Lutherans celebrate Reformation Day, that day back in 1517 when Martin Luther stomped up to the Wittenberg church door and nailed up his 95 Theses. It’s a big day for us; used to be, at any rate. I don’t suppose Roman Catholics pay much attention to it, but then I wouldn’t expect them to, considering things.
My friend and Catholic priest (one can be both) Jay Scott Newman lectured in October 2002 during a Lutheran conference on Christian sexuality held at my Kansas City congregation. He was then serving Divine Redeemer in North Charleston, South Carolina, where my in-laws are parishioners. They introduced us; that’s how we got to know one another. Since the conference ended on a Saturday, I suggested he stay over and preach that Sunday. He readily agreed. That’s when I told him, by the way it’s Reformation Sunday. He muttered something I didn’t quite catch; whatever it was I’m certain it was entirely appropriate to the provocation. But, yes, he’d still do it.
I was glad, overjoyed in fact. Not only is Newman a very good preacher but it isn’t easy anymore preaching a Reformation Day sermon that touts the triumph of Lutheran reason over Roman superstition, mired in the swamp of indulgences and the like.
When I was a new pastor in 1980 I recall a much older pastor speaking wistfully of the good old days. That was when a Reformation Day preacher could trash the pope, condemn work’s righteousness, pity those poor guys with their pathetic statues, and then easily move on over to the glory of Luther’s rediscovery of salvation-by-grace-through-faith-in-Christ-apart-from-works-of-the-Law.
We could all go home feeling very good about being Lutheran. When we heard the parable about the Pharisee and tax collector praying in the Temple, well, let’s just say with all the fiery Reformation Day sermons ringing in our ears we were pretty sure who was who in that scheme of things. We never got quite as low as a Jack Chick tract, but I do recall a certain smugness that went along with being Lutheran. My pastor friend, he just didn’t know what to preach anymore.
Neither do I. Nowadays, the pope just isn’t quite the antichrist he once was. Lutherans are in an identity crisis over the whore of Babylon. There are probably a few holdouts among conservative Lutheran churches, but for the rest of us Reformation Day isn’t nearly as much fun as in days gone by.
So, you bet, back to 2002, if I could get out of preaching a Reformation Day sermon I had no reluctance in suckering Newman into doing the job for me. He manned up and preached without notes. I cannot recall a word he actually spoke. But I remember the effect of his sermon, and it left many of us chastened. He made the reality and pain of separation and division real, visibly and painfully real when he could not receive the Eucharist from our altar.
The last time I attended a mass in his North Charleston parish before he took up other duties, at the conclusion of distribution before the post-communion prayer he left the chancel and came to my pew. I stood and we embraced. That was all. But it was quite a lot as I remember it.
There was a period in recent Lutheran history following Vatican II when, for a small moment, some of us believed Lutherans and Roman Catholics would, could, heal the breach of the sixteenth century. There was a confessional revival of sorts as we scoured our Book of Concord for its Catholic sources. But the moment passed and, I think, will not come again. Some Lutherans opted for Biblicism and others decided to join the big-time Protestant mainline, what is left of it anyway. If there ever is to be another Reformation by Lutherans, returning Lutherans to their catholic if not Catholic roots, likely it must begin elsewhere than among the ruins we have made of Wittenberg.