Reformation 20 “Some Thoughts on the Holy Festival of the Blessed Reformation” Rev. 14:6-7, Rom. 3:19-28, John 8:31-36
I was telling our current vicar about one of his predecessors who, seeing Reformation Sunday fast approaching, said with a wry grin, “Ah, the Holy Festival of the Blessed Reformation! What will you preach about, do you think?” And he smirked. An actual smirk! And the current vicar smiled a broad and warm smile at this anecdote. And he told me a story.
It was a good story that simply illustrates the difficulty a good Lutheran has with Reformation celebrations. It took place 3 years ago, at our alma mater, Valparaiso University: a “progressive, independent Lutheran University”. We both have great fondness for the place, quirks and all. He told me how he was working for a Christ College professor who had to figure out Reformation celebrations for 2017, the 500th anniversary year that everyone felt a need to make such a fuss about.
But for progressive and ecumenically minded Lutherans, the evangelical-catholic types Valpo is famous (or infamous?) for producing—who never saw a high liturgy we don’t love or a systematic scholastic theology that didn’t make us squirmy—the Reformation presents a problem, summed up by one Valpo notable like this: “We do not celebrate the division of the church catholic. We celebrate her unity and remember, sadly, its ruptures…”
So here’s the Valpo 500th anniversary of the Reformation commemorative mug [hold it up]. “Remembering the REFORMATION 2017 Valparaiso University.” If there is one simple object and saying that sums up our beloved alma mater, this would be it. It’s subtle. Thoughtful. Classy, but ever so slightly critical of the broad road most of Christendom takes. [BTW ask the vicar for a copy of his suggested new tagline for OSLC!]
Yes; the Reformation presents us with some conundrums. Luther wanted to encourage the unity of the church catholic around the pure Gospel of Christ Jesus. He lamented that his efforts at that got us all kicked out of the Roman communion. That could have gone better! And it was at least partly our fault!
Here’s another conundrum: if you’re a hardcore Lutheran, someone who thinks Luther’s theology recovers the holy, catholic, and apostolic faith as much as it can be recovered by people living in a very different world, then you know that he was a liturgical purist, a traditionalist. Luther was all about brooming from the church calendar novel, made-up stuff [like the Corpus Christi Feast, the Mary festivals, Valpo Sunday, etc.]. If they didn’t have it on the church calendar ca. 400 A.D., if the apostles didn’t do it that way, it’s gone…
So, it should go without saying Luther had no Reformation celebration on his church calendar! So why do we?
Reformation celebrations, as near as we can tell, first happened in 1817. And it was at the behest of Kaiser Wilhelm who had political aims. He was forcing the Calvinist and Lutheran churches to unite (without resolving their serious Christological and sacramental divisions, first) in a Prussian Union. He wanted to celebrate the 95 theses as something all good Protestants could and should agree on [theses that Luther, writing 7 years later, dismissed as dealing with “mere trifles, not the serious issues of the Gospel”!]. Kaiser Will found some theology profs who cobbled together a novel liturgy. It was that forced union of confused confessions that caused Walther and the first Missouri Synod Lutherans to leave Germany for America! They wouldn’t be celebrating that kind of Reformation, ever!
Our current Reformation festival readings seem to come from the 400th anniversary year, 1917. Some German profs at Erlangen University in 1917 (where Hermann Sasse would later teach; a Lutheran University much like Valpo,) they wanted to encourage more study of Luther’s actual theology and thought dusting off the old Reformation festival might do that. They were the ones, who, apparently, came up with these three readings which present significant ironies.
Look at the first reading from Revelation. Irony #1: Luther dissed the book of Revelation, because, like many of the ancient church fathers, he wasn’t convinced it was apostolic or divinely inspired and had it as an appendix to the Bible. A rather problematic place to start a celebration of Luther’s Reformation!
Irony #2: they chose this passage because they thought Luther himself was the angel John saw flying around! But Luther hated people aggrandizing him as some kind of Savior. He said “Luther never died for your sins! Jesus did! Reverence Him, not me!”
Irony #3: if Revelation is canonical, the angel would have to be Jesus, or one of His heavenly messengers. No genuine prophet ever pointed to anyone but Jesus the Christ as the One we should reverence and adore. Twisting the Bible to make it point to Luther is one of the most un-Lutheran things you can do!
The second reading is better. Yes, that the righteousness of God, justification, is through faith alone in Christ Jesus by His grace was a key point Luther made and it is the vital center of the church’s faith. But… are we reading this to encourage repentance and renewal of our own faith and life? Or do we read it to pour salt in the old wounds of the church catholic? Are we standing in the temple like the Pharisee, thanking God we aren’t like those lousy Roman Catholics counting rosary beads in the corner? That is hardly the purpose for which St. Paul penned these words!
Which leads us to the Gospel which is ironically appropriate for those who want to celebrate their superior faith and life. Jesus said to the Lutherans celebrating the 500th anniversary “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” And they said “We are Lutherans, for Christ’s sake! We have never been slaves to anyone at anytime! No Pope in Rome will ever tell us what to do!” And Jesus says, “You forgot about Egypt? Babylon? Hey, your hero Luther admitted the church of his day was enslaved to a tyrannical bureaucracy just like the days of Israel in Babylon! How quickly you forget…”
Only if the Son sets you free… right?
Here’s the final irony: like those Prussian bureaucrats in 1817, those Erlangen profs in 1917, the Jews in the temple in 30 A.D., we’re tempted to think salvation means having the right ideas about Jesus, and joining the right ecclesiastical organization; as if membership in the right group is all you need to be saved. But Jesus reminds us, as Luther learned over a hard lifetime: salvation is one sinner at a time, by grace, through faith, in Christ Jesus alone. A free gift to those of us who have surely not deserved it, who are the chief of sinners, the least of the saints, the kids in detention, not the valedictorians of the school.
To celebrate being Lutheran (or Roman Catholic, or Baptist, or whatever) misses the point. It’s not being a member of the right organization, or having the right slogan on your coffee mug that saves. No. Salvation’s being Jesus’ lost but found little lamb. The Church is a Sinner’s Anonymous Group.
Jesus and Jesus alone saves sinners, lost sheep, one stray at a time. By His Word and Sacrament, through nondescript shepherds like the 70 He’s still sending, Jesus Himself washes our wounds, heals our sickness, puts a new heart and mind and soul into us. He can do it with 10 people in a little white clapboard church in Palmer Rapids, Ontario. He can do it in St. Peter’s Cathedral Rome, or 1st Baptist Raleigh. He still does IT; in all those and myriad other places!
But it’s only the poor publican remembering, sadly, her sin and pleading: “God be merciful to me, a sinner” who knows the joy of forgiveness, of peace, surpassing understanding, guarding her heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.