Who Reforms the Reformers?
a post-script homily
This is the homily David Harvey and I discussed yesterday. As you’ll see, it is addressed to bishops in our communion. That’s really the only bit of context that you need, I think. For further backgrounding, I highly recommend listening to this lecture and reading this review, both by Rowan Williams.
Your graces, I called my father this morning and asked him to pray for me because I have to preach to bishops. The same goes for all of you in the room—except the bishops, of course; you’re the ones we’re praying about!
Before turning to today’s readings (2 Kgs 23.4-25; 1 Cor. 12.1-11; Mt 9.18-26), I’m going to set out three statements, seemingly unrelated. I want you to consider, prayerfully, what the Lord might be saying to us about their hidden relation.
First, a statement from Patriarch Ignatius of Latakia, delivered at WCC meeting in 1968:
"Without the Holy Spirit, God is far away, Christ stays in the past, the Gospel is a dead letter, the Church is simply an organization, authority a matter of domination, mission a matter of propaganda, liturgy is only nostalgia, and Christian living a slave morality. But with the Holy Spirit, God is with us, the universe is resurrected and groanswith the birth pangs of the kingdom, the risen Christ is here, the Gospel is a living force, the Church is a communion in the life of the Trinity—the body of the living Christ— authority is a service that liberates, mission is Pentecost, the liturgy is memory and anticipation, and human action is God’s work in the world."
Second, a statement known as the Oscar Romero prayer, but in fact written by Fr. Ken Untener for Cardinal Dearden’s homily on the occasion of a mass for deceased priests in 1979:
"It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us. No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the Church's mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything. This is what we are about: We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own."
Third, a statement by Robert W. Jenson, the Lutheran ecumenist and theologian, and a decisive influence for me. It is, I warn you, quite the (sanctified?) let-down: “The preaching and liturgical practice and pastoral care that will liberate from superstition is preaching and liturgy and counseling inspired and normed by the strictest Cyrillean Christological orthodoxy.”
Now, what does that have to do with anything? What hath prophecy and the Spirit of prophecy to do with doctrine? What hath passion for God and the power of God to do with orthodoxy? Jesus, what are you saying to us?
As you all know very well, we have been nurtured in churches that emerged from the holiness, healing, evangelistic, and charismatic movements that began as drives for revivalist, end-time reform. And the texts we’ve heard today all sit squarely at the heart of that revivalist canon-within-the-canon. Talk about faith, gifts and manifestations of the Spirit, miracles, signs, and wonders, the shattering of idols, the pulling down of strongholds, the pressing in to the presence of God, the power of the touch of Jesus—nothing could be more natural for us, more common to us.
But I suspect these texts landed on us as confirmation of our history, reassuring us that reform like Josiah’s comes when we open ourselves to the gifts of the Spirit and press through the crowd to touch Jesus for ourselves. Revival, in other words, is the natural outcome of passion for God and exercise of the charismata. But what happens when we are the crowd others have to fight through? When we are the priests and altars a new Josiah has to overturn?
Here are the questions that lodged in my heart as I read these texts: Who reforms the reformers? What if our worship becomes defiled? Would we recognize it? How would we recognize it? What would we do about it? What happens when what passes for “prophecy” is no more than sharing our personal opinions in a loud, trembling voice? Or, worse, when it is merely channeling the propaganda of the principalities and powers? What happens when we confuse the stirrings of the spirits of the age for the work of God the Spirit? What happens when “faith” becomes a form of conjuring? When “the move of the Spirit” is a wizardry effected by some mixture of staging, technique, self-generated passion, and the charisma of the leader?
“When you come together it is not for the better but for the worse.” Do we believe the same could be said of us? (No, of course we do not!) Could it be that our gatherings, our ministries actually make it harder for people to know the Lord, to love their neighbors, to welcome strangers, to trust their shepherds, to sit with the sick in silence, to live at peace with themselves, to forgive those who’ve wronged them, to pray without wrath and doubting?
Conventional Christianity—the dominant or mainline form of Christianity in any given place and time—is always bad. Not always toxic, mind you, at least not at first, but always essentially compromised. From the start, conventional forms of Christianity in America have, for the sake of convenience, conformed to the (political, cultural, economic) pressures of its age. That was and is true of mainline Protestants in one way. It was and is true of evangelicals and charismatics in another.
Let’s remember why we are here in this “convergence” movement. God has brought us “back in line” (what else would succession be?) for the sake of the future of his people, no? So, what is the Spirit saying to us, to you and me, here and now? What kind of reform do we need? How will it come?
We know the answer: exactly as Josiah’s reform came, as all true reforms come—by a return to the wisdom of God that has been handed down to our faithful mothers and fathers. We, exactly like Israel of old, have to repent, to go back to the wisdom of the Spirit our mothers and fathers learned by bearing their cross and suffering with the least of their generations, those left-behind by the conventional arrangements of their day. We have to humble ourselves to return to what God has already done and said rather than waiting on some “new thing” to emerge that we can take credit for having started and managed.
The only force that liberates us from the superstitions of conventional Christianity is truly traditional Christianity—not traditionalism, obviously, but the faith once delivered to the saints and ever enlivened by the Spirit. Canon, creed, sacraments, ordained ministry—illumined by the Spirit of baptism, lived in humility, these practices direct our attention to Jesus and the goodness of God that he reveals. And as we contemplate him, God-in-the-flesh, Mary’s son and Pilate’s victim, we begin to see how the will of God must be done in the world and how we can cooperate with it.
We are called to be prophetic. And with and within the Holy Spirit we are. But if we do not break with the conventional and return to the traditional we will soon have forgotten altogether what the Gospel really means, or why it matters that God has revealed himself as Trinity, or how it can be that human action is God’s word in the world, or what God’s will for the world even is.
It is not too late. But now is the time to rise out of dead things, to “practice resurrection.” We cannot expect those who follow our lead to embody what we fail to incarnate. They cannot imitate our faith if we do not receive and hand on the faith faithfully. That is why the Spirit presses us toward the altar, where Christ is given to us in his sufferings, so we can lay down what we’ve been told we should want and take up what God knows we truly need.
Josiah’s reform ended with the bones of the bad priests burning on their broken altars.
True reform begins with bad priests being consumed by the presence of Christ in the breaking of bread at his table.