luther-hammers-the-95-theses-to-the-church-door-of-wittenberg_crop0Today we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. But is “celebrate” the appropriate word? Is that really the tone our commemoration should take? It seems rather like a woman celebrating the 10th anniversary of her divorce. One understands the reason for the celebration, but it still seems somehow distasteful–rejoicing in the dissolution of what God had joined together. It’s distasteful even if the woman had solid Biblical grounds for her divorce, just as we had solid Biblical grounds for separating from the Roman church. It’s distasteful even if the woman’s husband was despotic, abusive, and corrupt. The Roman church was all those things. You’ll never hear me claim otherwise. But I can’t rejoice in the memory of the awful day when those troubles began coming to a head.

In particular, can we rejoice with the divorced woman when she’s had an endless string of lovers since the split but she never remarried? Isn’t that what we’re like in the Protestant “church”? The Church had already split, East from West, in 1054. (And God forbid that we should rejoice on the anniversary of that day any more than we should rejoice on this one.) But the Reformation was not a split. The Reformation did not produce an undivided communion, united in their exile, seeking God as one body of Christ in the unity of the one Spirit. The Reformation did not simply split the Church into three as the 1054 Schism had split it into two. The Reformation shattered the Church. We splintered into hundreds of tiny pieces, unable to come together under a single creed and government. We became the Humpty Dumpty of the Christian world. 500 years have gone by, and no one has been able to put us together again. Instead, we have created thousands more and even tinier pieces. We did not merely separate from the Roman church. We separated, endlessly, from one another. How can anyone, considering these results, claim that the Reformation was a success? No, I will not rejoice on this day.

I am grateful for the many things I have learned from the Protestant Reformers and from that theological stream. I am deeply grateful for and committed to Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide. I revel in Luther’s recovery of Augustine’s proclamation of Paul’s doctrine of “the righteousness of God.” I laud Calvin for his majestic display of God’s grace and sovereignty. Reformation theology clearly proclaims (with the New Testament, with Christ) that salvation is not a joint effort between me and God. This lifts burdens that I could not bear and that no one can bear. Without this understanding, no one can truly pursue sanctification because they are still trying to justify themselves. I will continue to rejoice in these truths, surely. But I will also mourn the disunity of those who proclaimed them. I will mourn the movement that taught me the Gospel and disintegrated the Church.

Jesus prayed that we all would be one that the world might know that he had been sent by the Father. For 500 years (or 963 or more) we have been living in the shadow of that prayer’s contrapositive. We are not one; therefore the world does not know that Jesus has been sent by the Father. How can we rejoice over the day that began the worst schism the Church has ever known?

Today, let Protestants mourn as we consider how completely we have fractured the body of Christ. Let us commit ourselves to that prayer for unity made on earth by our high priest who is now in heaven. Let us learn to be as promiscuous as the Holy Spirit who demonstrably pours himself out on people and groups that we wouldn’t allow in our pulpits or even sometimes our pews.

Today, let Roman Catholics mourn and consider how justified was the Protestant departure. Humble yourselves, you who love the Lord, and confess where you are helping to keep the Church divided. Let the Pope humble himself and become once again the bishop of Rome. Repeal the Council of Trent by which you tell me I am damned for believing the precious doctrine of justification by faith alone. This, above all, must happen before you and I can be part of a unified body of Christ.

Today, let the Eastern Orthodox mourn. If you’re an Orthodox believer you may have read the previous two paragraphs with a great deal of smugness. How thankful you are not to be part of the West with its endless divisions and wranglings! May I suggest that this response might be the tip of an iceberg of sinful pride? Have you become like the Pharisee in the parable, thanking God that you are not like that tax collector? Luke tells us that this is the attitude of those who think they are righteous in themselves. Turn and pray with your hearts the prayer that your lips already know, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Then you will be in a frame of mind to seek reunion with us, for we too have the Spirit.

Let us soberly and sombrely reflect on all these things this Reformation Day. And let us desire together that the Church, which has been un-formed, should soon and truly be RE-formed as the one body of the risen Christ. On THAT Reformation Day I will rejoice. Amen.

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