Summary: A Sermon for Reformation Sunday - the last Sunday in October
At St. Columba’s United Reformed Church in Oxford, where I spent many happy years, the premises are a little bit old and rambling. In a far away corner, not often visited was a hidden away toilet. This was always known as the Calvinist toilet, because it was very dark and gloomy. It’s a sure fire bet that outside specialist theological circles, Calvinism always creates images of puritanical prohibition of enjoyment, of doom and despondency, and the one word that immediately creates revulsion: predestination.
But I want to challenge you that we consider some of this, and see that it has a relevance of our lives and faith today - don’t worry I won’t get technical or use long words. Today, the last Sunday of October is traditionally marked as Reformation Sunday, being the Sunday nearest to when Martin Luther nailed up his ninety-five propositions, began the popular movement of the Reformation. It was something that Reformed Churches, of which, of course, the United Reformed Church is the main representative in England, marked regularly, but has fallen out off the agenda in recent years. This year is five hundred years since the birth of John Calvin, the father of Reformed theology, in 1509, so it seems an ideal year to revive this sadly neglected area.
Calvin and Calvinism have something of a bad name today, as we’ve already noted. We need to be clear that Calvin was doing the right thing in the situation and circumstances in which he was living. We don’t live in those situations and circumstances today, and we shouldn’t adversely judge the actions of a different historical age solely because we can’t make sense of it in our own age. The biggest alleged horror of Calvin is predestination. Nowadays every sane person knows that the suggestion that some people are automatically saved and some automatically damned is total nonsense, and no-one seriously suggests that is what Christian faith is all about. In preaching predestination, Calvin was doing nothing different from everyone else five hundred years because, as we heard from Ephesians, predestination is in the Bible. We should not condemn those who did was natural in their day, but might do things very differently, had they lived in our age.
Moving on, I’m going to mention - in simple terms - a few important aspects of what Reformed theology has to offer and why it’s relevant to our faith today.
1. The sovereignty of God. An important characteristic of Reformed theology is that God is in charge. God reigns over all, in charge of everything. The Reformed ethos is that each and every one of us at all times, lives before our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. We’re all living under God. We place our lives before God, whose glory and purpose are more important than anything else. Religion is not something that exists to satisfy our needs, or to give meaning to our lives, but how we acknowledge, praise, and serve our God. God is the beginning and the end of all things. God, is utterly indescribable, sovereign of all, but also immediate and everywhere. We can only come before God with empty hands and open hearts.
This is a tall order. There are many pressures on us from so many different directions. Do we always give God the place that he deserves in our pecking order? Is God the most important person in our lives, or someone or something to which we turn when we remember, or when other avenues are exhausted? And is our church a community in which we gather under God, always seeking what God wants? Or do we stray into being a club? God is sovereign over all, and includes each and every one of us.
2. The authority of the Bible. All Reformed churches believe in the importance, the centrality, of the Bible. The United Reformed Church expresses it this way:
The highest authority for what we believe and do is God’s Word in the Bible, alive for his people today through the help of the Holy Spirit.
This is quite important. In no way are we, or should we be, fundamentalists. We do not believe or suggest that every word printed in the Bible is literally true. What we are saying is that with the help of the Holy Spirit to guide us, we can interpret the Bible to understand how God speaks his Word to us through scripture.
Within the Bible there are some passages that contradict each other, and some passages that are bizarre. We do not suggest that the authority for God’s Word relies upon any individual verse, but the whole of scripture and its overall message, along with the Holy Spirit to guide us.
One author describes the authority of the Bible with this analogy: “a trusted friend, on whose impressions and interpretations of an all important event or experience we place reliance”.