Last week’s reading about taking up our crosses was about discipleship, this week’s readings are, surprisingly about the Church. At first glance this isn’t the case at all – what have the 10 Commandments and Jesus kicking off in the Temple got to do with each other let alone with the Church? The key is in the middle word of our denomination’s title – Reformed.
In the 16th Century there was a vast religious movement in Western Europe which has been called the Reformation. It was a movement that covered both Catholics and what came to be called Protestants. It had its roots in the previous 200 – 300 hundred years as time and time again Christians had tried to Reform the Church. At first it was thought that a §Council of all the Bishops would do what the papacy couldn’t do but in an age when being a bishop was a source of immense wealth getting bishops to stop the selling of church posts, or holding two or more posts at the same time was like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas; those with power and wealth rarely give it up after all.
It was felt that new religious movements might the answer – Francis and his followers lived lives of simplicity partly in response to a a call from God but partly to counter heretical movements which stood out by their holiness and simplicity of life.
A rediscovery of ancient manuscripts and new translations of the New Testament, from the Greek not the Latin, into the everyday language of the people, inspired clergy around Europe to start to reform their own congregations. These movements crystallised, as we know around §Martin Luther who was aided by a sympathetic Prince and the printing press and the Reformation was born.
However, in the new excitement and energy that was released the problem of reforming the Church wouldn’t go away. Lutheranism was aided by kings who rather liked his idea that they should reform the Church and, of course, who helped themselves to the Church’s money and land. In England Henry VIII’s raid on the wealth of the Church was both vicious and extensive.
As a response to the Reformation the Catholics had Church Council at Trent and reformed their church ending many of the abuses that had led to the Reformation – it stopped the rot and re-energised Catholicism but no attempt was made at reconciliation with the Protestants.
Calvin, to whom our tradition looks as a significant thinker, wrote that the Reformed Church is always in need of Reformation by the Word of God. For Calvin no bishop, no king, no council would keep the Church pure – just our faithful response to God’s word. This is why in so many of our churches we carry the Bible in at the start as we emphasise the primacy of the Word of God which is found in the Bible.
The Gospel Reading
So turning to our reading from St John we are surprised by Jesus’ actions. John places this almost at the start of his Gospel – this prophetic demonstration is as important to John as were the miracles. Jesus is annoyed at how God’s Temple had been corrupted. People made money from the change of secular into Temple coinage, people made money from the sale of animals for the sacrifice and the whole thing must have looked, to Jesus at least, as a way of fleecing the poor in the name of God. Jesus’, quoting some scripture causes quite a scene by making a whip, over turning the tables and driving the animals, money changers and traders out. For those who ask that question “what would Jesus do?” it’s important to remember that getting a whip and using it isn’t out of the question!
Jesus was seeking to purify the Temple – it was only, however, a one off demonstration. He didn’t kick out the priests and change the rites – as the Reformers were to do in their cities in 16th Century Europe. However, it set the authorities against him and has worried the Church ever since! Jesus’ point, I think, was that Temple had put trade before God.
The Exodus Reading
That brings us to our Old Testament reading. We don’t often read the 10 Commandments – it’s not possible to read them in a warm and fuzzy voice – they are, after all, commandments not suggestions! At the heart of the commandments is the need to put God first – the first few are all about God and His place in our lives after all. Putting God first and living righteously are the concern of the Commandments. Clearly the Temple authorities had lost sight of this – just as the medieval Church had done.
Since I’ve been in and around the URC I hear lip service given to the idea that we are always reforming. Calvin’s dictum is often shortened to “the Reformed Church, Aways Reforming” which, apart from being a poor translation of the Latin is an excuse to change things in the hope that the latest programme, change or person will reverse our decline.
Calvin’s phrase, however, the Church reformed always to be reformed by the Word of God, is deeper than the latest programme or idea. We are to be reformed – as individuals, as a congregation, as a Synod, as a denomination by the Word of God. It’s not as simple as a new programme, new personnel, a new idea, a new team, but instead, requires a rather more radical look at ourselves.
How do we as individuals need to be reformed by the Word of God – how comfortable are we listening to the 10 Commandments? Do we fare better at Jesus’ dreadfully difficult synopsis of them to love God and love neighbour as ourselves? How do we need to be reformed as a congregation? What would Jesus say to us if he were here with his whip? What would he praise, what would he overturn?
This isn’t meant to be threatening, or glum. The Church in every age has been challenged to reform – in our age in the West our reform takes a sharper edge in an age of religious indifference. No one really cares what we do or why we do it; gone are the days when the populace would chat about doctrine and take sides!
It is meant, however, to be encouraging. If we allow ourselves, and our church, to be reformed by God’s word we will grow. We will grow in service of others, in maturity, in spirituality and in number. We can’t be reformed as a church, however, until we’ve allowed God to work in our souls, reforming us, allowing us to be pruned so that, to use another image from John’s Gospel, we are pruned to bear fruit. Will you pray with me?
We worship you, Father,
who frees us from disabling spirits,
who releases us from bondage to evil,
and who enables us to rise up in Your presence.
We worship you, Lord Jesus,
who annoys the religious,
irritates the self-righteous,
and who turns the tables on outworn truths.
We worship you, Holy Spirit,
who rescues us from ourselves,
confounds our hypocrisy
and who causes us to rejoice.