As you’ve figured out by now, it’s Reformation Sunday, that Sunday of the year when we Protestants celebrate our reformed heritage and give a little thought as to what it means to be reformed today.
Coming to the Presbyterian Church in mid-life, as I did, I wasn’t used to celebrating the Reformation, so I had a lot to learn. And one of the first things I learned was what amounts to the battle cry of all good Protestants: Ecclesia reformata, sempre reformanda: We are a church that’s reformed, and ever-reforming.
No matter how solid we may be in our faith, there’s always room for improvement. Besides, the world around us is anything but static. It’s dynamic, changing, always on the move. If we’re to take seriously the needs of the world, we have to be engaged in an on-going process of revitalization and renewal.
Think of it this way: To be reformed is to be formed again and again in the image of God and in the likeness of Jesus Christ.
That goes for us as individuals and for us as a congregation. The question is how do we go about being reformed? As I studied the gospel lesson for today, it occurred to me that the answer is right here before our eyes. The basic steps to being reformed are right here in this little story. Let’s look at it together.
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The story begins as Jesus arrives in Jericho on his way to Jerusalem. Because we live on this side of the Cross, we know it’s going to be a one-way trip: When he reaches the outskirts of Jerusalem, he’ll get on a donkey and make his triumphal entry, and then he’ll go to the Temple where he’ll drive out the money changers. He’ll teach in the portico of the Temple and rile up the elders. Then on Thursday night he’ll celebrate the Passover with his disciples in an upper room. Afterward, he’ll go to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he’ll be arrested and taken to Caiaphas’ house, where he’ll placed in a dungeon to spend the night. The next day he’ll be taken before Pontius Pilate and condemned to die.
So, he’s made it as far as Jericho. The streets were crowded with others on their way to the Holy City to celebrate the Passover. As he walked along the street, he passed a blind beggar sitting by the side of the road. Mark says the beggar’s name was Bartimaeus. I’ll tell you why that’s important in just a moment.
Bartimaeus cried out, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stopped and said, “Come here. What do you want me to do for you?” And Bartimaeus said, “Rabbi, let me see again.” Jesus said, “Go, your faith has made you well,” and, just like that, his eyes were opened, and he could see once more. Instead of going back to begging on the side of the road – or to whatever it was he did before he became blind – Bartimaeus became a disciple and followed Jesus to Jerusalem, never to go back to his old way of life again.
Well, that’s the story of Bartimaeus. The question is what does it tell us about being reformed? What are the basic steps leading to reformation? The first is repentance. The drama begins as Bartimaeus cries out, “Jesus, you son of David, have mercy on me!” and confesses his need of God’s grace.
I think it’s safe to say had Bartimaeus been told that Jesus was coming, and, for whatever reason, chose to keep quiet, nothing would’ve happened. I wonder how many other beggars there were that day sitting by the side of the road who were also told that Jesus was coming. Only Bartimaeus cried out. Only Bartimaeus was healed.
What do you think? If Jesus were to pass your way this morning, would you cry out for mercy? There are lots of reasons why you might not. You might be afraid of what others would say. In fact, Mark says the people around Bartimaeus tried to get him to shut up.
Or, you might be ashamed to admit you’ve got a problem and need some help. Sometimes we’d rather wallow in our brokenness than swallow our pride.
Or, you might be in denial. “Problem? I don’t have a problem. What are you talking about? I can see just fine. It’s just real dark all the time. That’s all.”
The point is, had Bartimaeus not cried out to Jesus, he would’ve still been walking around with a cane. Only until we’re willing to confess our need of healing are we likely to experience God’s grace and love. Repentance is the first step to being reformed in the image of Christ, and it begins with a simple act of contrition: “Lord, have mercy.”
For some reason – I guess it’s human nature – that’s so hard for us to do. In his commentary on today’s text, Brian Stoffregen says one way we might get over our hang-up is to accentuate the “Kyrie” in worship.
Just so that you know, in the ancient liturgy of the church, the first part of the worship service included saying or singing the words, Kyrie Eleison: “Lord, have mercy; Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.”
Well, Brian says that instead of just mouthing the words, we ought to have half the congregation shout at the top of their lungs: LORD, HAVE MERCY; CHRIST HAVE MERCY …” while, at the same time, the other half of the congregation would say, “Shhh, not so loud. We’re Presbyterians, after all! Tone it down.”
Whether we do that or not, the first step to reformation is repentance – admitting you’ve got a problem. That leads to the second step: Asking the Lord to help you do something about it.
When you heard the story read from the Bible just a few minutes ago, did it strike you as odd that, when Jesus called Bartimaeus to come to him, the first thing he asked was, “What do you want me to do for you?” How silly is that? Wasn’t it obvious that Bartimaeus was blind and wanted to see again?
The answer is: Not necessarily. You can recognize what other people need all day long, but until they recognize it for themselves and want to do something about it, there’s not much you can do.
We don’t always say what we think – thank God for that! – but often, what we’d like to say are things like: “You need to lose some weight” … “You need to stop smoking” … “You need to get more exercise.” Of course, if we did say what we were thinking, the other person would probably say, “Yeah, and you need to mind your own business!”
The point is no matter what the problem is, until it’s a problem for you, you’re not likely to do much about it. Only when you’re willing to name the problem and ask God for the strength to overcome it, will you feel the power of His Spirit moving within you.
So, let’s see: The first step toward reformation is repentance: “Lord, have mercy.” The second is request: “that I may see again.” The third is restoration. And, as we see in the story of Bartimaeus, restoration is a gift. Jesus said, “Your faith has made you well”—and just like that, Bartimaeus could see again.
To be honest, this is something I struggled with as I grappled with the text this week: “But don’t we have to do something? The answer is yes and no.
When I was growing up on South Main Street, we’d play baseball in the backyard. Every once a while, one of us would hit the ball out of the park, which, in our case, meant hitting it into the Reynerson’s back yard. If we really hit a boomer, we’d break out a window. And when that happened, we’d have to stop the game and whoever broke the window would have to go over and fess up and promise to get it fixed.
So, yes … I suppose restoration requires some effort on our part – we have to pay for the damage we’ve caused. But, on a deeper level, there’s a lot more to restoration than this. When you hurt others deeply, it takes a long time for them to get over it, no matter how sorry you are. It takes a long time to restore trust, once it’s broken, to regain the respect of others. We this most clearly in our elected officials. Once they abuse the power of their office, it takes a long time to restore public confidence.
It’s at this point where I’m convinced that restoration is a gift: No matter how much I may regret hurting you, and no matter how much I’m willing to grovel to convince you that I’m sincere; it’s really up to you. Only you – the one who’s been hurt – can say the magic words, “I forgive you. I’ll give you another chance.”
Bartimaeus confessed his blindness and his need of God’s grace and love; he asked Jesus to let him see again; and Jesus restored his eyesight. He said, “Go your way. Your faith has made you well.” And just like that, Bartimaeus could see once more. I’d like to say he had 20-20 vision.
Well, this leads to the fourth and final step to being reformed, and that’s response: What are you going to do with this new self-image you’ve been given through faith in Jesus Christ?
That’s what makes the story of Bartimaeus so compelling because, of all the people Jesus healed and raised from the dead, Bartimaeus was one of the few who responded by following Jesus. Check it out – there’s Peter’s mother-in-law, Jairus’ daughter, a woman who’d been bleeding for umpteen years, and a smattering of demon-possessed individuals. And then there’s, Bartimaeus, along with Mary Magdelene and Lazarus, whom we know by name.
That’s because, instead of saying, “Thank you very much,” and going on about his business, Bartimaeus left his old life behind and followed Jesus. Presumably, he became a witnesses to the resurrection and a voice proclaiming the promise of new life in Christ for all who believe.
Just in case you didn’t get it the first around, here’s how Mark ends the story: “… he (i.e., Bartimaeus) received his sight, and followed (Jesus) in the way.” We remember Bartimaeus and know him by name, not because Jesus healed him of his blindness, but because, once he could see, he devoted his life to Jesus Christ.
And this is what I’d like to leave you with: Being reformed is not complete until we leave the past behind and embrace the future God has in store for us. Christ makes all things new, including us … including this church. But until we’re willing to respond and put this new life to work, it’s all for naught.
I love this little story Will Willimon tells. He says,
“I was teaching a sixth grade Sunday school class (a wretched age), and was telling them, in as vivid detail as I knew how, of the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus, how the soldiers carried him away, how Pilate and the people conspired to do Jesus in. A hand went up, ‘Yes, Bradford, what is it now?’ ‘I wanna know where was the rest of them … when things got rough for Jesus?’ ‘The disciples? Oh, they were long gone,’ I replied. ‘No, the rest of them,’ he persisted. ‘Whatever became of all them that he helped, the ones he healed? Now that they had two good legs to walk on and two good eyes to see, where was they when them soldiers come to get Jesus?’ ‘Well, I don’t know, Bradford.’ ‘Yeah you do,’ the little sinner said softly. ‘They was just like most folks. They got what they wanted. Now they was gone.’
Brothers and sisters: We’re people of the Reformation. We’re called to be reformed, and ever-reforming. The Good News is Jesus Christ is the Lord of our lives and the head of the Church. By his grace, we can be refreshed, replenished and renewed each day. So, let’s learn the steps of being reformed and take them with us each day:
• Repentance: “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
• Request: “Help me to see, make me whole, give me strength.”
• Restoration: The gift of being healed, forgiven, and given another chance.
• And response: Leaving the past behind and following in joyful obedience.
By God’s grace, be reformed this day and forever more, to the glory of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Copyright 2006, Philip McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.