I want to suggest to you that our culture’s quest for power is based on a fundamental mistake. That fundamental mistake is laid bare in the opening chapter of the Letter to the Ephesians, where we read about power but we also read about something more significant than power. The problem with power is not just that power over death, which is the goal of all quests for power, is and will remain out of our reach – although that is true. The problem is that our quest for power, and for the eternal life we hope that power will bring, is one colossal detour from the quest that we were really made for and the gift that God truly offers us. This accumulation of power is one enormous insurance policy against there being no God. But the insurance policy fails because it’s powerless to deliver eternal life – which is the one thing we need it for. And what God offers us more than anything else isn’t power. What God offers us is glory.
As a Christian I came to see the importance of the Exodus story, with its movement from death to life and from bondage to worship, as the foundation of the story of Jesus and the New Testament. These are not two separate stories, but one whole story. They are both stories of God’s encounter with Death as a power in the world, and God’s will and work for Life, restored and made new according to God’s creation design. The Exodus story of bondage and freedom and the New Testament story of death and resurrection are the two great primal narratives of scripture. All else builds from these.
Even were I not a Baptist, though, I am not sure I could say ‘happy Reformation day’. Surely if Reformation day is to be marked, it should be only partly, at most, in celebration? The church was split, not reformed, by Luther’s intervention. Of course, the recovery and foregrounding of crucial gospel truths should be remembered (and yes, justification sola fide is at least a, if not the, ‘articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae’…) – but is Reformation Day not as much a time to mourn our divisions, to fast and pray that all who are baptised in the triune Name may together confess one Lord, one faith, and one gospel, and share one Eucharist around one table?
‘Happy Reformation Day’ sounds to me like saying ‘Happy Ash Wednesday’ – it is just the wrong salutation.
I recently experienced an extraordinary week, liturgically speaking. I had not expected ever to see its like again.
On a weekday at a lovely country church in Virginia, I (along with a very large gathering) attended the funeral of one of our old friends, an outstanding churchman and servant of the Lord. Arriving early, I sat down to read the program. I could hardly believe my eyes. There were no “reflections,” no “remembrances,” no “eulogies.” There were hymns, Scripture, prayers, the Creed, the commendation…nothing more. I looked again. At the top of the program it did not say “the celebration of the life of…” It said, “The Burial of the Dead, Rite One, Book of Common Prayer.” At my age (76), with thoughts of the end of life becoming more frequent, it was an almost inexpressible comfort to know that this great service still has a future and that not everyone is afraid of the burial of the dead.
When the actual coffin rolled in, my eyes filled…it has been so long since I have seen that happen. It was preceded by the rector, of course, reading the traditional verses, and the large family followed. The hymns had been chosen by the deceased man himself, and reflected both his love of Jesus and his faith in the resurrection. The Gospel reading was the raising of Lazarus, an unusual and very impressive choice.
After the service, everyone walked out of the door, to the tolling of the bell, directly into the churchyard where, with the traditional graveside prayers, the body was laid to rest. That is almost never possible today, but when it is, there really is nothing more perfect. Soil had been brought from the departed man’s beloved farm to put in the grave, and a shovel provided for any who cared to remain and offer this last token of love and farewell.
Only God means what he says so that what he says can be taken literally. God’s “literalism,” the fact that God’s intentions need no bridge to be actualized, means God’s speech - God’s sentences - need no translation. In contrast, we mortals live at a distance from one another as well as ourselves, and that is why we have to write sentences.
LORD, with what care hast thou begirt us round !
Parents first season us : then schoolmasters
Deliver us to laws ; They send us bound
To rules of reason, holy messengers,
Pulpits and sundayes, sorrow dogging sinne,
Afflictions sorted, anguish of all sizes,
Fine nets and stratagems to catch us in,
Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,
Blessings beforehand, tyes of gratefulnesse,
The sound of glorie ringing in our eares ;
Without, our shame ; within, our consciences ;
Angels and grace, eternall hopes and fears.
Yet all these fences and their whole aray
One cunning bosome-sinne blows quite away.