To be sure, The Protestant Reformation was a “decisive moment,” but is it really one worth singing about? If yes, then my inclination is to sing a song of lament rather than celebration. As a pastor serving my first congregation, I was drawn to All Saints’ Day remembrance but never considered a whole Sunday dedicated to the Reformation. Perhaps this is easy because I am not Lutheran. But it seems strange to celebrate the fact that Christ’s body is broken and battered. Yes, there was a day when Catholics were suspect as “un-American,” and they in turn were not supposed to darken the door of a Protestant Church (as my RC friends tell me). But times have changed. As Peter Gomes of Harvard points out:
That, thank God, is mostly ancient history. Now Roman Catholics routinely sing “Amazing Grace” and “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” and for many Protestants the pope is one of the few bastions of orthodoxy left standing. Catholic bashing is not the “done thing” on Reformation Sunday, and a Protestant identity that continues to define itself by what it is not is in an increasing state of crisis.
Of course, this leads to a dilemma that Gomes names: What to do on Reformation Sunday?
I am in a church where Reformation Sunday is an option not normally taken. But for the wider Church, I must ask: why celebrate this day? Why not an Ecumenical Day (instead of, not in addition to)? Surely World Communion Sunday sends a better message. As a corollary, I wonder of the Orthodox celebrate their break with Rome on a particular Sunday?
The gospel lection for this past Reformation Sunday was from John 8:31-36:
31Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?” 34Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.
Of course it is ironic that we read from John to preach on Reformation Day; it is John’s Gospel, afterall, that records Jesus’ prayer for the disciples, “that they may be one.” But this isn’t the stuff of sentimentality. Christian unity is not a pie-in-the-sky dream, a wish based on the desire to finally “just get along.” Rather, it is a hope (and a promise!) of Jesus himself, and an imperative for Christian mission. What does it mean that people around the world have to choose between various factions (read: churches) and decide which one has the “right” Christianity? It is more likely they will simply not choose for Christ at all. The Word of God does not respond to market forces well; I’m not so sure that we are sharpened by the critiques of competing theologies and liturgies.
The results of the Reformation are obvious today: we have perverted this notion of conscience and freedom so that a myriad of “churches” exist, with a wide variance in faith, proclamation, and practice. This is not the truth of Christ that sets us free. Truth is unitive; God is truth and God is one. There can be unity in that diversity (as with the Holy Trinity), of course, but Christianity is not diverse. The Church, tragically, is broken and divided.
I do not doubt that the Reformation was necessary; I only question our need to celebrate it.