One of the resonant themes in Paul’s New Testament epistles is his inclination to rejoice with and about the churches to which he is writing. His letters will often go on to highlight significant concerns about those congregations, and at times will outline things with which he simply cannot agree. But for all these earthly flaws, he is able to rejoice in who they are in Christ. As we mark 500 years of Reformation, I believe that we have similar reasons to rejoice.
For many, Reformation may be perceived as an event in history, but I would argue that it is something far more profound than that. As Christians, irrespective of the tradition to which we adhere, we are those who have been transformed, and are being transformed, by the presence of Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. God is constantly at work, renewing and reshaping His Church – we have every reason to rejoice in a living, dynamic faith that finds expression in a whole range of traditions, creeds and ecclesial structures. None of these have remained unchanged for the last 500 years; God has been at work among all of us.
It would be naïve and unrealistic to suggest that significant differences do not remain. Some of these are cultural and stylistic; others do extend to matters of belief and practice. But like the Apostle Paul, I want to celebrate the fact that I am part of a Church that can be open and honest about those differences, and nonetheless rejoice in who we are together in Christ.
I see 2017 as a milestone in a journey of 500 years of reformation. We cannot deny, particularly in the early days, that the Reformation was scarred with deep-seated division and distrust that too easily erupted into violence, discrimination and bloodshed. But even as we acknowledge this reality, we have cause to rejoice that through the renewing and redeeming presence of God, those same Christian traditions are today able to stand together, speak together, celebrate together - learning from and being enriched by those things that distinguish us.
Sadly, we still live in a world that is marred by division and strife. Recent events in our own nation have revealed how easily human beings can become bitterly divided. We may still have some way to go, but today’s Church can stand as a symbol of hope against that reality, that through grace, humility, repentance and the renewing work of the Holy Spirit, differences can be overcome and mutual respect, honour and affirmation can emerge. We do indeed have good reason to rejoice, not only in who we are, but in the message of hope that we embody.
These things though are just an outward expression of a deeper reality. If I may return to the writings of the Apostle Paul, while he may have rejoiced in the various Christian communities with whom he experienced deep love and fellowship, he repeatedly expressed an even greater reason. Writing to the church on Philippi he simply exclaimed “Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say Rejoice”. It is our common identity in Christ and our common hope in the Gospel that will and must always matter more to us than any earthly difference. Perhaps these differences have even served to help us to recognise with even greater clarity what truly defines us as Gospel people – and this common reality in which we rejoice is one that will last for eternity!
Revd Phil Jump, Regional Minister, North West Baptist Association March 2017