that we have learned to keep returning to them again and again, so that the church that is Reformed, can continually be reformed.

Our central story is the story of Jesus.  In Jesus we see the love of God in human flesh.  Christians believe that, as Jesus himself taught, to see him is to see the Father.  We come to understand God by studying and imitating Jesus.  He is the ultimate source.

And what do we see?  Constantly, we see the active, practical love of God, lavishly, extravagantly, compassionately, graciously given.  We see

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Jesus focusing most of his time on people in greatest need, people who have been pushed to the margins by the powerful, people who have been written-off as unworthy by the purity-geeks.

We see Jesus illustrating time and again the theology of God’s abundance.  Grace knows no limits.  Love never ends.  Lostness and lameness is never the last word.  There is enough for everyone when the little lunch of barley loaves and fish is given away.

It is hard for us.  As John Calvin said, “we are so strongly attached to outward means, that nothing is more difficult than to depend on the providence of God.” (Commentary on John 6:12)

And yet, as Reformed Christians, depend on the providence of the abundant God, we shall do.  This is our heritage.  We may be a small church, a “wee kirk,” but we serve a great God who has no limitations, and we have been sent into a world that is desperate for grace. Thanks be to God.

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