What Does It Mean to Be Presbyterian? 3. Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda

Romans 12:1-8

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

I want to share with you a story I’ve told before, and I want to share it with you because it has a lot to do with what it means to be Presbyterian, although you may not see the connection right away.

Back in 1845, an expedition led by Sir John Franklin set sail from England with a crew of 138 men. The two ships of the expedition set sail amidst a great celebration because they believed this expedition would ultimately find the mythical Northwest Passage across northern Canada, a passage many believed would allow ships to avoid having to sail around the Cape of Magellan at the tip of South America, or the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa, thus cutting thousands of miles off the trip to the Pacific. Whoever found this passage would become the greatest person on earth, and would assure that his country was the most powerful because they would control the lucrative trade with the Orient.

The expedition’s two ships were a marvel. Each ship was a three-masted barque carrying auxiliary steam engines. Each ship contained a 1200 volume library, a hand-organ playing 50 tunes, china place settings for the whole crew, cut glass wine goblets, and ornate silver settings for the officers bearing their initials and family crests. Along with this was a twelve-day coal supply. What the ships didn’t contain were winter clothing, coal reserves for more than twelve days, and other crucial provisions for a passage through the arctic. You see, they expected this to be an easy trip, and so they really didn’t prepare much at all.

The expedition soon passed out of sight. Over the following years, word of the expedition’s fate passed back to England through explorers who had heard from Inuit tribes near the arctic what had become of the expedition. For example, some crewmembers had been seen pushing a wooden boat across the ice. Similar boats were seen at Starvation Cove, along with the remains of 35 men. The remains of thirty bodies were found at Terro Bay. Apparently the Inuit had also seen one of the three-masted barques protruding from the ice at Simpson Strait.

Over the course of the next twenty years search parties recovered skeletons from all over the arctic. Slowly, the story was stitched together. With his ships frozen solid in the ice and unable to move, Franklin died aboard ship. Their supplies exhausted, the remaining officers and men outfitted themselves from the ships’ stores and set out to walk to safety. Eventually, their frozen bodies were found along with their supplies. Often what they took with them was bizarre. For instance, many were found with remains of chocolate, tea, guns, and oddly the place settings of the silver flatware with the officers initials and crests engraved on them. In the end, no members of the expedition survived.

Why do you think Franklin set out for such a cold, cold environment with so many silly things? The answer is simple: he had prepared the way you normally prepare for typical journeys, and he hadn’t realized that this was an atypical journey. The members of the Franklin Expedition died because they set out on a new voyage prepared for the past and not the future. Captain Franklin had a lot of experience sailing normal seas, but had thought very little of the challenges of sailing through a frozen sea. They didn’t bring along enough food, coal, or even winter clothes. He was satisfied that his experiences in the past would be enough for what he faced in the future, and the result of his miscalculation was that he and his crew all died terrible deaths.

You know, one of the main challenges in life is always being prepared for what’s coming rather than for what’s past. You can see this idea reflected in how we live our lives. We spend a tremendous amount of time going to school and college to prepare for the future. In sports we practice and practice to prepare for future games. Unfortunately, as we get older we often become less prepared for what is coming, especially in a religious, spiritual way. For example, how prepared are we ever for dying? How prepared are we for crises where we need God? The church is no different from us as individuals. The church lives in a culture undergoing constant change, but are we prepared for the changes around us, and for meeting them? Are we prepared for the future?

The modern Church is often prepared more for the past than for the future. The answers given by Christianity to the questions of faith so many people have today are often ones that worked in the past, but aren’t adequate for the future. We also struggle with our theologies and ways of worship, because often they reflect a culture that’s past, not one that’s coming.

Why do we have such a hard time adapting to the future. A basic reason is that people often want the Church and their faith to be an anchor for their lives. I’ve heard this often. People say, “I want the Church to be my anchor as I go through difficult times.” Do you know what the problem with being an anchor is? It keeps the ship from sailing. Think about what the purpose of a ship is? It is supposed to sail to new lands. It is supposed to be prepared for that trip. It is supposed to get people from one state of being to another. If a ship is at anchor, it is not really doing what it was created to do. There may be times to be at rest when loading or unloading, but a ship is for sailing. If the church is our anchor, it is leaving us unprepared for the winds of life. Here’s a way of thinking about it. If a hurricane comes, are you safer in your ship at anchor in a harbor, or out at sea? The answer is that you are safer out at sea where you can bob up and down on the waves. If you are at anchor in the harbor, you are in danger of being smashed against rocks, being thrown inland, or, if of being capsized.

John Calvin and the other reformers of the 16th century were very familiar with the problems of wanting church to be an anchor. They surveyed the times and recognized that the Roman Catholic Church was becoming irrelevant for people’s lives. The people of their times were asking new questions of faith, and they were facing new situations with the rise of new forms of government, new technologies, and new ways of living. The Reformers knew that to be a church meant to be a place that struggles to change to adapt to new challenges and situations. That’s why they came up with our phrase for today:
Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda.

Have you ever heard that phrase? It was a popular one in Calvin’s day. It means, “The church reformed, always being reformed.” They used this phrase to remind the church that it had undergone changes in the past, and that it needed to be prepared for changes coming in the future. The idea was that we are a church that has been transformed, and that we always need to be open to being transformed by God. We never stay fixed. We are never an anchor. We are a ship. This does not mean that we make changes for change’s sake. We always hold onto our traditions, but we are willing to upgrade them when times change. Our challenge is always figuring out how to adapt to the future while maintaining ties to the past. This “reformed, always being reformed” was a reponse to the Catholic tradition that had stayed mostly fixed for a thousand years.

You can see how reformata semper reformanda has impacted the Presbyterian Church in its history. For example, back in 1860 the church split over an issue of being reformed. One part of the church wanted to prepare itself for the future, the other part wanted to cling to the past. Do you know what the issue was? Slavery. The northern Presbyterian Church declared it was against God, the southern Presbyterian Church declared it was an institution instituted by God. That split wasn’t healed until reunification in 1983. Back in the 1960s and 70s another split occurred as the church began ordaining women. Again, part of the Church was meeting the challenges of the future, as women in the culture were being more fully included in all areas. That split still hasn’t been healed. Both the Presbyterian Church of America and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church split from us because they were not ready to adapt to a fuller inclusion of women.

This idea of reformata semper reformanda isn’t just for churches. It’s for us as individuals, too. The truth is that the moment our faith becomes fixed is the moment our faith moves off of God. Learning, stretching, and growing is always meant to be part of our faith lives because we are always called to be reformed. Paul teaches us this in our passage for today: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Paul is telling us that if we are content to anchor our lives in the world, to stop growing spiritually, religiously, and theologically, we miss God. God moves on without us. The challenge is to keep moving with God. It’s as though God is constantly beckoning us to grow and move with God, but we have to choose to follow. We have to be prepared to sail to the new ways God is leading us to be, both as individuals and as a church.

A great way of understanding this comes when you watch the short film, “Day and Night,” a Pixar film shown before Toy Story 3. I showed it when I originally preached this sermon, and I would suggest you find a way to watch it. But let me try to describe it (almost impossible).

It starts with a figure sleeping who wakes up. The surrounding landscape is all black, but within him you can see a bright morning landscape. And as he walks, the landscape changes. He breathes in the air, and as he does you see trees within him blowing in the wind. He takes a morning stroll, and walkers walk through a field appearing within him. He is Day. Suddenly, he comes across a dark figure sleeping on the ground, and within him you see a nighttime field with sheep jumping over a fence, signifying that he is asleep, counting sheep. This is Night. Day pokes Night, and the sheep scatter. He wakes up Night, and the two struggle to understand each other. Soon they are in conflict, fighting with each other. Their rigidity about their each being the only valid person has gotten in their way. As they fight, the scenes within them change, demonstrating their moods. Night is filled with cawing crows, Day is filled with angry bees. You can see the two of them above in the picture:

Then something changes. Day steps away from Night, and within his body you see a woman sunbathing. Night, interested in the woman, pushes Day out of the way and steps into the same area, but you only see the same beach at night, with no one there except an empty cup. Day then steps away and shows him a bunch of women sitting, sunbathing around a pool. Night again pushes him out of the way and sees the same pool at night, crickets chirping in the background. Day realizes that there is something of value in himself to Night, so he shows Night all that he can reveal, showing him jets flying in formation, among other things. Night then shows him all he can do, showing Day nighttime fireworks. The two of them begin to develop an appreciation for each other.

As they grow in appreciation, they dance, they celebrate, and then both begin to change. Day starts to turn into Night, and Night turns into Day. They hug as the rising and setting suns within each on of them synchronizes. And they have joy.

This is what it means to be ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda. It means to be people who grapple with changes that we don’t understand, and learn to embrace them as we change for God’s sake.