Remember this morning’s text on humility? Let’s keep this in mind as we approach the Reformation.
On a beautiful Sunday in the early 80’s a friend and I went for our usual morning run. As we came plodding up the hill toward the Chapel of the Resurrection at Valparaiso University, the Precentor opened a window from the balcony and waved. We responded, “Happy Reformation Day!” He yelled out from his perch, “How can you celebrate schism in the church?”
Indeed, many of our Reformation celebrations are vitriolic. With pomp and circumstance we celebrate the preservation of the gospel of free grace over and against the evils of 16th century ecclesiastical abuses. Perhaps our remembrances of the Reformation ought to be with sackcloth and ashes, a sign that we are deeply grieved that the Reformation had to happen. Another view is that the Great Schism between East and West at the millennium, and the subsequent Reformation were tragic.
Granted, we might say necessary. The abuses of the Church and the Papacy are all too well recorded. We recall that Luther did not leave to merrily start his own church. He was kicked out, condemned by a Papal bull called Exurge Domine (Arise O Lord) and then in 1521 excommunicated by Decet Romanum Pontificem. If necessary, necessary like Normandy was necessary, and tragic.
In 2017, a short seven years away, we will be at the 500th anniversary of the posting of the 95 theses. There will be celebrations. Remembrances. We have seven years to think through how we are going to talk about this. Imagine you are in the room with your closest Roman Catholic friend. How do you talk about it. How do I discuss the Reformation with Cardinal DiNardo in Houston and Archbishop Aymond in New Orleans, both gracious and soulful spiritual leaders? How do we characterize the importance of the Reformation in light of the Counter-Reformation which addressed many of the abuses? What shall we say when the Chronicle and Times Picayune call up? We have seven years to polish our rhetoric so that it reflects the truth, both of the importance and the failures of the Reformation. And all this with humility, rather than vitriol.
I must admit, I will look forward to help in this. Let’s use this opportunity for ecumenical dialog and clarification of the Lutheran movement. Luther railed against the rich Popes for bilking the poor. Read Luther and the Hungry Poor, for insight on the economic significance of Indulgences. I am reminded that Rome controlled most of the land in Europe, as well as life and death for many. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. But this is the 21st century. We are in a different, completely different economy — spiritual and global. New strides have been made in coming to theological consensus (see JDDJ). We often talk as if it’s still 1517. Time to get our heads in the present. What conversations can we have with our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters that might serve the proclamation of the gospel and administration of the sacraments? Perhaps late October should be a time for dialog. No: dialogs, plural. In your town, with your Roman counterparts.
Bonhoeffer said the Achilles’ heel of our movement was cheap grace. Our brothers and sisters in the Roman church might silently nod. But I would ask you to consider another. Breaking off is in our DNA. With over 40 Lutheran bodies in North America, we are a denomination of splinter groups. Splinters of splinters of splinters.
Consider, the Evangelical Lutheran Conference and Ministerium in North America broke off from the Lutheran Ministerium and Synod in the U.S, which broke off from from the AALC, which broke off from the ALC when the ELCA was formed. A Monty Python sketch comes to mind. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad. The Concordia Lutheran Conference has six congregations. As of this writing, the newly formed NALC (North American Lutheran Church) has about 30. The Apostolic Lutheran Church of America has 58 congregations in 8 states. Some may view this as healthy. It’s really, really hard for me to see how the atomization of Christianity serves the gospel. Someone help me see it. Here is a modest list. Read it and weep: Lutheran Bodies in North America.
I asked my wife the other day, “What would you need to become Roman Catholic.” It was a serious question, and she understood it as such. “Married priests.” And then, “female priests.” Ecclesial matters, not theological ones. We went on to saints, and praying to Mary. Contraceptives. The assumption of Mary. The infallibility of the Pope. Most of these are not 16th century issues. The ecclesiam semper reformandum has been on the move the last 500 years. The gulf is still there.
So, brothers and sisters, preach next Sunday thoughtfully, humbly. Read a bit. Take your local priest out for lunch and pick his brain. Preach the truth. But let’s not base our self-righteousness on how bad “they” are. It’s a dead end.