“Reforming Towards Unity”
If you looked at the back of your bulletin this morning, you may have noticed that today is “Reformation Sunday.” The Rev. Jeffrey Murray provides a reflection on justification by faith that seems appropriate both for an acknowledgement of “Reformation Sunday” and an insight into this morning’s Gospel text. Referencing the 16th century Reformer, Martin Luther, Murray concludes that while doing the works that our faith demands of us is important, justification is not attained by anything we say or do; it is a gift that moves us to respond humbly.
Just think of the two characters in Jesus’ parable – the Pharisee and the tax collector. The Pharisee really was an excellent religious person. He observed all the rules, fasted and prayed, and gave generously from his income. The story doesn’t indicate that he was lying about doing these things, or that he needed to do more. He was doing good things because he was a good person, and that was good.
The tax collector, on the other hand, had not been doing good things. He freely admits that he is a sinner, and we can imagine that he was greedy and dishonest and demanding, as was the norm for tax collectors in Jesus’ time. He worked for the Romans and took advantage of his own people in order to make a profit… and that was not good.
And so, carrying all their “goodness” and their “not-so-goodness” with them, these two men go up to the temple to pray. They go to the place of worship to talk to God about what’s been happening in their lives. The Pharisee goes up, well aware of his successes and accomplishments, and he seems to expect that God will be pleased with him. The tax collector goes up, just as aware of his failures and mistakes, and he throws himself on the mercy of God.
One of the key words in the passage is “justified.” After the tax collector humbly prayed for God’s mercy, the text says “this man went down to his home justified rather than the other.” The doctrine of justification asks the question of how we reach a status of righteousness in God’s eyes. The Pharisee trusted in himself for his own righteousness, and the tax collector trusted in God for righteousness. He did nothing to earn or deserve God’s mercy. God’s mercy was freely given to him. As the Apostle Paul says in his letter to the Romans, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”
The question of how we are justified before God was a matter of intense discussion and debate among the theologians and church leaders of the Reformation period. It was certainly the main issue for Martin Luther, and something that divided Lutherans and Catholics for many centuries afterwards. In 2014, we are taking note of the fact that the Reformation began 500 years ago, and the theological developments of that time have made a huge impact in particular on our Reformed, Presbyterian, and Lutheran Churches.
But as we mark “Reformation Sunday” today, we should do so with an awareness of the deep divisions between Christians and Churches that were formed and entrenched during the Reformation as well. While theologians on all sides studied, and prayed, and discussed points like justification by faith, and the interpretation of scripture, and the meaning of the Lord’s Supper, they were both unable to come to agreement and unwilling to remain together as one Church with a diversity of perspectives.
As I was reflecting on this morning’s parable this week, I was also reading a collection of essays for the class I am taking this term. The title of the book is “Conciliation and Confession: The Struggle for Unity in the Age of Reform.” I think that often when Reformed Christians reflect on the 16th century Reformation, there’s a lot of talk about the great Reformers and all the important theological points they made, and how important and right their principles were.
And I agree, the Church needed reform, and we have benefited from their work and their witness in teaching justification by faith, the scriptures as the rule for faith and life, and many other important ideas. But when other Christians remember the Reformation, they may take greater note of the fact that the Church became more and more divided during that time. Although everyone would agree that reform was needed, what we didn’t do was manage to make the reforms together.
The book I’m reading explores the history of the Reformation period with a particular emphasis on the movements towards conciliation. While many theologians and church leaders were standing up for what they believed to be true and right for the Church’s doctrine and practice, many were also working very hard to understand each other, to come to agreement, and to maintain or regain the unity of the Church.
The chapter that I read just yesterday was about John Calvin: “The Conciliating Theology of John Calvin: Dialogue among Friends.” At first, I was kind of wondering how Calvin got mentioned in this book on conciliation because the impression I’ve always had of Calvin was that he was more interested in being right than being in agreement with others. Another theologian, Karl Barth, describes Calvin in this way: “How cutting he is, how self-conscious, how sharply prepared to be in the right at any price, how ready not only to smash his foe intellectually but also to destroy him morally.”
Thinking of the parable again, I thought that Calvin would be a little more like the Pharisee than like the tax collector – very sure of himself and his rightness and very intolerant of his opponents. As the essay explains, “he would usually describe his opponents as insane or as various animals, especially pigs and dogs, and would reduce their positions to the ravings of lunatics or the barking of dogs.” Calvin obviously felt very strongly about his theological positions, and in his passion for truth he didn’t show a great deal of respect for those who disagreed with him.
However, Randall Zachman shows in his essay that even John Calvin cared a great deal for the unity of the Church and that he actually tolerated a remarkable degree of doctrinal diversity. Although Calvin concluded early on that reconciliation with Rome was not possible, he was profoundly distressed by the tendency among evangelical teachers (the Reformers, like him) to condemn and separate from one another over every difference of opinion.
Calvin used two distinct forms of discourse depending on the circumstances. When the essentials of the Christian faith were at stake, he would contend with his opponent in an effort to destroy both the opponent and his argument. But when there was agreement in essentials, then he would address disagreement, not in the mode of contention, but by conversation, in an attempt to discern the truth through a mutual, dialogical inquiry.
Zachman points out that the basis for conversation (as opposed to contention) was the trust that was created between friends. When Calvin was able to recognize within other theologians the gifts of sound judgment, learning, piety, and teachableness… even if he didn’t agree with all their ideas, he was able to trust them, and become friends, and engage in a dialogue of conversation rather than contention.
Calvin believed that teachers should make every effort to maintain unity and consensus with one another, and should only disagree with the interpretation of others out of the necessity of maintaining the genuine meaning of Scripture, and not out of a desire to set themselves apart from them. And that’s the big question when it comes to unity in the church: How much do we need to agree on to stay together? How much diversity and difference is acceptable within the fellowship of the church? What issues are essential, church-dividing questions?
Yesterday I visited a young couple in our church to talk about the baptism of their young son. The father is Presbyterian – a member of St. Andrew’s, and the mother is Roman Catholic. And it was so good to be able to say, when we baptize Liam at St. Andrew’s we will be baptizing him into the One, Holy, Catholic, Church. When we baptize him with water in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, his baptism will be recognized by Presbyterian, and Roman Catholic, and Anglican, and Lutheran, and United, and many other Christian Churches. We don’t agree on everything, but we are united in the Sacrament of Baptism and we recognize each other as Christians.
And it is also good to know today that on the question of justification – the big issue that caused the division of Churches in the 16th century – Lutherans and Roman Catholics have come to a pretty good agreement on that question. In 1999, as a result of extensive ecumenical dialogue, the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification was agreed to by the Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Lutheran World Federation. It states that the churches now share “a common understanding of our justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ.” To the parties involved, this essentially resolves the conflict over the nature of justification which was at the root of the Protestant Reformation.
When I go to worship later today at my husband’s Catholic Parish, I will hear the same Gospel reading about the Pharisee and the tax collector again. And although I don’t expect to hear the priest talking about the Reformation, I do expect that his interpretation of Jesus’ parable won’t be much different than my own. The tax collector humbled himself and acknowledged his sin before God, and because of God’s amazing grace, he was forgiven… he was justified. Hopefully he responded to God’s grace with joy and thanksgiving, and hopefully he began to try day-by-day to live according to God’s will. But it was not his goodness that saved him, it was a pure gift from God, received through faith alone.
But more than any particular agreements or joint declarations between the Churches, it is good – on this Reformation Sunday – to celebrate the fact that 500 years after the Reformation, there is a lot less contention and a lot more conversation taking place between Christians and Churches.
And a lot more conversation is possible because we have become friends. I know that you are friends with your neighbours and colleagues and relatives who belong to many different Christian Churches. I know that I am friends with other clergy and church leaders from the broad spectrum of denominations. And this week, as we mark Reformation Sunday, church delegates from around the world are meeting as friends in Busan, Korea for the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches. The theme for the Assembly is captured in a prayer: “God of life, lead us to justice and peace.”
As we give thanks for God’s mercy and grace towards us, may we join with Christians around the world in praying, “God of life, lead us to justice and peace.”