It is almost Holy Week and I realize we should focus in on the passion and resurrection of Jesus right now, but with the recent election of Pope Francis, the inspiration for a new beginning he has already stirred among many people, I cannot help but think about the status of Lutherans in the world. We are after all, “separated brethren.”
Martin Luther posted his famous 95 Theses on October 31, 1517. For centuries those who consider themselves Lutherans have celebrated a lesser festival either on October 31 or the last Sunday in October. Reformation Day or Reformation Sunday is often a chance to remember the story of the Protestant Reformation, highlight the 95 Theses, discuss Martin Luther, his ongoing impact on the church and world and perhaps some of his writings, celebrate Lutheran identity, sing “A Mighty Fortress” (Luther’s most famous hymn), or a combination of any of these particularities to what it might mean to be a Lutheran Christian. If done well, it can empower those living in today’s world with the promise of the gospel. If done poorly it can lock our faith in the past, narrow its focus to a particular cultural norm, and look inward.
As a pastor and preacher, the last couple of years I have used Reformation Sunday to give a sort of “State of the union” like address on the status of the church – not just my congregation, or denomination – we are both part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, but on the church as a whole – how we are doing collectively, and how the gospel can help us engage the many shifts in life, culture, and interaction on the cusp of this new digital, global, instant age.
Before stating anything more, I must share how much I enjoy being a Lutheran Christian. Lutherans tend to live in the tensions between extremes, we value people’s contributions to living their faith out in the real world, we hold education in high esteem and enjoy thinking about things, we are comfortable with paradox, we love music, we wrestle to work with complicated issues, we go into conversations knowing we sometimes get things wrong and are OK with that, we wear many of the stereotypes offered by Garrison Keillor about us with a (humble) badge of honor, but always at our center we keep Christ and his work for us through his life, death and resurrection that gives us this amazing gift called grace.
I love being a Lutheran and don’t see myself as anything but a Lutheran. High School is the only public school I have ever attended – including pre-school, K-8, college, and two seminaries – all Lutheran schools. When Lutheran denominations don’t get along it breaks my heart. I have worked in Lutheran Outdoor Ministries and Lutheran Campus Ministry as a seminarian. I’ve served four Lutheran churches – one as a youth director and three as pastor. I’ve been to Wittenberg, Germany three times, I’ve preached in the Castle Church where those 95 Theses were first on display. I refer to Dr. Martin Luther as “Marty” as if I know the guy, and after all this Lutheran immersion I still enjoy reading what he has to say. Needless to say, I live and breathe Lutheranism, and have a lot invested in being a Lutheran. I even wrote the Lutheranism guide on the www.lutherans.com website http://www.lutherans.com/guide/ and I contribute to www.castlechurchdoor.wordpress.com regularly.
Bearing my strong sense of Lutheran identity in mind – I think I am ready to join the movement to lose Reformation Day. As an ELCA Lutheran I can claim that we have come a long way in working through many of our disagreements with other Christians and have strong ecumenical partnerships with other church bodies. We belong to the Lutheran World Federation – a growing Lutheran body that like many other Christians groups tends to be growing in Africa and South America. There are currently more Lutherans in Tanzania than North America as one example.
What I do not want to lose however, is the place-saver that Reformation Sunday has on our liturgical calendars. One more “Green Sunday” just seems boring. It would be a real bummer not to sing “A Mighty Fortress” and wear Red on the last Sunday in October for many people, including me.
So here is my proposal:
Let us reposition Reformation Sunday as Reconciliation Sunday. Rather than emphasize what divides us in the church and what makes Lutherans (at least in our view) superior to all others, what if we spent time talking about how Christians and even people of other faiths can come together and what Lutherans can bring to that conversation? Rather than sing “A Mighty Fortress” as the Lutheran national anthem, we could look at the words – how “God is our refuge and strength a very present help in times of trouble” (Psalm 46:1 – “A Mighty Fortress” is based on Psalm 46). Maybe we could invite some mission partners, ecumenical partners, or even those with whom we have a growing relationship to speak or lead a discussion that day, or at the very least join in the festivities with us. Maybe we could study the Joint Declaration of the Doctrine on Justification – a groundbreaking document signed by both the Roman Catholic Church and Lutheran World Federation in 1999, but is still not widely known among our people and has potential for unity and collaboration not yet realized among us.
What would Reconciliation Sunday be?
Maybe rather than looking backward we could look forward – not living our faith in the midst of old battles or taking on the perspective of the 16th century; but living our faith in the 21st century, building on the work that Luther, Melanchthon and thousands if not millions of Christians have built since October 31, 1517. Yes differences remain. But Christ also prayed that all would be one (John 17:11). Maybe on a personal level we could talk about the estrangement we have with God and with one another because we rely on ourselves and our sinfulness rather than our trust in God – who in Christ makes all things new, breaking down the dividing walls between us, and calls us to ‘repent’ leading lives full of repentance. Maybe we could talk about our hope for reconciliation and restoration in the future and God’s promises for the world that continues to seem so divided, and how we might better serve it with good news to share.
Wouldn’t that be worth celebrating?
For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. (Ephesians 2:14-22)
Reposted on www.LivingLutheran.com March 21, 2013