Always Reforming

Here we are, on Reformation Sunday in the Anglican church with an Anglo-Catholic-Lutheran pastor/priest! That’s quite a combination, don’t you think? Not sure if I’m the right person to preach today, so I’m going to enlist the help of all the Lutherans here. What does Reformation Sunday mean to you? Why do we celebrate it? How has your church marked this day in the past? And what about Anglicans? Was there an Anglican Reformation in the 16th century? (Yes)

In the past month we watched the movie Luther with our Confirmation students and interested parishioners. The movie gave a fairly good account of the turmoil in the 16th century and the religious and social, cultural and political forces that lead to Martin Luther’s rise and his bold stance against Rome. Luther sparked a heated debate with his questions, some of which we don’t seem to get so worked up about today. But in the 16th century, when the church had absolute power and control over people’s lives, Luther’s questions and analyses caused a firestorm: were people to seek salvation for their souls through blindly obeying the Church  or by freely to reading the Scriptures for themselves and to find their salvation through faith in Christ Jesus? Did their hope for heaven come simply from being a card-carrying Catholic or through a direct relationship with their risen Lord? Sadly polemics and politics fostered a growing animosity between Rome and the Reformers.

Many of Luther’s concerns voiced in his 95 Theses in 1517 remained unaddressed for a good 400 years. Finally, in the mid-20th century the RC Church conceded that Luther was right on quite a few points. The Second Vatican Council (1960’s) implemented changes that Martin Luther would have wholeheartedly approved of today. Luther is rightly credited for being the father of religious freedom, from which now stems our ability to see God at work even in other faith traditions.

One important dictum that Rome embraced at Vatican II is: Ecclesia semper reformanda est which is Latin for “the church must always be reformed.” It refers to the conviction that the church must continually re-examine itself in order to remain faithful to the Gospel in doctrine, worship and practice, so as to speak Good News into every time and place.

Thankfully, much has happened in the past 100 years to recover and renew the bonds between church traditions. We can see this locally, regionally and globally. The Lutheran-Anglican Full Communion Covenant, which makes our local partnership possible, the various bi-lateral ecumenical dialogues, the meaningful celebrations last year of the 500th Anniversary. We’re finally burying our ecclesial hatchets. and recognize Christ’s presence and witness in one another – finally.

But remember the Latin phrase I just used: Ecclesia semper reformanda est “the church must always be reformed.” The church must continually re-examine itself in order to remain faithful to the Gospel in doctrine, worship and practice, so as to be able to speak into human dilemmas in every time and space. And so while Martin Luther’s hotly debated questions have finally found some common answers, new questions and challenges have emerged, both inside and outside the church, some of them with a vengeance similar to Luther’s time.

This was evident in Rome – again – in the past month, where an extensive Synod on Youth and Vocations took place. For three solid weeks bishops, priests and religious, young delegates male and female, spoke boldly and loudly about today’s salient questions: the massive migrations of peoples leading to poverty and exploitation, the brutal forms of global violence and animosity which seem to have no end, increasingly hurting and killing innocent people; the challenging realities of LGBTQ people and the churches’ response; the role of women and visible minorities in church and society; secularization, religious pluralism and the church; the fallout from the global clerical sexual abuse crisis, resulting in massive breakdown of trust in and credibility of organized religion; the need for accountability of bishops and all spiritual leaders, and the questionable value of enforced celibacy; racism and colonialism, climate change and eco-injustice hurting Indigenous peoples everywhere the most; the revolution of global communications and social media (akin to the invention of the printing press in Luther’s time), the economic, social and cultural pressures on our youth who feel unequipped and in serious need of solid guidance; the exodus from organized religion by the young (and some old too), the pressing need for the church to listen more than to teach … and on and on and on …

The young delegates minced no words and left no stone unturned – their voices, with the thunder reminiscent of Martin Luther himself, spelled urgency on all fronts. Their list of grievances and challenges, both internal and external to the church, are different than in the 16th century. Yet their list almost sounds like a new version of Luther’s 95 theses.

The youth in Rome pressed the need for substantial reform inside the church in order to meet the challenges of the new world order, in order to make the Gospel sound anew, fresh and inviting, capable to speak to the human heart today once again. Many of these challenges are shared among all Christian traditions. Some observers have already called this moment in history as ripe for another Reformation – hopefully one that will not lead to further fracturing of the Body of Christ.

How would Martin Luther speak into the challenges and crises of our day, and how the Church needs to respond? In two ways. First, Luther would go to the Scriptures as his primary tool for assessing life and seeking God’s guidance. How does the Holy Word of God summon us to address our modern-day challenges and questions? Second, Luther would be unafraid to speak boldly about sin. Addressing the prevalence of sin in each of our hearts remains an essential part of Lutheran witness – that’s why Lutheran worship begins with Confession.

But speaking of sin is kind of a hard sell these days. We hear often that it is no longer fashionable or relevant to speak of sin, that the word/concept is outdated. Naming things sinful today is considered offensive and off-putting (and so it should, right? Was it ever otherwise?). But without an honest reckoning with the reality of sin (what it is, what it isn’t, what to do about it), we become, subtly but surely, less honest with the truth. Without the courage to name and own sin, especially as defined by God’s Holy Word and Christ’s witness, as we hear again in today’s words from Paul’s letter to the Romans and from John’s Gospel, we risk making a mockery of the Gospel. Without the humility and honesty to name sin, we cannot be set free by God’s saving action in Christ Jesus.

Luther argued that sin was a pervasive condition expressed in our daily failure to love God and neighbour rightly, to which we add today a failure to love and treasure creation. Sin cuts through every quality of our being. But Luther also knew that the all-pervasive, subtle yet cruel selfishness that drives every one of us cannot be quantified into a grocery list of wrongful actions.

Sin is much deeper than a grocery list, and we can do nothing to make it better; only God can in Christ Jesus. God does not parcel out mercy to the qualified; because none of us qualify, none of us. God pours out forgiveness on the needy – and that’s all of us. For Luther, there was no compromising this good news.

We receive Christ’s mercy freely, but not cheaply. Being called to account is never easy but it is worth the struggle, so that we may know the power of Christ’s cross and the fullness of His love. There is forgiveness and new life for the taking 24/7. This assurance is what Lutherans, faithful to Luther’s discovery in his personal struggle, can still offer to the church and the world today. And this is why, on this 501st Reformation Sunday, the prayer we prayed earlier in our service today is so important, so relevant and so necessary. The words apply to each of us personally and to our beloved church family in the whole world. In light of today’s massive challenges and crises in both church and world, let us pray this prayer together:

Gracious God,
we pray for your holy catholic church
which includes all of us.
Fill us with all truth and peace.
Where we are corrupt, purify us;
where we are in error, correct us;
where we are amiss, reform us:
where we are right, strengthen us;
where we are in need, provide for us;
where we are divided, reunite …
AMEN

Homily preached on October 28, 2018 — Reformation Sunday.
Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 46, Romans 3:19-28, John 8:31-36

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Celebrate and Mourn

Yes, this is “the” Big Weekend — Reformation weekend. I remember Reformation Sunday 1999 well. It was the first time I found myself, a Roman Catholic then, preaching in a Lutheran pulpit at the invitation of the local pastor. It was a momentous day in Augsburg, Germany, where representatives of the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. The core argument from the 16th century, that lead to Martin Luther’s excommunication, was finally laid to rest. Since that momentous event other church bodies have signed on this Declaration, including the World Methodist Conference, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Anglican Communion. The gaps that have separated the followers of Jesus Christ — the Prince of Peace, the great Reconciler — are closing and healing. Across most of the Christian world a collective sigh of relief and gratitude can be heard —  reconciliation at last.

I have lived the painful divisions in the Body of Christ quite personally for the past 27 years and continue to do so.  As a good Catholic girl I studied at a Lutheran seminary, and discovered to my great surprise that Lutherans and other Christians can indeed be authentic living witnesses to Christ Jesus. Now, twenty-seven years later, I am an Anglican deacon, soon to be priest, and live the deep pain of a closed Roman Catholic communion table, where ecclesial divisions apparently trump the marital communion I live with my own RC spouse on a daily basis.

So when I read about Archbishop of Canterbury and Cardinal Vincent Nichols embracing in tears at communion time, I wept my tears with them. This line in particular hit home: Entirely against the teaching of Jesus Christ, Christians learnt to hate and kill each other, even more than they had done in the past. And Pope Francis said today: “For so long we regarded one another from afar, all too humanly, harbouring suspicion, dwelling on differences and errors, and with hearts intent on recrimination for past wrongs.”  How did it come to this?

If nothing else, I hope with all my heart that we have learnt some hard lessons in humility, restraint and remorse towards one another. In this anniversary year, none other than Pope Francis is illustrating with bold gestures and words that the Christian family has indeed buried its hatchets and is ushering in a new era of healing divisions. This 80-year old pontiff is living up to his title — building bridges wherever there is an openness of heart, risking new initiatives of reconciliation and dialogue. In today’s meeting with the leadership of the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland Pope Francis noted that “Christians of different denominations are living today as true brothers, no longer as adversaries.”

In my own little community on the Canadian prairies, we are slowly following suit. Anglicans, Lutherans and Catholics are gathering on a regular basis now to engage in common prayer and to learn about one another’s faith traditions, assisted by ecumenical documents produced by national and international dialogue groups. With internet access these great ecumenical documents are only one click away. What is harder is to find enough good church folk willing to risk the learning and growing with their sisters and brothers in another church. But in our small prairie town we are making progress. While our Lutheran-Catholic Lenten study this past spring lacked some important conversation partners, this fall’s Anglican-Catholic-Lutheran study is seeing a great three-way denominational mix at the weekly sessions. The discoveries and learning are creating surprise and enthusiasm, yet generating tears of both celebration and mourning. We have so much in common yet, like estranged siblings, we have lost out on so much in these five centuries apart.

In our zeal to confess Christ Jesus as Lord, we still fail miserably to live up to this claim. Let us heed our sorrowful history of internal conflict and strife as a shameful betrayal of the very unity for which our Lord Jesus prayed so fervently when the cross loomed. While old barriers are indeed dissolving, new ones are waiting to take their place. As my little ecumenical study group on the prairies is learning, some church traditions continue to resist relinquishing their own security of being right in order to further the unity for which Christ died. Others look upon smaller traditions are somehow less than, thus ignoring Paul’s summons in 1 Corinthians 12 to regard those members of the body that we think less honourable (to) clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members with greater respect. Time will tell whether we have learnt the lessons both from history and from our Lord Jesus himself.

That Reformation Sunday in 1999, preaching with joy on the Joint Declaration as the fruit of fraternal dialogue, an older woman greeted me after the service. She grabbed both my hands while tears streamed down her face. “I’ve prayed for this all my life,” she managed to say with great emotion. “When I married my Lutheran husband 42 years ago, the Catholic priest told me not to bother coming back to church.” Her words hit me in the stomach. “And when I saw you up there,” she continued, “I knew this was God’s doing.”

Little did I know that my words and presence unleashed God’s healing waters in this woman’s spirit. Words preached that Reformation Sunday by a Roman Catholic woman in a Lutheran pulpit stitched her shattered heart together again. I have carried her, and many others since, with me in my heart and prayers. And so this weekend I both celebrate the remarkable reconciliation we have achieved in the past fifty years as well as shed tears of lament  for the unity which still eludes our reach.

Logo in top image: from Lutheran Church Canada

Update Reformation Day Oct. 31 — Joint Statement from the Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity.

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