Archive for the ‘reformation’ Category

Moses stands high on the rocks above the assembled Hebrews, who are eagerly waiting for the signal to cross the Jordan River and possess the land God promised to Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel and Leah, a promise passed down from father to son and mother to daughter.

After 40 years spent wandering in the wilderness, they are ready to go home and ready to leave the wilderness behind them, letting go of the nomadic way of living. These were a wilderness people because most of them were born and lived all their lives in the wilderness. They are the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of those Hebrews Moses had led away from slavery and death in Egypt to the freedom of a life-giving relationship with God, who gave them a way of living together filled with rich, intimate relationships of authenticity and integrity; a way of life where every person would be living from the center of their being.

That was, of course, exactly what their mothers and fathers had failed to do. A fact Moses points out in the beginning of this last teachable moment. You see, Moses won’t be crossing the Jordon with them. His ministry, the vocation God called him to live, was nearly finished. All he had to do was teach this last lesson then his ministry would be complete. So, he begins this moment by calling the people to remember how they came to be here by reciting the history of their long trek through the wilderness, the good times and the bad times, but especially those times when their parents had failed to choose life by hearing, obeying God and trusting God completely and had, instead, chosen death.

Now, Moses isn’t doing this because he wants to beat up on their parents for abandoning God and God’s way, rather he does it because he is teaching them about the two choices they will have to make, either choosing life or choosing death. There is no middle ground.

And, I will tell you Moses will exhort them to choose life because that is what God wants them to choose, since to choose life is to live within God, within the very heart of God, who is not only the creator of existence, the creator of living substance, but is life itself, which is the meaning of the name Yahweh, the name he told Moses at the burning bush.

Moses will exhort the people to choose life by telling them, “This commandment that I’m giving you today is not too much for you. It is not out of your reach. It is not on a high mountain,-you do not need to get mountaineers to climb the peak and bring it down to your level. It is not across the ocean,-you do not have to send sailors out to get it and bring back then explain it to you before you can live it. This word is right here, as near as the tongue in your mouth, as near as the heart in your chest. It is an easy choice, so just do it, choose life!”

Moses passionately challenges them to make this choice because by choosing life they will choose to live fully their new identity as God’s people from the inside out. You see, the commandments and the instructions Moses gives this people, the same ones he has been giving them for more than forty years, are not simply a set of rules or laws to be obeyed under penalty of punishment or eternal damnation, rather they are teachings to be lived every moment as if breathing air or eating food until each person has fully taken all of them into the very center of their being as part of their being just as surely are their hearts beat within them, sending the image and likeness of God hidden deep within them rising up to the surface and out from them like living water bursting out of rocks and soaking the world around them with God’s love in the concreteness of daily living, making God visible to every person and every nation surrounding them.

They are to be the visible expression of God’s presence in the midst of humanity”on earth, in time, in all the concreteness of the visible, perceptible, tangible world” as theologian Alexander Schmemann has written, so every person and every nation will be blessed with the comprehension of a new, radically different way of being fully human that actually works for the well being and wholeness of every person and nation, united together in the tranquility of God’s peace.

So every person and every nation will come to them and say we want to join your community, but not because the Israelites are so wonderful and perfect, rather because all nations and people will recognize that it is God, who has created this way of life and who has claimed these people as Isaiah says, “This is what the Lord says, he who created you, O Jacob; he who formed you Israel, fear not for I am have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name, you are mine.”

What Moses was teaching them is that they will make God visible to the whole world by the way they live and people will be drawn to God because of their lives. It is what Jesus told his disciples during his farewell discourse in the Gospel of John, “You have seen the Father because you have seen me.  Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12 Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.”  So that God may be glorified.

This is what is affirmed by the Westminster Shorter Catechism in the very first question, “What is the chief end of humankind?” Followed by the answer, “Humankind’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.”

What the people who wrote the Westminster Confession and Catechisms were trying to say is that all human beings are, at every moment of our lives, in a relationship to the living God because God has formed us and shaped us in God’s image and likeness, so we might live the way God intends for us to live in wholeness and peace within the boundaries God has set in place for us.

“The image of God in humanity”, theologian Jack Rogers writes, “is not some particular quality or attribute such as reason or free will or the ability to dominate nature. Jesus Christ is the image of God and what set him apart from his contemporaries is that Jesus was totally obedient to God, who had sent him. The image of God, and the meaning of our humanity, is that we are created in relationship to God, so that when we obey God, as Jesus did, we “image” God by our lives. The thrust of Reformed theology is that we glorify God by living lives of obedient activity.”

You see, Reformed theology is clear that we are not created or summoned by God to a life of self-centeredness interested only in our salvation, agenda, power, or celebrity. It is not my agenda, your agenda, Donald Trump’s agenda or anyone else’s agenda.  We are saved by grace and summoned to serve God’s agenda for sustaining life, ours and creation. We are supposed to seek the glory of God and be pointing people to God by working toward the goals of God’s kingdom. This is what means to live that part of our identity statement, “we will foster a personal connection with God for people of all ages.”

God provides all we need for life and is with us, even when we wade through the deep water, walk through fire or need a lift up out of a miry bog and be set down a dry, level plain. All we need to do to show our gratitude for all God does for us is act on God’s agenda for this world by choosing life, choosing God’s way of peace, so all will see how wonderful it is to live God’s way of life. May it be so for you and for me.

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The Bible will not help you conjugate French verbs. It will not teach you why we fought the Civil War, nor will it help you build a sandbox for your next DIY project. Contrary to popular opinion, it is not a self-help book.

What the Bible can be for you is the rule for a life of faith and practice founded upon the Reformed tradition of sola scriptura or scripture alone. This tradition has been a hallmark of Protestant Christian communities as the Westminster Confession of 1647 declares, “The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for God’s own glory, humanity’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of humanity. Some contemporary theologians give authority to Scripture because it reveals God’s Word, that is Christ, while others declare Scripture is the witness without parallel to God’s long, winding relationship journey with humankind and humanity’s long, winding on again-off again relationship journey with God.

As Paul wrote to Timothy, “how from infancy you have known the holy scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scriptures are God-breathed and are useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.”

Scripture is, also, the authority for the way we have organized the polity of the Presbyterian Church because Calvin and other Swiss Reformers went back to Scripture to identify the structure of the early church as one way to reform the Western Christian Church. Indeed, as Jack Rodgers, a former Moderator of the PCUSA and theologian has described it, “Calvin’s way of reforming the church was akin to grabbing a bureau drawer, yanking it out of the bureau, dumping its contents on the bed, then putting the empty drawer back in bureau and only putting those things back in drawer you were absolutely certain you were going to use and had the biblical warrants for using them.” This why we call Elders Presbyters and why we have Deacons because both of those positions existed in the early church based on Scripture.

This more thorough going reform was because the hierarchy of the western Christian Church from the fourth century to the 14th century had begun to give equal weight to papal authority, traditions, and doctrines devised by various theologians and philosophers, including Aristotle and Plato, as they did to Scripture. This, of course, happened during the time that widespread corruption had infiltrated the whole of the Western Christian Church whether from power and greed, the sales of indulgences, the sale of offices of clergy, bishops, cardinals, abbots and abbesses or the many other failings of the church in the Middle Ages. In addition, worship was in Latin and the Latin translation of the Bible was the only one used in worship, which effectively only spoke to the educated elites and left out everybody else, who were also illiterate. It was the illiteracy of the common people and the desire to connect them to Scripture and a life of faith that for decades prior to Martin Luther and John Calvin there had been a movement to translate Scripture in the language of the people, so each person could read it in their own language. Of course, this would have made more people literate and would have taken away the power of the local priest to be the only authority for what Scripture said, which was certainly two aims of the reformers, particularly John Calvin and the Swiss Reformers who created public schools open to every child in the Geneva community and who advocated for every Christian to read and study Scripture. BY the way, this is one reason pastors are Teaching Elders as well as worship leaders of Word and Sacrament.

Scripture is also a community forming narrative as Rev. William Willimon insists, “A congregation is Christian to the degree that it is confronted by and attempts to form its life in response to the Word of God.” Each week as Scripture is read and used as the basis for the entire worship we are confronted by God’s Word and invited, sometimes explicitly and other times not as explicitly, to form our personal identity and our community identity in response to what we have heard, read, prayed and sung in worship. Over the course of a life time of such experiences and our incorporating all of our life experiences into the story of our lives, our personal identity and the community’s identity as followers of Christ are formed and shaped.

Integral to this forming and shaping is discovering where our personal life stories and our community life stories are connected to Scripture. What biblical stories, psalms, history, epistles contain our life story, individually and as a congregation. What lessons can we learn from this connection? How does this connection help us create or re-write and tell our life story as a coherent whole with a beginning, middle and a present?

Clearly for Scripture to be the rule of our faith and our life, as way for teaching, correcting, training and, yes, even rebuking us towards God way, to be forming and shaping our identity and connecting us within Scripture, we are going to have read Scripture because as Professor George Stroup has pointed out, “if the community no longer turns to biblical narratives and their depiction of reality as the basis for the interpretation of personal and communal identity, then Scripture can no longer be described as ‘authoritative’ for that community. At the same time, if Christian identity is as dependent on biblical narrative as we have argued, then it is not clear how a community which no longer listens to or uses Scripture can be said to be ‘Christian.”

So we read Scripture, but how do we read it and study it when often we find ourselves confused or frustrated with it, especially if we read Leviticus.

Well, first, read Scripture daily or weekly as a devotional and allow Scripture to sink deeply into us through meditation and allowing the questions arising from our reading to bubble up to the surface, and then gather together with other people in a group study of Scripture paying careful attention to its context and form. You see, each of the Bible’s books was written in a particular genre by a particular person inspired by the Holy Spirit at a particular time for particular readers that addresses a particular concern. Discerning what all of these particulars are becomes important, especially genre because Scripture is written as histories, poetry, sermons, or letters. Some include parables and healing stories, but all need to be read differently in the same way a newspaper’s editorial page is read differently than the sports page or the comics.

Second, understand the culture and the way different cultures think about history, geography and time. John Calvin has noted, The Gospels “were not written in such a manner as to preserve on all occasions, the exact order of time, nor do they detail minutely everything Jesus said or did.” This is where a good study bible comes in handy because of the notes included on each page as well as the maps and definitions of ancient measurements.

Third, interpret one passage of Scripture using other passages that seem to talk about the same subject while never isolating one sentence or passage of scripture as though it contains the whole truth because often what we think it says or wish it said isn’t what it says at all. This why when someone quotes a verse of Scripture at me as though proving their point, I am very willing to suggest we read the entire book, then read other passages referenced by that one book to get at the real meaning. The other thing to remember is that nobody reads Scripture literally. Everyone interprets it in one or another. Also, we need to stop using Scripture as clubs to beat each other up with as though my Scripture is bigger than yours. Also, we need to be willing to let Scripture read out its meaning to us, rather than trying to make Scripture say what we want it to say, since very often we discover something new we hadn’t thought about before or maybe we just become transformed by the Holy Spirit in the act of reading and study.

Finally, read Scripture mindful of the rule of love-Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself-because as one rabbi taught, those two commands are the whole of Scripture and “everything else is commentary.”

Scripture alone is our rule for faith and practice, identity and life, so happy reading.

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