31 October 2017
Reformation Day, transferred to Sunday, 29 Oct 2017
My parents had a profoundly unhappy marriage. My father moved out a couple of weeks after I had moved out to attend university. He had told me that he was going to move out but I had dismissed the announcement because he had said just this so many times before. But I suppose after his youngest child had moved out there was nothing to keep him.
It turned out to be the right decision, as even my mother agreed that things were better with them apart, and yet for us children it was not easy to navigate what lay ahead.
Our parents’ marriage had ended a long time before our father left our mother. Neither wanted to be alone and eventually our father married again. Jackie and I were living in Germany in 1990. We were newly-weds. I remember my mother visiting us for her birthday weekend in the middle of October. She liked to travel and would often come and visit my brother or me and bring us together. It was just after unification of the two Germanies and my mother asked us to take her to visit the Wartburg, the place where Frederick the Wise had taken Luther for protection and where Luther had then translated the New Testament into the language of the people.
On our drive back I approached the subject of my father’s upcoming wedding. It had been five years since they had separated. I raised it for the sake of truthfulness. You see, my mother did not want us to have any contact with our father’s new partner and she did not want us to attend the wedding. But our father was our father, we loved him, and avoiding his new partner would have meant to avoid him. And because I did not want my mother to hear it from others – notably my father’s siblings – that we had attended the wedding, I approached it now. I made three attempts. She did not want to engage in the conversation.
Today is Reformation Sunday. It is the day to which Lutherans trace back our origins. On October 1517 Martin Luther published his critique of the medieval indulgence trade. Luther’s only intention had been to reform the church. But his theses were quickly translated and distributed and the time was right for change. Frederick the Wise became Luther’s protector and what began with a small theological critique brought about the split of the Western church into not two but many new churches, commonly lumped together as Protestantism.
I grew up with Reformation Day. And I could swear it was a holiday when I grew up but I may be wrong. Reformation Day has always been a remembering and celebration of Luther’s insight and discovery and thereby a celebration of our origins as Lutheran Church.
I don’t remember any gloating, nor did my pastor ever dress up as Martin Luther, but I remember a joint study day with Catholic seminarians who asked us tongue-in-cheek whether we Lutheran seminarians had to study any church history prior to the 16th century.
I am not sure whether that question was simply a joke, or if it also was a question as to where we Lutherans locate ourselves in the greater scheme of things. Do we stand in continuity to what was before us or did we invent the Gospel anew?
It was not an unreasonable question for there was a time when we avoided anything that seemed ‘Catholic’. We did not make the sign of the cross, we wore black vestments instead of white and the colours of the liturgical year, we avoided the word ‘catholic’ itself. I remember a dear colleague in Winnipeg who once shared how he disagreed with the re-introduction of the word catholic into the third article of the creed, “I believe in the holy catholic church”. We spoke the creed at his funeral, not against his wishes but because he loved the church enough to not exclude himself from it.
My own attitude had always been, “Why should we let the Catholics have all the good words.” Former bishop Raymond Schulz once remarked that Lutherans were only Lutherans through an accident of history since Luther had only intended to reform the church.
Father David Poirier and I have met on a number of occasions to plan, finally, some joint studies on the Reformation for our churches. He shared a memory from a joint Lutheran-Catholic study of the 1999 Joint Declaration on Justification. A member of the Lutheran community had stood up, and – mindful that the question of justification was what had initially torn us apart – stated that perhaps now there was no longer a need for the Lutheran Church. Father David, responded by stating that there was a need for the Lutheran Church. That need was to hold our Catholic brothers and sisters accountable to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
John 15 is part of what the church calls the farewell discourse of Jesus. Jesus addresses his disciples to prepare them for the time when he would no longer be with them. Jesus addressed all of them. Judas who betrayed him, Peter who denied him, James and John whose mother had asked for special privilege for them, Jesus addressed of them all.
Jesus describes himself as the vine and his disciples as the branches. He speaks of an intimate union. The branches cannot live without the vine which provides them nourishment, but the vine can also not be without the branches. God has made his home among mortals and is fully invested to be in communion with the people of God’s creation. Abide in me, says Jesus, even as Jesus has come to abide with us.
Abiding is to follow the desire of the One we love, says Jean Vanier. Abiding means to seek what God seeks and to desire what God desires.
Being a branch on the vine means to bear fruit. Fruit is so often the way in which Jesus says we shall be known. But we can only produce fruit if we allow the Father to prune us, so that we may desire what God desires.
This is language of deep intimacy. But what does it look like practically? I wonder if God prunes through our life in communion with our brothers and sisters, including Catholic and Reformed, Anabaptist, Orthodox, and Pentecostal. I wonder if celebrating the Reformation only as the birthday of many Protestant churches is insufficient, for it does not understand our common history and our common future, and it does not allow God to prune us through one another.
I told you about my parents and about my mother’s anxiety over my father’s new partner. I could have followed her wishes. But it would have cut me off from my father.
When we moved to Abbotsford the local Anglican parish was well into leaving the Diocese over the issue of same-sex blessings. I was excited about full communion with Anglicans but knowing we had to have our own debate on this issue I held back simply because I did not want their debate to become our debate.
Still, I knew and respected my colleagues and when they left their building and processed up the hill to their new address, I walked with them, not because I believed they were right – particularly not in making this a church dividing issue – but because they were and remained my brothers and sisters.
When the diocese installed a new priest at the parish of those who had stayed I participated in the liturgy. Was I a hypocrite? No, not only were we in full communion, but they too were and are my brothers and sisters.
God knows how testy, contentious, and disagreeable we can be and yet Jesus wants to abide with us. We give thanks then that God has come to dwell with us, that God does not tire of us, and that God has given us brothers and sisters in different traditions who with us give witnesses to the God who is gentle and demanding, decisive and forgiving, argumentative while giving himself for the world, the One who was, who is, and who is to come, Jesus Christ, our Lord.
May we learn to love the other branches on the vine as Jesus loves them, and may we allow God the Father to prune us through them.