sermon

The Reforming Word

 Rev. Dr. John J. Lolla, Jr.

November 5, 2107

Text: I Thessalonians 2:13, O.T.: Joshua 3:7-17, N.T.: I Thessalonians 2:9-13

            This is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. It’s a significant time for me since the influence of the reformation affects me personally. My father was Roman Catholic and I have a very large Roman Catholic family on my father’s side. My mother was a Congregationalist from a very small family of Puritan ancestry. They were married before each church allowed members to marry outside their communion.

And so, I was raised Presbyterian – neither Roman Catholic nor Congregationalist. The question their marriage before Vatican II raised was whether their decision to be married represented their will or God’s will.

Their question was similar to the question that was raised by Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses on the door of Wittenberg Cathedral 500 hundred years ago. Was Martin Luther’s declaration his will or God’s will? Were they human words or God’s word?

The Apostle Paul addressed the same question with his first letter to the Thessalonicans.   Was Paul’s word to the Thessalonicans human words or God’s Word? Remember, the Thessalonicans didn’t have Paul’s letters to read or the Gospels of John, Mark, Luke, or Matthew to read.

They didn’t have the New Testament as a guide to understand whether Paul was giving his own human opinion or was he giving God’s instruction. They listened and concluded Paul was speaking God’s Word.

This was essentially the challenge I faced when I talked with my father about feeling that God was calling me to be a minister. I was concerned at the most fundamental level that I was not making God into someone who agreed with what I wanted. If I were trying to subject God to my will, then my pursuit of the ministry would have been a human word, not God’s Word.

It was important to me that I had integrity in pursuing the ministry that represented God’s Word. I couldn’t be an authentic minister of Jesus Christ if all I was about was speaking my words, not God’s Word.

When I met with my father I was concerned that he knew that I was not rejecting him, his Roman Catholic faith, or my loving Italian Roman Catholic family on his side of our home. I felt I needed his blessing to become a minister. And I told him I genuinely felt that God was calling me to ministry. It wasn’t my will but God’s will that I was following.

My father said he had always thought I would be a lawyer. But if I truly believed I was following God’s direction, then he was behind me.

Martin Luther faced a similar situation 500 years ago. He felt he was being compelled by God to address problems in the Church at that time. He was equally concerned about being authentic to God’s Word. He was convicted to say Church reform came from God’s Word and not from himself. Others came to agree with him. The rest is the story.

What I hope we learn through these illustration is that Christians everywhere confront the same dilemma every day. Are the words they are saying or the choices they are making a human word, or God’s Word?

This a personal challenge for Christians whether they are Protestants, Orthodox, Nestorians, Armenians, Copts, or Roman Catholics. We are not to follow human words. We are to follow God’s Word. That word is found in Jesus Christ – His teachings, His example, His admonition, His love.

Frankly, Protestants among all Christians, have a great challenge to hear God’s Word, or represent God’s Word. We are supposed to be reformed according to God’s Word. What I am about to say comes from 37 years of listening to Presbyterians in congregations, presbytery, and the Church beyond. I’m not going to speak about what I haven’t experienced in other communions. I can only speak from first-hand experience.

Too many times Presbyterians are guilty of domesticating God to be a deity who supports our wants, our desires. We make God into an extension of what we want divine sanction for ourselves. We should be seeking a Word from God that is independent of what we want and desire.

The Word of God reforms His people according to His will and purpose for their lives. Instead of seeking a God who gives us what we want, we are to follow God’s Word where it leads us. We can only do that when we study God’s Word.

The great challenge every Christian has is to know the difference between a human word and God’s Word. John Calvin wrote about this in his first chapter of his Institutes of the Christian Religion. It’s just as pertinent today. When we enlist God as the supporter of what we want, not the person we need to follow, God’s Word is the ultimate corrector of our error.

God’s Word brings the straying Christian back to God’s path to the kingdom of heaven. God’s Word corrects the misguided Christian and uplifts the discouraged Christian. God’s Word is continually there to reform us according to what God created us to be and do.

To know the difference between a human word and God’s Word, we need to study the Bible with humility and with sincerity.

Martin Luther devoted his life to studying the Bible. Today’s Scripture passage from I Thessalonians 2:13 highlights what was at stake for Martin Luther 500 years ago. It’s the standard by which every preacher is to be held, and every ruling elder’s decisions need to be scrutinized.

When clergy and elders gather together in Church councils, their decisions are to be pondered as to whether they represent God’s Word. We as Presbyterians believe as a matter of theological principle, that councils can and will err. They will make decisions saying they represent God’s Word when in fact they are following a human word.

We Presbyterians believe we are guided by God’s Word in making such discernments.

This is not simply a matter of theological nit-picking that’s irrelevant church talk. What’s at stake in knowing God’s Word from a human word can affect people’s lives. There are times when political leaders cast themselves as defenders of God’s will and purpose. It is up to every Christian to discern whether these national speakers represent God.

You are quite aware of the consequences of when entire nation can go wrong on such a thing. And that nation was primarily a Protestant nation. In fact, it was the same nation that gave us Martin Luther.

Germany, Weimer Germany from the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. Germany was primarily Protestant, – Lutheran and Reformed – with the exception of southern Germany – which was primarily Roman Catholic.

Adolph Hitler ran a political campaign based on promoting German Christianity – a racially-pure Christianity. Jesus was an Aryan. Germany was divinely chosen by God to rule the earth.

The people of Germany bought Hitler’s public rhetoric. Many saw him as Germany’s Messiah. There were posters in German store windows of Jesus with a Beatific halo and underneath his portrait were the words, “In the beginning was the Word . . .” The quotation of course is from the Gospel of John 1:1 where Jesus is described as the Word of God.

Hitler was identified by the nation with Jesus – as if Hitler’s political rhetoric was God’s Word. It wasn’t God’s Word. Hitler was speaking a human word – a word not worthy of being followed let alone be associated with God’s Word to humanity.

Adolph Hitler could never have fielded an army if this primarily Protestant, Christian nation had followed God’s Word instead of Adolph Hitler’s word.

Too many Christians spend too little time measuring political and social rhetoric by whether it expresses God’s Word.   They ignore the words in the public air. It’s too much trouble to make a comparison.

We can’t afford to continue this practice if we are faithful to God, and care about our futures. Not only our future but the future of generations depends on whether or not we care to compare human words with God’s Word.

God’s Word is a corrective for misguided human intentions and purposes. God’s Word is what brings misguided people back to the pathway of God.

Certainly the Church has made its share of mistakes through history. Christians are sinners and Church leaders aren’t totally saints. But where God’s Word is reforming people in Christ’s image, new life can emerge that is the Church’s response to Jesus’ direction for our lives. God’s Word is reforming the Church beyond what divided the Church during the Reformation.

A few months ago, I was invited to attend an ecumenical conference of Christian leaders at LaRoche College with Christian Associates of Southwestern Pennsylvania. There was the Pastor to the Presbytery of Pittsburgh Presbytery standing beside Bishop Zubick of the Pittsburgh Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church, and representatives from the Eastern Orthodox Church, as well as bishops from Methodist, Lutheran, and Anglican Churches, along with leaders from non-denominational Protestant congregations.   This was a conference discussing mutual cooperation and reconciliation that would have been inconceivable during the time of Martin Luther.

In the Roman Catholic Church today there are eucharistic ministers who are lay-people who serve the sacraments along with priests, similar to elders in Presbyterian Churches. The Roman Catholic Church has a freedom of conscience clause in Vatican II pronouncements that Presbyterians would recognize as echoing their own foundational sentiments.

This is the work of God’s Word – reforming the Church today. God is speaking to the Church today, and we are recognizing as Christians that we share far more in common than what separates us. We need one another in a world that is becoming more assertive in challenging Christian faith.

But where there are Christians who earnestly want to know God and not simply a human opinion, who enthusiastically want to love God and not simply love themselves, and who are passionate about serving God rather than serving their own interests, there are Christians who are reformed, always being reformed according to God’s Word.

Amen.

 

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