Today is Reformation Sunday in the Protestant tradition. In the wider church this is just the 30th Sunday after Pentecost – the week before All Saints Day and a month prior to the Feast of Christ the King – nothing really special. But for us, today is unique and set aside so that we might ponder certain truths – not belabor or reinforce worn out prejudice or hackneyed and now meaningless theological barbs – but rather to prayerfully wonder about what still keeps us separate and apart.
· Oh I know that not all Protestant clergy look at Reformation Sunday this way; believe me, I am certain that some of my colleagues across the world will rant about how good it is that we are not Roman Catholic. Others will go on ad nauseum about the purity of our perspective and the depravity of theirs. And there will be a few knuckleheads who will use today as an excuse for Catholic bashing.
· But such small-minded selfishness is not of the Lord: bigotry and carping never is no matter how sanctimonious it sounds. We are people of a NEW covenant – a testament of grace – once described by the prophet Jeremiah like this:
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
In just a few minutes we’re going to leave our Sanctuary and join with other like minded believers from around our town for the first shared Eucharist in Pittsfield’s history that welcomes Lutherans, Baptists, Congregationalists and Methodists to Christ’s radically open table of grace. But our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers will not – and cannot – join with us. And that is NOT a cause for celebration – it is a tragedy – that should break our hearts.
So let me pause on this sacred day to share a few observations about what continues to keep us apart. It is my prayer, you see, that even though I will never see it in my life time I trust by faith that Christ will find a way to make us all one. And not in an oppressive or fearful way, but through love and openness and trust just as Jesus told his first disciples: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
I have come to think that there are two fundamental differences that continue to keep Protestants and Roman Catholics separate, apart and often mistrusting of one another. The first is actually a way of doing religion – a way of seeing and understanding the holy and the human – and the second is a way of organizing the church – and the first is probably the bigger challenge to overcome. The theologian, David Tracy, puts it like this: Roman Catholics and Protestants see symbols in very different and even competing ways.
· The Roman Catholic “concept of religion is analogical. To put it simply, Catholics use things they know to try to understand the things they don’t. Roman Catholics seek to know God and the work of the Lord in the world through material things: water, wine, bread, oil, incense, candles, icons and more.”
· This is a sacramental way of looking at the sacred where parts of the mysterious truth of the Lord are exposed in tangible, material things – the key example of whom is Jesus himself. He is the word – or idea – of God made flesh. Incarnational and sacramental theology believes that in Christ we see and grasp as much of God’s greatness as is possible in this life time. There is still more to be revealed – now we see as through a glass darkly, later we shall see face to face as St. Paul wrote – but for now Christ reveals all of God that we can comprehend.
Protestants, generally speaking, have a radically different perspective on symbols and how God’s truth is revealed and expressed. Our way tends to focus on the individual’s reaction and response to sin and grace – it looks inwardly rather than towards the created world – with an emphasis on the mind and the heart. Consequently, we use words – lots and lots of words – to describe the experience of being trapped in sin and liberated by Jesus.
· Protestants are suspicious of material things because we have learned that they have been corrupted by sin. So, in the early Reformed Church there were no such things as stained glass windows – or physical crosses and crucifixes – and never anything that wasn’t explicitly done by Jesus.
· That’s why our way of doing church only celebrates two sacraments – baptism and communion – rather than confession and marriage and holy orders and last rites. They weren’t “done” by Jesus so we don’t do them either.
Do you see this contrast in visions? Roman Catholics tend to be sacramental and Protestants tend to be abstract. The Roman world searches for signs of God in the earth and flesh and the Reformers are in regular battle against sin. These are very different ways of exploring and experiencing the holy within our human realm – and I believe they are one of the fundamental reasons why our two traditions continue to have a hard time coming to the same table.
Personally I resonate more deeply with the Roman or sacramental perspective of doing religion than many of my Reformed colleagues. I am very much at home in liturgy, traditional prayer, smells, bells and all the rest. Because I, too find value in seeing how the created order gives shape and form to God’s grace. Where I have bigger problems is in the other distinction that separates us; namely what is called the organizational – or structural – or even political structure of the church.
· Let’s be clear: much of Roman Catholic structure is based on obedience and hierarchy; not so in the Reformed world where individual conscience and conversion is primary. This has led to very different organizational structures and rules, yes?
· The Roman Catholic system is fundamentally a top down institution while the Protestant world is essentially democratic. Of course there is freedom of conscience in Catholicism – and ugly clericalism in the Protestant Church - but this hierarchy vs. democracy difference is huge.
· None of us, for example, would tolerate being ordered to read a letter from our Bishop about who to vote for based upon a candidate’s position on abortion or same sex marriage, right?
· Many of us are at home with the theology, language and ritual of the Roman Catholic Eucharist, too – and freely welcome all who see the solace of Christ to the table – but because we don’t follow the authority of Rome they are prohibited from sharing the body and blood of our Lord in communion with us.
There was a time after Vatican II when many of us thought we were going to find a way into closer cooperation and unity. During the 60s and 70s there was real hope alive and many were celebrating Holy Communion together as well as sharing prayer and ecumenical acts of mercy. But now Rome won’t even call our way of doing things a church: we are officially ecclesial communities but not real churches. Pope Benedict XVI put it like this:
"It is... difficult to see how the title of 'Church' could possibly be attributed to Protestant communities, given that they do not accept the theological notion of the Church in the Catholic sense and that they lack elements considered essential to the Catholic Church... because of the absence of the sacramental priesthood", Protestants have not "preserved the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic Mystery.”
We worship the same God, sing the same hymns, follow in the way of the same crucified and risen Savior, use similar prayers, share a common confession and may even celebrate the Eucharist every week but… we don’t accept the authority of Rome. And now with the revival of the Latin Mass things are moving farther and farther away from finding common ground.
So today we gather to find a measure of common ground elsewhere – with our Lutheran and Baptist and Methodist cousins – knowing full well that the Roman Catholic side of the family is still missing. I am sad about their absence. I rejoice that we’re going to do Holy Communion together as Protestants in a few minutes and trust that we might find new ways of cooperating in ministry for the 21st century, too.
But I am deeply sad that part of the family has to stay away - and look forward to the day when we can find common ground. Mostly, however, I look forward to the time when we can sit down at the table of the Lord together and both say with humility: welcome home – I missed you. Let’s eat!