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When I was in Seminary (a long time ago!), one of our standard jokes was that when Lutherans referred to “the 7 last words”, we usually weren’t talking about the seven last sayings of Jesus from the Cross. Instead, we were usually referring to the “7 last words” which are frequently the final words in a congregation’s decision making process, “But we’ve always done it that way”!
And in fact, although we often complained about the tendency of people to want to put the wheels in the ruts and keep on doing things just exactly the way we had always done them before, there was often a feeling that we had figured out what worked to make churches run well, and so we should just keep on doing the same things.
And while I can’t remember anybody at Seminary actually saying this, the impression we often got was that we had figured out how to share the Gospel of Jesus with people in our congregations and communities. We knew the programs and the things you needed to do. Oh sure, we knew that we’d need to tweak things – perhaps use the latest and greatest VBS program put out by the church publishers, or incorporate some new music. But the feeling we often got was that if you just kept doing the things we were doing, and did them well – things like sermons and worship services and Sunday School – you could just put the wheels in the rut and keep doing things the way we had always done them until Jesus came.
And it was often the case that when we got to our annual celebration of Reformation Sunday, we felt the same way. Reformation Sunday became the day when we remembered that Martin Luther had reformed the church 500 years ago. He and other reformers had figured out what needed to be done to make the Gospel a real and living reality in the lives of people around them. And all we had to do was to keep on doing the same things until Jesus came and all would be great!
We even sometimes used today’s Gospel text to reinforce that belief. Jesus says, “if you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples.” And we read that to mean that, if we just put the wheels in the rut and continue doing the things Jesus told us to do, we’d be good to go.
Except here’s the thing about that verse. The word we translate as “continue” is the same word Jesus uses later in John’s Gospel to describe the relationship of the vine to the branches. There, the word is translated as “abide.” But that word means that you remain connected. And that you grow. And that you develop. And that you bear fruit. It’s not a static word that means “keep on doing things just the way you’ve always done them.”
And that means that “continuing” in Jesus’ word means staying connected to Jesus in ways that may be different for different people. “Continuing” means constantly being open to growing in your faith, even through events and experiences that you may not have planned and that may not be happy experiences for you. And “continuing” means being willing to do the hard work of bearing the fruit of God’s love in the lives of others, even in ways you didn’t expect to have to bear that fruit.
In fact, “continuing” – in the way Jesus uses the word – is the opposite of “the way we’ve always done it.” And while some things are worth doing again if they still work, reformation is always about being open to growing in our faith in ways that connect more deeply with God; and which grow and develop; and which aren’t the same for each person, each congregation or each season of the life of the Christian community.
One of the great traditions we’ve had at Prince of Peace is that we hear faith statements from some of our Confirmands each year on Reformation Sunday. Council has the opportunity to listen to all of them, and every year we’re amazed at the different ways that the confirmands have grown and developed in their faith, and experienced God working in their lives. The stories we hear in the faith statements remind us that faith is usually not a straight line from one point to the next. Faith often happens in ways, and through experiences, that we might not have imagined. And those statements remind us that faith is still a work in progress, for the confirmands and for us.
And so in just a moment, we’ll listen to a couple of those faith statements. And as you listen, reflect also on your own faith journey. And consider how Jesus is calling you to “continue” in his word, not necessarily by doing things the way you always have, but by being open to a whole variety of experiences in your life through which God is inviting you to continue to connect, to grow and develop and to bear fruit.