Last Spring I was planting vegetables and noticed printed on the plastic wrapper around one tomato plant the slogan, “Deep roots produce abundant fruits.” As I reflected on this claim, I thought about how this applies to my own understanding of ministry and how it shapes the life of the church I serve. I thought about the deep roots of our Reformation heritage and how grateful we should be for this heritage, how it has shaped us in the past, continues to bear fruit in the present, and gives us reason to look ahead in hope to future harvests.
Five hundred years ago Martin Luther nailed a series of objections to church abuses on the castle church door at Wittenberg, sparking a movement that spread across Europe. This act eventually served to renew the church and recover the original forms of the church’s ministry and missional purposes as set forth in Holy Scripture and practiced by the Early Church.
The Medieval Church had neglected the Bible. Most church members were illiterate. For those who could read, the Bible was not available. Luther himself, though well educated, had not seriously encountered the Bible until he entered the monastery. Luther translated the Bible into the vernacular and insisted that ministers preach sermons based on Scripture, and not on whatever happened to come into their heads. This required that ministers be trained. Such training transformed the way ministers preached. Such preaching transformed congregations. Such congregations transformed society.
The Reformation helped to renew the entire church. Regrettably, divisions followed. Protestants like Luther were excommunicated and forced to form their own communities. Later, some groups formed merely because they sought greener pastures or a purer church. I grieve the divisions all too evident among Protestants today, and not least in our own Presbyterian family. This is why I want to remain faithful to the vows I took at my ordination to promote “the peace, purity, and unity” of the church.
We are heirs of Luther and Calvin and other Protestant Reformers, as well as 20th century Protestants such as Barth and Bonhoeffer. But we are also heirs of an older tradition that can be traced from Augustine to Anselm, and runs through Erasmus to Pascal, to G.K. Chesterton. We may not be Roman Catholics, but we are catholic and we confess that we believe in “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church,” and are united as one body by one Spirit to one Lord, Jesus Christ, through one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and in and through all. We Presbyterians are part of God’s one, holy, catholic church that is being reformed continually by God’s Word, which makes us part of a vast company that spans the ages.
How has the Reformation shaped our life together? We confess that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone and not by works, however good we may think them to be. This is evident in the way we go about our work and live our daily lives. Rather than trying to earn our salvation or justify ourselves, we live lives of grateful service because of what Christ has done for us.
The Reformation recognized the importance of the Christian home and sought to encourage families. This is why we seek to encourage husbands and wives to be better Christians, better mothers and fathers, and to help them fulfill their baptismal vows to raise their children “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.”
The Reformation also emphasized the priesthood of all believers. We are members of one body and united in one hope, and each of us has been given gifts to use and duties to perform. Each of us is called to one type of service or another. The priesthood of all believers does not mean full–time ministers are unnecessary or that I can be my own priest. Rather it means the task of ministry is shared. Deacons care. Elders lead. Ministers preach, teach, and provide pastoral care. Yet every Christian is, in one way or another, called to minister.
The Reformation did not teach Christians to focus primarily on their own interior lives but rather led them to focus outwardly in service to God and others. Each of the exit doors in the church I serve has on it a sign, “You Are Entering The Mission Field.” We are coming to understand this more and more. Like Calvin who transformed the city of Geneva, we seek to transform Birmingham, Alabama. We seek to have a Christ–caring spirit of welcome and hospitality. This is why we engage in weekly outreach to the mentally ill, do job training with Christian teaching, care daily for a large number of pre–school children and senior adults with Alzheimer’s, distribute food, provide utility assistance, all in the name of Jesus, trying to answer the question the lawyer asked Him, “And who is my neighbor?”
Certainly the Reformation called us to be “a people of the Book,” which is why we are led into worship with an Open Book. We are called and gathered by the Word to hear God’s Word and to respond in joyful obedience. This is why we gather in small groups throughout the week to study the Bible. The Word of God creates the church, again and again, and so long as the Bible remains open and we remain open to the Bible, and seek to hear and obey its message, we have God’s promise that we will be transformed and renewed.
After 36 years of ministry, witnessing, and sometimes experimenting with all sorts of innovative, smart, and, frankly, stupid techniques, I have seen a lot come and go. From stiff, formal worship services to loose, informal contemporary services, from dabbling in positive, ‘feel–good,’ ‘nothing–negative’ Christianity to intensive catechetical training and memorizing of the Children’s Catechism, I have come full circle and stand in agreement with the great Presbyterian teacher, John Leith. In one of his final volumes, From Generation To Generation, delivered as the Warfield Lectures at Princeton Seminary, he calls us to “The Renewal of the Church According to Its Own Theology and Practice.” Among the gems in this book is Leith’s claim:
The church lives, not by organization and techniques, but by the passionate conviction that Jesus Christ is the Word made flesh, full of grace and truth, that in his death on the cross our sins are forgiven, that God raised him from the dead for our salvation. No technique, skill, or wisdom can substitute for this passionate conviction.
The Reformation reminds us today that tons of clever techniques are not worth one ounce of truth. And the truth is: Jesus Christ builds the church. And He has promised that the gates of hell will not prevail against her, and if we are rooted in Him, we will produce abundant fruit to the glory of God alone.
The Reverend Dr. Edwin Hurley is Senior Pastor of South Highland Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), Birmingham, AL