Sixty years ago when this congregation was born, Dwight Eisenhower was president. No one could possibly imagine what was coming: the assassination of President Kennedy, the Vietnam War, Watergate, and the resignation of President Nixon. Social movement of change were just over the horizon of the future in 1956: the civil rights movement, and the women’s movement. Changes in how we live everyday brought about by personal computers, the internet and cell phones were coming, but were, as yet, undreamed of.
We cannot imagine the changes the next 60 years will bring; all the presidents that will have come and gone, all the ways the world will be different. We only know that it will be different. Everything changes. We cannot possibly predict what this congregation will be like 60 years from now. But we know that we are living at the end of one era and the beginning of another.
This year marks not only our 60th anniversary, but also the beginning of the year-long countdown to the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses onto the door of the castle in Wittenberg, hoping to start a theological debate. The church, in those days, had no stomach for debate. It chose resistance to change instead of embracing reform.
We are the heirs to the Protestant Reformation. The call of the reformers was “ad fontes” – meaning, back to the fountain, back to the original sources. They wanted to get back to the foundation of the church, before all the layers of medieval magical thinking were added.
The churches that embraced this moment that we descend from were called Reformed churches. They adopted a motto:
“the church, Reformed, is always reforming.”
We are living at the beginning of a new movement of reform. This, we believe, is a movement of God’s Spirit, and we are blessed to be the generation that gets to watch it unfold. Never before, that I know of, has there been such a widespread consensus that the cry “ad fontes” must be sounded again. We must return in a new and fresh way, back to the source, the fountainhead of our faith.
Only this time, instead of returning to the version of our faith that was given by 4th century theologian St. Augustine, this time the cry is to go all the way back to Jesus himself.
Augustine was a brilliant scholar and humble, sincere believer who did his best to frame our faith and to fight off what he saw as heretics. But Augustine was a man with a checkered past, before his conversion to Christianity. It left him full of remorse and guilt. It left him ashamed. And so his orientation to Christianity started with sin and guilt, and a quest for salvation from God’s judgment. It was Augustine who gave us the term “original sin.”
But Jesus never used the term “original sin.” And Jesus did not teach his followers to fear God’s punishment. If this is the time to cry, “ad fontes”, back to the source, then this is the time to go back beyond Augustin and have a fresh look at the faith of Jesus.
This is exactly what is happening now. Groups of Christians are springing up both here and around the world that are seeking a new, Jesus-shaped vision for our faith. Calling themselves Red Letter Christians, or the Emergent church, or Convergence Christianity or simply Progressive Christians, they are all seeking to recover an approach to God and to faith that looks more like the faith lived in the catacombs than in the cathedrals.
The Shape of this Vision
What is the shape of this new vision? Like Jesus’ approach to God, first and foremost it is radically positive. God is a mystery, beyond human comprehension, but if we mortals are to imagine God with metaphors, then Jesus’ preferred image of God as loving Father, or parent, is massively different from God as a hypersensitive medieval king with an active torture chamber below the throne room.
Like Jesus, this new vision is radically inclusive. It crosses every border in sight. It is thrilled with diversity. Just as Jesus started the practice of mixed and open table fellowship, so these new communities welcome everyone to the table without discrimination. This radical openness encourages conversations and dialogue. The old exclusivism has given way to a new openness to learning from the insights of people of other denominations and other faiths, as we realize that Jesus asked no one to convert before he fed or healed them, not even Romans, nor Samaritans nor Canaanites.
Like Jesus, these new communities are not content with a faith that is expressed in the NeoPlatonic categories of thought that have been captured in the creeds of the 4th century after Jesus’ time and beyond, as if they had a corner on theological concepts. People are waking up and noticing that Jesus himself did not have a creed. He never tried to get his people to memorize and set in stone one set of doctrines. Rather, his faith was a living, dynamic relationship with a God whom he encountered in the fray of everyday life and in the mysticism of long nights of contemplative prayer.
Like Jesus, these new communities want to be involved in meeting human need. From feeding and providing health care, to housing and advocacy, the action is outside the walls, out where people live. The term “missional” has been used quite often. Some have said, it is not that God’s church has a mission, but that God’s mission has a church which exists to be in mission to the world God loves.
So we cannot imagine what the next 60 years will bring, but we do know that change is coming. We will not fight it. We will embrace the new thing that God is doing as a new movement of God’s Spirit. And true to our heritage, we will be the Church Reformed, Always Reforming. Let us rejoice that we get to be the generation that sees it unfolding. May God bless us as we begin the next 60 years.