This year Reformation Day falls on Saturday 10/31. To this end, it may be transferred to Sunday 10/25. The sermon is ready and the pastor is up hours early, excited to take Mrs B on a Fall adventure. Fall is my favorite season, but Reformation Day is in my top 5 least favorite preaching days.
Sometimes we hear “disunity” sermons preached on Reformation Day, sounding like, “We Are Right They Are Wrong,” or, “Thanks Be To God We Are Not Like Them,” or maybe even, “Someday We’ll Be Together—Just Not Today.” This invites no one into communion. We highlight the brokenness. We seek our own definition by defining ourselves against other Christian denominations. Rather than seeing who or what we are, we are prone to point at others saying, “Not like them over there.”
And here comes Reformation Day with great texts to ponder and wonderful prayers to pray. But our major challenge is how to preach being “made free by the Son” when our conduct declares us to be bound by something. Are we bound, even enslaved, and do not know it? Are we freed yet living as slaves?
Do such patterns of conduct lock us into preaching patterns that further bind one another under chains of disunity and shackles of division?
I wonder such things as these. And I wonder if the root of these binding, diving patterns isn’t deep in the basic fabric of our human relationships.
Earlier this week a pastor in another corner of the USA reached out to me to process rotten conduct of people who essentially punished people from the grave by crafting a funeral that highlighted painful decisions made during life by the deceased, etc. It is a story that could have come out of my family of origin with little to no editing required.
Along this same line another came to me, broken, hurting, that family members were excluding others at a wedding due to some stinky conduct.
Even in my extended family such dramas unfold.
We humans have an uncanny talent for dividing, excluding, seeking to project who is/is not of us.
We do it as individuals and do it as groups of individuals. The embarrassingly large number of Christian denominations claiming a monopoly on Truth is sufficient evidence to convince me that division rather than unity is our Reformation legacy. And denominations are so very excellent at defining ourselves against the others that sometimes we even institutionalize methods of exclusion born from our definitions. Some of us creatively do it by inventing a non-denominational church—which is in essence its own denomination.
Yes, I believe we might live as slaves in this regard even though the Son has made us free. And in this we have a preaching challenge for Reformation. Perhaps our challenge is to preach freedom to a people who are already freed yet live as though they are enslaved.
Perhaps these Desmond Tutu quotes might help us ponder our proclamation by being a lens through which to consider how we might embrace and receive our freedom:
“Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.”
“Forgiveness is nothing less than the way we heal the world. We heal the world by healing each and every one of our hearts. The process is simple, but it is not easy.”
And maybe a Stanley Hauerwas sermon might be a second lens to help us see where chains and shackle bind:
“I must begin by telling you that I do not like to preach on Reformation Sunday. Actually I have to put it more strongly than that. I do not like Reformation Sunday, period. I do not understand why it is part of the church year. Reformation Sunday does not name a happy event for the Church Catholic; on the contrary, it names failure. Of course, the church rightly names failure, or at least horror, as part of our church year. We do, after all, go through crucifixion as part of Holy Week. Certainly if the Reformation is to be narrated rightly, it is to be narrated as part of those dark days.
Reformation names the disunity in which we currently stand. We who remain in the Protestant tradition want to say that Reformation was a success. But when we make Reformation a success, it only ends up killing us. After all, the very name ‘Protestantism’ is meant to denote a reform movement of protest within the Church Catholic. When Protestantism becomes an end in itself, which it certainly has through the mainstream denominations in America, it becomes anathema. If we no longer have broken hearts at the church’s division, then we cannot help but unfaithfully celebrate Reformation Sunday.
For example, note what the Reformation has done for our reading texts like that which we hear from Luke this morning. We Protestants automatically assume that the Pharisees are the Catholics. They are the self-righteous people who have made Christianity a form of legalistic religion, thereby destroying the free grace of the Gospel. We Protestants are the tax collectors, knowing that we are sinners and that our lives depend upon God’s free grace. And therefore we are better than the Catholics because we know they are sinners. What an odd irony that the Reformation made such readings possible. As Protestants we now take pride in the acknowledgment of our sinfulness in order to distinguish ourselves from Catholics who allegedly believe in works-righteousness.
Unfortunately, the Catholics are right. Christian salvation consists in works. To be saved is to be made holy. To be saved requires our being made part of a people separated from the world so that we can be united in spite of — or perhaps better, because of — the world’s fragmentation and divisions. Unity, after all, is what God has given us through Christ’s death and resurrection. For in that death and resurrection we have been made part of God’s salvation for the world so that the world may know it has been freed from the powers that would compel us to kill one another in the name of false loyalties. All that is about the works necessary to save us.
For example, I often point out that at least Catholics have the magisterial office of the Bishop of Rome to remind them that disunity is a sin. You should not overlook the significance that in several important documents of late, John Paul II has confessed the Catholic sin for the Reformation. Where are the Protestants capable of doing likewise? We Protestants feel no sin for the disunity of the Reformation. We would not know how to confess our sin for the continuing disunity of the Reformation. We would not know how to do that because we have no experience of unity.
The magisterial office — we Protestants often forget — is not a matter of constraining or limiting diversity in the name of unity. The office of the Bishop of Rome is to ensure that when Christians move from Durham, North Carolina to Syracuse, New York, they have some confidence when they go to church that they will be worshiping the same God. Because Catholics have an office of unity, they do not need to restrain the gifts of the Spirit. As I oftentimes point out, it is extraordinary that Catholicism is able to keep the Irish and the Italians in the same church. What an achievement! Perhaps equally amazing is their ability to keep within the same church Jesuits, Dominicans, and Franciscans.
I think Catholics are able to do that because they know that their unity does not depend upon everyone agreeing. Indeed, they can celebrate their disagreements because they understand that our unity is founded upon the cross and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth that makes the Eucharist possible. They do not presume, therefore, that unity requires that we all read Scripture the same way.
This creates a quite different attitude among Catholics about their relation to Christian tradition and the wider world. Protestants look over to Christian tradition and say, ‘How much of this do we have to believe in order to remain identifiably Christian?’ That’s the reason why Protestants are always tempted to rationalism: we think that Christianity is to be identified with sets of beliefs more than with the unity of the Spirit occasioned through sacrament.
Moreover, once Christianity becomes reduced to a matter of belief, as it clearly has for Protestants, we cannot resist questions of whether those beliefs are as true or useful as other beliefs we also entertain. Once such questions are raised, it does not matter what the answer turns out in a given case. As James Edwards observes, “Once religious beliefs start to compete with other beliefs, then religious believers are — and will know themselves to be — mongerers of values. They too are denizens of the mall, selling and shopping and buying along with the rest of us.”
In contrast, Catholics do not begin with the question of “How much do we need to believe?” but with the attitude “Look at all the wonderful stuff we get to believe!” Isn’t it wonderful to know that Mary was immaculately conceived in order to be the faithful servant of God’s new creation in Jesus Christ! She therefore becomes the firstborn of God’s new creation, our mother, the first member of God’s new community we call church. Isn’t it wonderful that God continued to act in the world through the appearances of Mary at Guadalupe! Mary must know something because she seems to always appear to peasants and, in particular, to peasant women who have the ability to see her. Most of us would not have the ability to see Mary because we’d be far too embarrassed by our vision.
Therefore Catholics understand the church’s unity as grounded in reality more determinative than our good feelings for one another. The office of Rome matters. For at least that office is a judgment on the church for our disunity. Surely it is the clear indication of the sin of the Reformation that we Protestants have not been able to resist nationalistic identifications. So we become German Lutherans, American Lutherans, Norwegian Lutherans. You are Dutch Calvinist, American Presbyterians, Church of Scotland. I am an American Methodist, which has precious little to do with my sisters and brothers in English Methodism. And so we Protestant Christians go to war killing one another in the name of being American, German, Japanese, and so on.
At least it becomes the sin of Rome when Italian Catholics think they can kill Irish Catholics in the name of being Italian. Such divisions distort the unity of the Gospel found in the Eucharist and, thus, become judgments against the church of Rome. Of course, the Papacy has often been unfaithful and corrupt, but at least Catholics preserved an office God can use to remind us that we have been and may yet prove unfaithful. In contrast, Protestants don’t even know we’re being judged for our disunity.
I realize that this perspective on Reformation Sunday is not the usual perspective. The usual perspective is to tell us what a wonderful thing happened at the Reformation. The Reformation struck a blow for freedom. No longer would we be held in medieval captivity to law and arbitrary authority. The Reformation was the beginning of enlightenment, of progressive civilizations, of democracy, that have come to fruition in this wonderful country called America. What a destructive story.
You can tell the destructive character of that narrative by what it has done to the Jews. The way we Protestants read history, and in particular our Bible, has been nothing but disastrous for the Jews. For we turned the Jews into Catholics by suggesting that the Jews had sunk into legalistic and sacramental religion after the prophets and had therefore become moribund and dead. In order to make Jesus explicable (in order to make Jesus look like Luther — at least the Luther of our democratic projections), we had to make Judaism look like our characterization of Catholicism. Yet Jesus did not free us from Israel; rather, he engrafted us into the promise of Israel so that we might be a people called to the same holiness of the law.
I realize that the suggestion that salvation is to be part of a holy people constituted by the law seems to deny the Reformation principle of justification by faith through grace. I do not believe that to be the case, particularly as Calvin understood that Reformation theme. After all, Calvin (and Luther) assumed that justification by faith through grace is a claim about God’s presence in Jesus of Nazareth. So justification by faith through grace is not some general truth about our need for acceptance; but rather justification by faith through grace is a claim about the salvation wrought by God through Jesus to make us a holy people capable of remembering that God’s salvation comes through the Jews. When the church loses that memory, we lose the source of our unity. For unity is finally a matter of memory, of how we tell the story of the Reformation. How can we tell this story of the church truthfully as Protestants and Catholics so that we might look forward to being in union with one another and thus share a common story of our mutual failure?
We know, after all, that the prophecy of Joel has been fulfilled. The portents of heaven, the blood and fire, the darkness of the sun, the bloody moon have come to pass in the cross of our Savior Jesus Christ. Now all who call on that name will be saved. We believe that we who stand in the Reformation churches are survivors. But to survive we need to recover the unity that God has given us as survivors. So on this Reformation Sunday long for, pray for, our ability to remember the Reformation – not as a celebratory moment, not as a blow for freedom, but as the sin of the church. Pray for God to heal our disunity, not the disunity simply between Protestant and Catholic, but the disunity in our midst between classes, between races, between nations. Pray that on Reformation Sunday we may as tax collectors confess our sin and ask God to make us a new people joined together in one might prayer that the world may be saved from its divisions.” (1995 Reformation Sermon)