If Reformation Sunday is about anything, surely it is about truth. Weren’t competing truth claims were at the very heart of the revolution launched by Luther and continued by Zwingli, Calvin, Cranmer, and others? Either the pope is the vicar of Christ or he is not; either the eucharistic bread and wine literally become the body of Christ or they do not; either we are saved by divine grace unaided by human effort or we participate in our salvation through good works.
But as the great theologian Oscar Wilde said, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” We know that the Reformation did not succeed on the basis of its truth claims alone; in large part it succeeded because of complex economic and political reasons. The emerging nation-states of Europe supported Luther and the other Reformers in order to gain economic and political power at the expense of the papacy.
When Protestant and Roman Catholic theologians discuss the great issues of the Reformation -- the status of the papacy, justification by grace through faith, and transubstantiation – there is more agreement than disagreement. This is not to diminish the wide gulf that divided Wittenberg and Geneva from Rome in the sixteenth century and continues to divide Protestants and Catholics today, but the temptation of Reformation Sunday is to make that gulf far wider and deeper than it is or ever has been.
The common confession of Christ as Lord binds all Christians together, and in a post-Christian age that fundamental confession is more than enough for us to make common cause against the widespread indifference and even hostility toward all expressions of faith.
So what is Reformation Sunday if it is not a chance to pat ourselves on the back and congratulate one another that Luther was right and Popes Julius II and Leo X were wrong? Is Reformation Sunday anything more than a chance for Lutherans to sing “A mighty fortress” and Presbyterians to repeat some of the more exciting passages from the Westminster Confession?
I think the key to Reformation Sunday is in Jesus’ words in today’s gospel reading: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." Truth is a central category in John’s gospel. At the very beginning the author tells us that when the divine Word took flesh and lived among us that “we [saw] his glory… full of grace and truth.” Later, Jesus declared himself to be “the way, the truth, and the life.” The great accomplishment of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Cranmer was to issue a thunderous call to western Christians to return to the Word made flesh, the Word spoken by Israel’s prophets, the Word that “above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth.”
But if the great work of the sixteenth century Reformers was to summon the church to return to the Word made flesh and the Word of the prophets, then that implies that the church had drifted away, that there was a great gulf between the position of the Reformers and the position of the Roman Catholic Church. Let there be no misunderstanding here: there were and are issues that separate Roman Catholics and Protestants. We do not serve the gospel well if we are not honest about our differences. But I think we are somewhat misled by the categories historians have given us. It might be better to re-christen Luther’s great movement the sixteenth century REVIVAL rather than the REFORMATION.
Of course, Luther, Calvin, and the others did reform the church. They were convinced that the church of the sixteenth century was a very different church than that of the apostles, and they believed that their work was to return the church as far as possible to the apostolic model. But that was also the goal of many who remained within the Roman Catholic Church. What Luther, Calvin, and the rest accomplished was a great revival, a movement that bore fruit not only in the Protestant churches they founded but also in the Roman Catholic Church that they left. They awakened the entire western church to its need to “continue” in Christ’s word and to let that word set them free.
Part of our problem on Reformation Sunday is with the word “truth”. Without sounding too much like former President Clinton, much depends on how you define “truth”. If truth is a thing that is fixed, unchanging, and static, then we might as well give up all hope of reconciliation with our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers. But is that what Jesus meant by “truth”? In John’s gospel truth is never a set of propositions such as mathematical formulas. The truth is always a Person. The Truth is the one who said, “I am the way, the TRUTH, and the life.”
Physicist Niels Bohr said, “There are two sorts of truth: trivialities, where opposites are obviously absurd, and profound truths, recognized by the fact that the opposite is also a profound truth.” That sounds like it relativizes truth completely out of existence, but if the truth is not a thing but a Person then Bohr may have been right. If Truth is a person, then perhaps both Luther and his opponents can be comprehended in Truth’s embrace.
So in a post-denominational, indeed, a post-Christian age, can we continue to celebrate Reformation Sunday or has it become an embarrassment that we should discard? I think the Reformation still has something to say to us that should be celebrated, because what the Reformers said in the sixteenth century is just as valid today. The church of the 21st century, the churches that the Reformers left behind, need reformation and revival as badly as the creaky, sinful, and tradition-bound late medieval church. As Fred Pratt Green’s great hymn puts it, “The church of Christ in every age / beset by change but Spirit-led, / must claim and test its heritage /and keep on rising from the dead.” In every age, we need reformers to summon us to return to the truth with a lower case t but even more, to Truth with an upper case T. Sometimes we need to be reminded of the truths that the Reformers taught, but we always need to be reminded to return to the Truth who became flesh and dwelt among us, whom we saw to be full of glory, who invites us to abide in him, and who will set us free indeed.