Today is reformation Sunday when we celebrate and remember how we became the protestant church. But I thought I would start by answering another of the many questions that came to us in our theological panel conversations and that is about the Canon in particular. The Old Testament had been set for some time by Jewish practice, tradition and decisions. But the Western Christian Canon (which includes different books than what is included by the Eastern Orthodox and other Eastern Christian sects, was decided over time. In the early church, the letters or Epistles circulated around as distinct letters but by the end of the 1st century were in some form of collection. The first suggestion of a Christian Canon came about 140AD by Marcion. However, for about 250 years after that there was a great deal of arguing over what should be considered canon and which books would be considered heresy. Origen of Alexandria pretty much used the same 27 books that we now consider the New Testament. So by the year 200, the major writings that we still consider canon today were the central books being used by most Christians. But the first really big and definitive decision about that was made in 393 at the Synod of Hippo Regius in North Africa. St. Augustine headed this council as well as two others that followed it and considered the canon pretty much closed at that point. The book of revelation was the most contested book and in the end, the belief that it was genuinely written by John seems to be at least one of the predominant reason it was included in the Canon. As we know though, with the Protestant reformation, the canon was reevaluated. For example, Luther moved some books that the Catholic church included in their canon into what we now call the Apocrypha which is not considered part of the Protestant canon. What is interesting though is that as a result of the Protestant Reformation, various denominations, including the Catholic church, revisited what was considered Canon. Council of Trent in 1546 decided canon for the Roman Catholic church. Presbyterians decided it around 1647. The response, again, to why some books were included and some weren’t is a long one, each book considered and included or excluded for different reasons, but the main reasons for why a book was included or excluded were centered around three major things: practice, or what had been used most frequently and liturgically, theology and politics. For example: Luther wanted to remove from canon several books that included specifically Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation. The reason was these books seem to argue against the basic protestant reformation ideas of sola scriptura and sola fide (Scripture alone and faith alone for salvation). Luther wanted them removed for these theological reasons. But for political reasons, namely that he could not get support on this from his followers for excluding these books, as well as practice – these books were well used, well loved and strongly appreciated, he was not able to remove these books even into the Apocrypha. For Protestants, the stated criteria for inclusion in the canon were the following:
1. They needed to be of Apostolic Origin — attributed to and based upon the teachings of the first-generation apostles (or people close to them).
2. They needed to have Universal Acceptance — acknowledged by all major Christian communities towards the end of the 4th century (as well as accepted canon by Jewish authorities for the Old Testament).
3. They needed to be in regular Liturgical Use — read publicly and in worship with some consistency.
4. They needed to have a Consistent Message — containing a theological outlook similar to or complementary to other accepted Christian writings.
The parishioner who asked about canon asked very specifically about the gospel of Thomas and why it was not included in the Canon (and it has been excluded from early on). It was not included for several reasons: First, most scholars question its authorship and don’t believe it actually was written by the disciple Thomas. Second, it is a list of sayings rather than a story like the other gospels. Third, many of the sayings are gnostic in their theology, which was considered a big heresy at the time canon was being discussed. And finally, most scholars believe many of the sayings written were things unlikely to have been said by a Jewish Rabbi at the time, in particular, again, the sayings that have a gnostic aspect to them. If you are unsure what Gnosticism is and are curious about it, we can discuss it at another time.
The point here is that there were many writings about faith. There still are. And so criteria were set for what would be considered scripture and what would not, and these criteria were based again on practice, theology, origin, and, realistically, politics.
So that’s the answer to the question that came in. But what does this have to do with the reformation? Or today’s scriptures?
What it has to do with the reformation is that a big and important piece of the reformation was an intense look once again at what was to be considered canon. What it has to do with today’s lesson is that the reformation is a reminder, as were the long debates about what was canon, that we are imperfect people on an imperfect but holy path. We search for wholeness, we seek to follow Jesus. But the best we can hope is that in community we do better than as individuals, and that through time the Holy Spirit continues to speak to us and continues to move us into deeper wisdom, understanding and closeness with God.
Jesus came for the lost. He said this again and again, but he also showed it in his choice of people he picked to visit, to be with, to heal, to transform. People were unhappy that he took the time to be with Zacchaeus. And people are unhappy that our churches are not yet perfect and are not make of perfect people. But that is who Jesus came to be with. Real people, on a journey of creating community that strives to follow Christ: US. That does mean, however, that we can’t stop being people striving to do better. Reformed and always reforming. Or rather, protesting and always protesting. The Protestant reformation was about protesting, about changing what is. It was about standing up against the status quo of the time and insisting on justice for those who are poorer, for those who are underprivileged, for those being used and abused, in the church but also beyond these walls. To quote Rev. Michael Piazza, “The church always has been at its best when it has acted as Jesus did, consistently and persistently, using our energy and strength on behalf of the poor and those who have been pushed to the margins of life. Now, you may agree that this is what the church should do and that it is a great idea to spend the next year protesting, but what about YOU?” Are we still doing what it is we are called to do? Sometimes I wonder if the decline of the church in the United States (and as I’ve mentioned before, this is not a small decline. It is sharp, it is strong, and if predictions are correct, there won’t be a Presbyterian church in another 15 years) is not a condemnation from God on our stuckness again. The prophets warned against this again and again, challenging us to be more loving and more giving and warning that if we weren’t, we would become irrelevant and would therefore die. The Protestant reformation challenged what was happening in the Catholic church at the time because it was becoming corrupt. What is interesting is that while it ended with a split, it also changed the Catholic Church. It reformed them as well as the church came to see its own sin of the time and realized it had to change. The larger Christian church is dying again, and I think it, too, is an indictment in many ways on how internally focused we have become once again. We have become once again about serving each other. But that is not what we have been called to do. And I believe the only way the church will survive is for us to go back to what the protestant reformation was about, or to go back farther to what the prophets preached about, and once again confront the injustice of caring for ourselves over others.
In today’s story, it was not enough for Zacchaeus to just talk with Jesus. His is a story of transformation as all of our stories must be. And it was not just the transformation of Zacchaeus. The man others knew only as “the tax collector” or “the sinner” was called by name, and he was changed by it. But his change did not stop with himself. Because he returned the money, because his behavior changed, his transformation meant the transformation of the larger community as well. Those who had been oppressed by him, used by him, taken advantage by him were now freed too. Our transformation has to look like this as well.
The question is, always, when we come to see who Jesus is, are we willing to change our lives? To change what feels “comfortable and easy”? Are we willing to let go of what we think we want, what we think will make us happy, and instead to be open to the path Jesus wants us to go, to follow in the way, in the path of a man who ends up dead before he ends up resurrected? Does our faith, does our encounter with the living Christ make a difference for us? The question on Reformation Sunday is: are we willing to give up what is comfortable and easy as a church and as individuals to truly follow Jesus? Are we willing to step out to hear what the people of God, God’s children, all of God’s people really need to experience God’s love, God’s grace and God’s presence in this place at this time?
The debates over canon, the protestant reformation, the current church crisis: these are times ripe for challenge of who we are and who we are called to be. Who does God call us to be? That is the question that we are constantly called to ask as we continue to seek to be a church that is reformed and always reforming. Amen.