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Reformed and Always Reforming

1 Thessalonians 2: 1-8
Deuteronomy 34: 1-12

Introduction to the reading

First Thessalonians is understood to be Paul’s first letter and as such, it is the oldest New Testament document that we know of. The Thessalonians were recent converts to Christianity, the Gospel of Jesus Christ was a new concept to them, and they were learning what it meant to be “the church” amid conflicts, hardships and opposition.

But Paul treats them with gentleness, and with some hint of self-defensiveness, he lets them see how he has handled adversity and thereby sets an example for their own work in the name of Jesus.

“Reformed and always reforming” – “ecclesia reformata semper reformanda” – “the church reformed and always reforming” or “always being reformed” or, in some translations, “always in need of reforming.”

This was the slogan of the Protestant Reformation whose 500th anniversary we have been taking note of this whole month of October. It was on October 31, 1517, that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, denouncing the Roman Catholic practice of selling indulgences. After intense study of Scripture and just as intense prayer, Luther came to the realization that the grace of God is a gift of faith, not something to be controlled and dispensed by the pope.

We sit here today in the sanctuary of Peapack Reformed Church as descendants of the first Reformers 500 years ago, almost to the day.

The classic textbook on Christian doctrine, written by the late Shirley Guthrie, a professor of systematic theology at Columbia Theological Seminary, describes what the phrase “reformed and always reforming” means. He writes:

According to the Reformed faith, no system of theology can ever capture once and for all the truth about God, [Jesus Christ], human beings and the world. All theology, whether that of an individual or of the whole church, is at best an inadequate, fallible, human attempt to understand that truth.

To work at Christian theology from the Reformed perspective … is to understand the superiority of the Word of God over every human word. It means to ask the question [the Reformers] themselves taught us to ask: “What is the living God we know in Christ and in the Bible doing and saying in our time, here and now, where we have to live and think as Christians?” (Guthrie, 17,18)

The Reformers perceived that the Holy Spirit keeps on moving throughout time and human history, re-forming hearts and minds toward what God has had in mind for the world from the beginning. And in every generation, God calls men and women to live and die for the faith, to carry the message of salvation, reconciliation and love wherever they happen to be, to refresh, renew and re-form the ancient message for the contemporary time.

We heard about Moses:
Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt … and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.

And yet, the Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; when the period of mourning for Moses was ended. The people of God re-form themselves under Joshua and they move on.

We heard from the Apostle Paul, who spread the Gospel message of Jesus Christ all around the Mediterranean, who founded and encouraged the earliest churches, congregations of men and women who would carry God’s word in yet another re-formed way. And, as had happened over and over in the past, Paul and those churches met opposition and hardship as they simply tried to understand and practice the new way of faith.

And today, Reformation Sunday, we remember Martin Luther, who led the way to re-forming the church against what had become a powerful, entrenched political and social institution so very far from what Jesus preached.

In the years following Luther, the church splintered into diverse expressions of the Christian faith: multiple translations of the Bible in multiple languages; sects focused on one or another aspect of theology; arguments over interpretation of Scripture and worship practices. On the one hand, a good thing, so that more and more people are drawn into concern for the spiritual life. On the other hand, however, multiplicities have become loud, dogmatic and offensive to many. That fact, along with stories of misconduct and malfeasance, have ultimately weakened the church and its influence.

Sadly, many who would like to be faithful have become disengaged. They just don’t care so much anymore about how the old traditional church fares. But they do care about their spiritual lives and they do still call themselves Christian.

Some say we are witnessing a new re-formation, a new reformation. One of those voices is Brian McLaren. In his recent book, The Great Spiritual Migration, McLaren explores three shifts:

• Spiritually, growing numbers of Christians are moving away from defining themselves by lists of beliefs and moving toward a way of life defined by love;
• Theologically, believers are increasingly rejecting the image of God as a fearsome and judgmental Supreme Being and embracing the image of God as the renewing Spirit at work in our world for the common good;
• Missionally, the faithful are identifying less with organized religion and more with organizing religion – spiritual activists dedicated to healing the planet, building peace, overcoming poverty and injustice, and collaborating with other faiths to ensure a better future for us all.

Perhaps some of you have been following the story in the Bernardsville News about St. Bernard’s Episcopal Church in Bernardsville. A developer has just gotten approval from the Board of Adjustment to convert the hundred-year-old Parish Hall into luxury condominiums and to build more condos on the site. He’ll also construct a new Parish Hall for the church’s office, fellowship, education and outreach functions.

St. Bernard’s simply could not afford to keep the beautiful old stone building in any kind of good repair. It was sucking up financial resources that could and should be being used for the actual missional and worship work of the church. This bold move will enable them to keep going. But more than that. They are praying that it will enable them to re-form, to grow and to be the church of the 21st century, like Brian McLaren has described. We should be paying attention to what our brothers and sisters at St. Bernard’s are doing and how they fare. Certainly they have called attention to their presence in the community; and they can call attention to their being the presence of Jesus Christ in the world.

Here at Peapack, we claim that presence to be our mission too. Just a quick perusal of the worship service bulletin will reveal the many opportunities we have to carry that vital mission out in fresh ways. And later on, many of you will step forward with your pledges to actually do that.

We are the church Reformed – and always reforming. May God bless us all along the Way that Jesus sets in front of us. Amen.

Guthrie, Shirley C. Christian Doctrine. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1983.
McClaren, Brian D. The Great Spiritual Migration. New York: Convergent, 2016.

Rev. Kathryn Henry
Peapack Reformed Church
Gladstone, NJ
October 29, 2017

khenryRev. Kathryn Henry
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