Ecclesia semper reformanda est – (Reformation Sunday, 2015)

Job’s story is a complicated one.  A divine wager is the start of Job’s downfall; this steadfast man of God finds himself (and his family) at the mercy of a merciless tempter.  Stripped of every material pleasure, and robbed of dignity by a dread skin disease, his is the sort of story that begs for a hero – a last minute rescue, or a rapid plot twist that cruelly turns Job into the only person able to ‘work out the solution’…and we get both.

When Job finally gets a chance to speak, he doesn’t make the same mistakes as his friends.  True, there was a false start back in Chapter 40, where all Job can say is “I’m speechless, Lord…” after which God takes up the soliloquy once again.  We are told – in delightful detail – that there is no end to the things we cannot explain, no matter how sophisticated our understanding of the universe may be.  Our vision of the planet – of our surroundings; of our relationship with God – is limited by our humanness.  The story of Job strips humanity of all it’s possessions, leaving only our ‘naked selves’ to consider, not only the dazzling complexity of the Created order, but the majestic power of the Creator.  We, like Job, don’t stand a chance.

This is a tale told for a purpose – there is no “historical Job” to discover and emulate.  It is an ancient fable that asks us to consider our insignificance in the face of God’s grandeur – but it does not require that we remain insignificant.  Job’s realization is not a defeatist: “O well, I tried and couldn’t make the mark…”  Quite the opposite, Job acknowledges God’s power – “I know that you can do all things…”  While Job may have spoken “what [he] did not understand…”, now he confesses the beginning of true understanding: “…now my eyes see you…”  Job humbles himself in the presence of God, and then, only then, does Job’s world start to make sense again.

A world turned upside down; hard questions about the very basic matters of faith – and in the end, a relationship with God is given proper perspective.  This is the beginning of what reformation must look like.

Today we are (quietly) asked to consider the beginnings of a movement in the Christian Church that led to the division of the body of Christ into Protestant and Roman branches.  For official purposes, history marks a date and imagines an instant in time that changed the world, but the truth about history is that such events are always ragged and ill-defined while they happen.  Martin Luther’s act of insolence against the Pope was one of a thousand steps on a journey towards reform of the (institutional) Church and those who call themselves the people of God, for it is important to recognize that any reform of the institution was only a means to an end; ultimately the goal is a radical change in the lives of the faithful – a renewed sense of God’s purpose in their lives; a return to the path revealed by Jesus.

Not all reform was welcome The work begun by Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and others splintered the Church in the west around matters of liturgy, Sacraments and a growing sense of nationalism in places like Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands.  But this was not ‘change for the sake of change’.  Most Reformers wanted to give the faithful the opportunity to experience the foundations of their faith.  So in addition to stopping some of the questionable practices of the Medieval church, these visionaries gave the people Scripture in their own language; a chance to choose their own pastors; and as they ordered church government, they helped shape civil law and public order.

Five hundred years along, we are still fragmented and fighting over ‘rules for church’.  We claim (as Presbyterians) to be reformed and always reforming, but what does that really look like?  We still imagine that we have some influence in the world and we adopt an attitude of superiority that is not justified.  We do not have all the answers – ours is not the only way to live faithfully and well – and some would suggest that we are being “tested” as Job was tested through a gradual grinding down of the structures of the church.  And my question to you is: is that such a bad thing?

If Job’s “fall from grace” (so called) allowed him, in the end, to see more completely the power and perfection of God; and if that ‘revelation’ allowed Job to worship in peace and rediscover something like contentment, isn’t a little humility – a “fall from grace” – precisely what the people of God need from time to time?  Our vision, clouded by centuries of our imagined successes, is keeping us from seeing the path that Christ revealed.  Our pride has blinded us to the incredible variety that is God’s continual gift; variety of opinion and language; varieties of interpretation and revelation.  And all of these dwarfed by the varieties of human expressions of faith and devotion to the reality of God.

Reform is not (was not) a punishment, inflicted by God (through the hands and minds of Luther et al), and reformation should not be  a blind return to the church ‘just as it was” in some perfect past that never really existed.  Reform is a corrective – an adjustment that helps the people of God recapture the purpose and vision first imagined by God for all of Creation.  Reformation is how we claim, over and over again, the redemption promised by Jesus – as modelled by his life, death and resurrection.  That redemption – the ultimate”reformation”-  is for all creation; for humanity and every expression of faith / devotion that fails to stay connected to God’s holy purpose.

The lessons of the book of Job find expression in the gradual and continual efforts at reforming the church and the people of God.  Now, it is fashionable to make a distinction between Church as institution and “the church” as the community of the faithful – dismissing the former as irrelevant and lauding the latter as the essential expression of true Christian faith – but the Reformation recognized that the community of faith could (and indeed should) be nurtured – and God properly honoured – by an institutional Church that understood its divine calling.

We are reminded of that calling – institutional and communal – by constant reference (in our tradition) to Scripture.  The lessons of Job are echoed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  Though instead of the human success of Job, we are invited to imagine that in Jesus, God willingly abandons all power and glory to show us the true meaning of humility and service.  The Gospels offer us the life and teaching, and the death and resurrection of Jesus, to tempt us to citizenship in the burgeoning Kingdom of God.  In Jesus we are given an example of constant worship – utter faithfulness – genuine devotion and perfect obedience, the like of which has never been duplicated.  This should not frustrate our attempts to reform the church; rather Jesus offers the church, warts and all, the gift of redemption – true and lasting reform.

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