50 Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God.
2 Kings 23:1-3
1 Then the king directed that all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem should be gathered to him. 2 The king went up to the house of the Lord, and with him went all the people of Judah, all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the priests, the prophets, and all the people, both small and great; he read in their hearing all the words of the book of the covenant that had been found in the house of the Lord. 3 The king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the Lord, to follow the Lord, keeping his commandments, his decrees, and his statutes, with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. All the people joined in the covenant.
Today is April 15th, or as it is sometimes referred to in the church calendar, the Feast Day of St. IRS. You’ve heard of St. IRS, right?
I’m reminded of the story of a little boy who wanted $100 so badly, that he prayed for two weeks but nothing happened. Then he decided to write a letter to God requesting the $100. When the postal authorities received the letter addressed to God, USA, they weren’t sure who to send it to, so they routed it to the White House. When the President received the letter, he was so impressed, touched, and amused that he instructed his secretary to send the little boy a $5.00 bill, as this would appear to be a lot of money to a little boy. A week later, the little boy received the $5.00 in the mail, and was so delighted, he sat down to write a thank-you note to God. It said: Dear God, Thank you very much for sending me the money. However, I noticed that for some reason you had to send it through Washington, DC and as usual, those jerks deducted $95.
May your contributions to St. IRS be relatively painless on this high and holy day. But our sermon today is not about taxes or the IRS. We are in the midst of a seven-part sermon series on WORSHIP. We’ve learned that worship at First Presbyterian Church is Welcoming, Orderly, Reformed, Sacred, Honest, Intelligent, and Public. Today we’re going to focus on the letter “R” which is for “Reformed.”
What does that mean, Reformed?
First of all, it’s a label, an identifier of where we are on the family tree of Christianity, kind of like Catholic or Orthodox. Here in El Paso, when people say Catholic, what they usually mean is Roman Catholic, but there’s also the Byzantine Catholic Church, the Coptic Catholic Church, the Marionite Catholic church and many others. Likewise, in the Orthodox tradition, there’s Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Antiochian Orthodox, etc. All Presbyterian churches are Reformed Churches, along with the United Church of Christ, the RCA (Reformed Church in America), Dutch Reformed Church, Cumberland Church and many (but not all) Baptist and Congregational churches.
Why the label “reformed,” though? Is it because we used to be bad, but then we went to Reform School? (as in, I’m a reformed bank-robber) Kind of, but not quite. We use the label “reformed” to indicate that our church was born out of the 16th century movement known as the Reformation, and more specifically from the followers of the Reformer John Calvin. Reformed churches, then, are Calvinist churches.
What does this have to do with worship?
Well, over the sixteen centuries between the time of the early church up to the reformation, Christian Worship had evolved to become a pretty complex, elaborate affair, full of all sorts of rituals and practices that really didn’t have any connection to scripture or ancient practice. Calvin viewed all of these things as a distraction, and emphasised the need to go back to the basics, back to the simple, unadorned practices of the early church in Acts.
So reformed worship emphasizes simplicity. Calvin went so far as to say that our worship should *only* include things that are specifically commanded by scripture, or that can at least be reasonably deduced from scripture. That’s called the “regulative” principle of worship. By contrast, Methodists, Lutherans, and Episcopalians practice what’s called the “normative” principle of worship–basically as long as scripture doesn’t specifically forbid something, it’s okay to do in worship. That’s why, for example, when we have scout Sunday and we all say the pledge of allegiance together, it comes before the opening prayer and technically is not a part of the worship service.
Alright…some of you clever Presbyterians are probably thinking right now, “wait a minute, Pastor Neal…I get where things like preaching or prayers or songs are in the bible, but what about…announcements?” That’s a great example, actually. We know from Thessalonians 5:27 that Paul’s letters were read out loud to his congregations as part of their worship service. Paul’s letters often contain updates on things happening in the life of the church, as well as opportunities for people to engage with those ministries. So we do likewise.
In many ways, John Calvin and the 16th century Reformers were doing the same thing we find in today’s scripture passage: When King Josiah and the elders of Judah rediscovered the lost books of the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) they made a commitment to “go back to the basics,” to allow their worship to be re-formed by God’s word.
Of course, there is a danger here in thinking that once you have re-formed your worship, it is now perfect and complete for all times and should never be changed or amended in any way.
For that reason, our worship here at First Presbyterian Church is not just “reformed” but it is “reformed…and always reforming.” This is another classic motto of the Presybterian Church. And by classic, I mean it’s in Latin: Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei. That means “the church reformed…and always being reformed according to the word of God.”
For what it’s worth, when we say “the word of God” we don’t *just* mean the Bible (although that’s part of it). For us, the word of God is also the person of Jesus Christ, the word made flesh who dwelt among us.
So our worship is reformed…but we are always open to God’s spirit moving among us, leading us to new ways of seeing and practicing what God calls us to do in worship.
And that’s the hard part. Church people are not exactly known for our love of change. I’m reminded of the story of the prospective pastor who was being interviewed by the search committee. He told them, “If I am voted in your new pastor, I will work hard to bring this church into the 20th century.” Someone spoke up and corrected him: ”Umm, Preacher, don’t you mean the 21st century?” The pastor replied, “Let’s just take it one century at a time, people.”
One of John Calvin’s students, the Scottish minister John Knox (whose followers were the first to be called “Presbyterians”), put it this way:
“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.”
Superstition. What Knox means by this is that if there’s some aspect of worship that is so important to you, so sacred and precious that you would be furious if it were removed…then you may have turned that thing into an idol, a superstitious ritual that is drawing your focus to itself more than to God.
Knox’s words are also a reminder that even though we come to worship as individuals, our worship must edify or build up the entire body, not just one or two people who are most passionate about one or two things.
In both the presbyterian motto, “Reformed and always reforming” and also in our scripture passage from Luke, where we read that after the ascension of Jesus, the disciples were “continually in the temple, blessing God” there is this idea that worship is somthing that is ongoing, continuous, repetitive.
I suppose that if our worship service were set in stone, frozen and perfect for all time, you’d only have to come once. Been there, done that. But the truth is, we change and evolve and grow, both as individuals and as communities.
So here’s an idea: Maybe we should change and evolve and grow together. For that to happen, we as a church have to be open to change…but you as an individual have to keep coming back, keep participating, keep contributing to the worship, and its development, and its re-development through the years.
So. To review all this, when we say that Worship at First Presbyterian Church is Reformed, we mean:
- It’s our tribe, our heritage as the children of the 16th century Reformation. It doesn’t mean we’re right and all other traditions are wrong. It just means we are proud of our tribe and our reformed heritage. We root for our team.
- Reformed Worship is simple, grounded in scripture and ancient tradition. Not fancy, no frills, and to the point. That’s not to say it isn’t beautiful–there is great beauty and elegance in simplicity. We’re like the best kind of healthy food: No preservatives, no sugar added, no artificial colors or flavors. Simple. Natural. Whole.
- While retaining its simplicity and its heritage, Reformed worship is always evolving, always changing…so that an always evolving, always changing people can always encounter the living God, together, in every age, every time, and every place.
Thanks be to God.