1Therefore, brothers and sisters, holy partners in a heavenly calling, consider that Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession, 2was faithful to the one who appointed him, just as Moses also was faithful in all God’s house. 3Yet Jesus is worthy of more glory than Moses, just as the builder of a house has more honor than the house itself. 4(For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God.) 5Now Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant, to testify to the things that would be spoken later. 6Christ, however, was faithful over God’s house as a son, and we are his house if we hold firm the confidence and the pride that belong to hope. (Hebrews 3:1-6)
For the month of October, we are celebrating our Reformed Presbyterian heritage, and taking a closer look at three historic mottoes or rallying cries that have shaped us as a denomination and as a church. We’ll be looking at the mottoes as well as the doctrines and scriptures that inspired them. And because Presbyterians have always been a little bit nerdy, all three mottoes are in Latin, of course.
Today we begin with the longest one of the three: Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei. I’ll translate that for you in just a little while, but for now, suffice it to say that this motto has to do with change. And change is hard.
I’m reminded of the story about a taxi-cab driver who was taking a passenger across town, when the passenger reached up and tapped the driver on the shoulder to ask him a question. The driver screamed, lost control of the car, nearly hit a bus, went up on the sidewalk, and stopped just inches from a shop window. For a second everything went quiet in the cab, then the driver said, “Look buddy, don’t ever do that again. You scared the daylights out of me!” The passenger apologized and said, “I didn’t realize that a little tap would scare you so much.” The driver replied, “I’m Sorry, it’s not really your fault. Today is my first day as a taxi-cab driver–for the last 25 years I’ve been driving a funeral hearse.”
Change is hard. Especially when you’re trying to change something that’s been part of your identity for many years, or even many generations.
Our scripture passage today is from the Epistle to the Hebrews. As its name suggests, this letter was written to a Hebrew, or Jewish audience sometime during the last decades of the first century. It’s a letter making a case for change. The opening of the letter reads: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son,whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.”
It’s easy to think that somehow when Jesus showed up on the scene, Christianity sprang fully formed into the world and everyone who heard the message immediately embraced it, because it just made so much sense. But of course, that isn’t true. If you’ve been following the teachings of Moses your whole life, and your parents followed the teachings of Moses, and your grandparents and great grandparents as far back as you can remember…and then someone comes along and tells you “Jesus is worthy of more glory than Moses” — well, that’s a bit of a tough sell. Jesus who? Greater than Moses? Right…
Change is hard. The author of Hebrews knew that, I suspect, and had his work cut out for him (or her–there’s a rather convincing argument to be made that the Epistle to the Hebrews was written by Priscilla, a female apostle and a contemporary of Paul).
Fast forward about 1,500 years and the Jesus movement actually took off nicely, becoming the dominant religious belief system throughout the Mediterranean and most of Europe. In fact, some might say it took off too well. What began as a peaceful movement among some simple, uneducated fishermen now belonged to kings, emperors, and pontiffs. It became the impetus for wars and crusades, it became just another way to exploit and control the poor and the weak.
And into this context stepped our 16th century heroes: Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, William Tyndale and others. They said that the church needed to be re-formed for the good of the common person, not the powerful elites (that’s why we call them reformers, and their movement the Reformation). For their efforts, Luther was excommunicated, Calvin was driven out of his home and country never to return, Knox was imprisoned and tortured, and Tyndale was killed. Change is hard.
But when these Reformers finally began to see their changes take hold, they recognized the danger that if they were successful, too successful, in another few generations their ideas, their reforms might become the new tyranny, the new tool of the powerful elite. And so they enshrined a principle in their teaching. John Knox (the founder of the Presbyterian church) put it this way, in the Scots confession:
“Not that we think any policy or order of ceremonies can be appointed for all ages, times, and places; for as ceremonies which men have devised are but temporal, so they may, and ought to be, changed, when they foster superstition rather than edify the Kirk.”
Change is hard, but change is necessary. Not just once, but continually. From this, a motto emerged among the Reformers: Eccelsia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei. It means “The church reformed, and always being reformed according to the Word of God. In other words, if your church isn’t constantly changing, constantly growing and adapting to new circumstances…you’re not doing it right!
The second half of that motto, secundum verbum Dei (according to the Word of God) is important, too: The reformers did not simply advocate any change for change’s sake. Nor did they believe that change is initiated by human hearts: No, change is initiated through God’s Word (which in reformed tradition is not merely the Bible–it is Jesus Christ, God’s living Word).
Fast forward once again to the year 1955, El Paso Texas. A new and dynamic young pastor had just arrived at First Presbyterian Church–the Rev. Bill Burroughs–and already he was telling his congregation they needed to change. They needed to leave behind their beautiful red-brick building at the corner of Yandell and Mesa, and move further up the mountain to a new location, to build a new and bigger building. This, of course, was crazy talk. This building is where our parents worshiped, and our grandparents, and our great-grandparents–they built this church. You can’t expect us to leave it! And why build a new building? We don’t even fill this one up all the way. And we’ll never be able to afford it.
Rev. Burroughs used today’s passage from Hebrews to remind his flock that God’s house was not built from bricks and mortar, but rather from God’s people: Hebrews 3:6, “We are his house if we hold firm the confidence and the pride that belong to hope.” With confidence, pride, and hope, the people of First Presbyterian Church moved to Murchison street, built this sanctuary, and built a faithful ministry to the people of El Paso–a ministry that long outlasted the far-sighted minister whose vision led them here.
Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei.
The church reformed, and always being reformed according to the word of God.
And now here we are, in the 21st century. What new places, what new ministries is God waiting to lead us into next? In what ways will our church be formed and re-formed in order to reach our world with the same confidence, pride and hope as all those who went before us, preparing the way? How will we change? What will we build?
Hebrews teaches us that “the builder of a house has more honor than the house itself. For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God.”
Some churches build buildings. Some churches build ministries. Some churches build people and relationships.
Whatever we build, people of First Presbyterian Church, whatever we change, may it bring honor and glory to the builder of all things, the one who inspires the change, the one who formed us and who reforms us again and again and again. Thanks be to God.