The Sunday Next Before Advent
Did you notice that Pope Francis paid a call in Sweden? His visit began, officially, on the last day of last month. That day, of course, was the eve of All Saints, and so the 499th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation.
On that day lo those many centuries before, according to the lore, the German monk Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. The proximate cause of his ire was the sale in his city of indulgences, which the faithful purchased to buy their departed loved ones’ way out of Purgatory.
As usual, a great deal more was roiling beneath the surface, and when the grievances began to spill out of those disenchanted with the way the Church of Rome was conducting herself they mounted almost overnight into a flood.
Ever since, the Church of Rome and the church of Luther – along with all the other Protestant denominations the Reformation spawned – have been enemies. And, no, that’s not too strong a term. Catholics and Protestants persecuted and killed one another through judicial proceedings and in riots and in wars.
In modern times, blood has not flowed, but relations can hardly be called congenial. Some on both sides still hurl anathemas across the divide, even denying that their adversaries are truly Christians.
Yet here we find the pope trekking to Sweden to commemorate the Reformation.
Charles P. Pierce can scarcely believe his eyes and ears. He wrote on esquire.com:
“It’s hard to measure how stunning this is to someone — like me — who grew up in the reactionary American Catholic Church of the 1950s and early 1960s. You were taught not even to set foot in a Protestant church on the pain of mortal sin . . . it was even considered weird to enter other Catholic churches outside your own parish, let alone those funky Eastern Orthodox churches where they used pita bread for Communion.
“I was not allowed to join the best Boy Scout troop in my town because it was sponsored by the local Congregational church.”
Not everyone has abandoned loathing on that scale. The church historian and Oxford professor Diarmaid MacCulloch noted on Francis’ efforts to make nice:
“There are rightwing Roman Catholics who find the whole thing profoundly distasteful. But they’re the sort of people who hate the present pope anyway.”
Still, there was Francis in Sweden, a nation that long managed to preserve its Lutheran heritage in a more concentrated form even than Luther’s native Germany. From the 16th century, Swedish Catholics were persecuted and even put to death. As late as 1951, Catholics were banned from becoming doctors, nurses and teachers, and Catholic convents were forbidden until the 1970s.
Francis stopped in two southern cities, Lund and Malmo. In little Lund, where the Lutheran World Federation was formed, he conducted a prayer service that 10,000 people watched via television in an arena in Malmo, 14 miles away.
In Malmo the next day he celebrated mass for the nation’s relatively small Catholic population. He issued a joint declaration with the president of the Lutheran World Federation stating:
“With gratitude we acknowledge that the Reformation helped give greater centrality to sacred Scripture in the church’s life.”
They acknowledged the difficulties of families in which Catholics and Lutherans are intermingled:
“We experience the pain of those who share their whole lives, but cannot share God’s redeeming presence at the Eucharistic table. We long for this wound in the body of Christ to be healed.”
And Francis, only the second pope ever to visit Sweden, didn’t stop there. He met with the king, the queen and the prime minister and he said: “We, too, must look with love and honesty at our past, recognizing error and seeking forgiveness.”
This was only the beginning of a year-long 500th anniversary initiative to heal a deep wound in the body of Christ – and not the only one. By the time of the Reformation, Catholics and Eastern Orthodox had been formally severed for five centuries already, and as a practical matter longer than that.
Francis had sent up a signal as early as June, telling reporters on a return flight to Rome from Armenia: “The (16th-century) church was not a role model, there was corruption, there was worldliness, there was greed, and lust for power. He (Luther) protested against this. And he was an intelligent man.”
The pope is reaching out. The leader of the world’s largest Christian body is seeking common ground with fellow Christians.
Beloved, one week from today we enter into Advent, the celebration of the coming of our one Lord. In God, we are all one. As St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians:
“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (4:4-6).
We are one church. We don’t look like it. We don’t feel like it. We surely don’t act like it. But we are one church. The apostle is sure of it. We are one in the Spirit, one in the Lord, one in God the Father. And, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, God is reconciling all things to Himself. In His time, He is bringing about radical oneness.
This is the ministry to which we are called, you and I, as members of the priesthood of believers – the ministry of reconciliation. God commands us, and graciously allows us, to participate in His program of resolving all of the concerns, contradictions and conflicts in His creation. We enjoy the immense privilege of sharing in the divine labor of restoring the world to its primitive state of innocence.
When we are baptized into our Lord’s death, burial and resurrection; when He anoints us His fellow heirs, when we take up our cross and follow Him, we become His co-laborers in the only work that matters in the end. The work of reconciliation.
We get glimpses of the reconciled state in the Scriptures. The first book of the Bible ends on such a note. Genesis 50 opens with Joseph grieving his father Jacob and closes with his own death. In between, we find his brothers quaking at the thought that, now that their father is dead, Joseph may cast away the conciliatory mask he has been wearing and wreak vengeance on them:
“When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, ‘Perhaps Joseph will hate us, and may actually repay us for all the evil which we did to him.’ So they sent messengers to Joseph, saying, ‘Before your father died he commanded, saying, “Thus you shall say to Joseph: ‘I beg you, please forgive the trespass of your brothers and their sin; for they did evil to you.’” Now, please, forgive the trespass of the servants of the God of your father.’ And Joseph wept when they spoke to him” (50:15-17).
Sell your brother into slavery, an act that results in his languishing in prison for more than a decade, and you might just fret that he bears a grudge. But their fear blinded these worldly men to the fact that his entire career had been one of reconciliation.
As a harbinger of the Seed of the woman, Joseph was a light to lighten the gentiles. He understood that Yahweh had dispatched him on a mission to make the God of Israel known to the Egyptians – and then to all the nations – as God of all. The one God.
Joseph weeps because his brothers cannot see past their own cramped horizon and grasp the greater good, the good of God. He tells them:
“’Do not be afraid, for am I in the place of God? But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive. Now therefore, do not be afraid; I will provide for you and your little ones.’
“And he comforted them and spoke kindly to them” (50:19-21).
God had used the brothers’ wretched act of selling him for a slave to transport him to Egypt, where he became the effective ruler of that great nation and saved its people, and others beside, from a terrible famine. In the process, he revealed the power and compassion of the God of Israel to Pharaoh and many more.
Would Joseph serve as God’s agent of reconciliation for the nations and remain at enmity with his own family? And how did he achieve such staggering success?
He brought it off by putting, every step of the way, God’s interests above his own. No matter what lofty stature he attained in a human kingdom he never forgot he served as the ambassador of the King of kings.
No tide of injustice, no measure of pain, no volume of suffering would deter him from the mission to which His King appointed him. Jesus is coming. Do you see Jesus in Joseph? He is the promised Seed of the woman, the One who would suffer death, even the death of the cross, to reconcile the world to her King on high.
If we are to fulfill our role in this drama, we, too, must seek healing in the family before we can take on the world in a meaningful way. Bp. Sutton is our ecumenical officer in both the REC and the ACNA. I recall him saying at a meeting a few years ago, “The reason nobody listens to us (the broad church) is that we’re so divided.”
Imagine our force if we spoke with one voice.
We have differences, of course, and – there’s no point in pretending — they are profound. We as Anglicans line up with most of Protestantism in diverging from Rome on how the Lord is present in the Eucharist, the perpetual virginity of Mary, a celibate priesthood, the character of the sacraments, the ex cathedra infallibility of the pope and even the authority of the pope. And that’s not all.
We’re at odds with the Orthodox on some of those points as well, and they and the Catholics have their own set of issues, especially regarding the pope. Anglicans and Protestants have divisions within our own camps as well. So we would be naïve to think we can easily find common, stable ground in this theological swamp.
What shall we do?
Some will go to any lengths in pursuit of unity. If we have no beliefs, if we hold nothing sacred, we can agree with everyone on everything. Call it “kumbaya theology.” We will agree on our shared humanity and say nothing more about good and evil, right and wrong. You do your thing and I’ll do mine.
Trouble is, we’re trying to agree on a negative, on the absence of something. If we give assent to the proposition that nothing matters. we must hold nothing as our common value. We become a community of nothing. I believe we will do better to wrestle with something.
We will do better to hold fast, as Joseph did, to the truth God delivers and to sacrifice all, as Joseph did, to defend and preserve it. In the end, we may agree on something – and our agreement will endure. We will abide in the truth, which is better than nothing. Until that day, we must remain steadfast, as Joseph did, even when all seems lost.
And all is not lost. Where do we, as Christians, agree? We agree on the Trinity, the Incarnation, the resurrection and bodily ascension of our Lord, the saving power of His sacrifice, the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, the eternal life of both the redeemed and the reprobate. And more. Beloved, these are not inconsiderable things.
Pope Francis believes they constitute a foundation on which to rebuild a house divided. I do not mean to sound like the president of the pope’s fan club. I have both feet firmly planted in the Reformed camp and no plans to forsake it.
But that’s precisely the point. We must acknowledge and support our fellow Christ-followers even when we disagree with them on points of doctrine. If we cannot link arms with our brothers we will continue to get the cold shoulder from a pagan world that refuses to know its Maker.
Francis has made this healing an important feature of his pontificate. Earlier this year, he did another remarkable thing.
The official rift between East and West known as the Great Schism occurred in the year 1054. The heads of the churches of Rome and Moscow had not met since . . . not until a Friday last February, when they convened in Havana.
The background for their meeting was the ongoing slaughter of Christians in the Middle East.
In advance of the meeting, a spokesman for Patriarch Kirill, Metropolitan Hilarion, said, “We need to put aside internal disagreements at this tragic time and join efforts to save Christians in the regions where they are subject to the most atrocious persecution.”
A Vatican spokesman, Rev. Federico Lombardi, issued a statement remarking the event’s “extraordinary importance in the path of ecumenical relations and dialogue among Christian confessions.”
I almost want to apologize for speaking of such grand events as these. I’m a humble, naturalized Okie preacher in a small church of a little denomination in a minor city in a place where the wind comes sweeping down the plain. I doubt that either Francis or Kirill has ever heard of Broken Arrow. I am even more confident neither of them has heard of St. Michael’s Anglican Church.
But we are part of something much bigger and we’re as much a part of it as Christians in huge cities and in high places. It must matter to us that our brothers and sisters in Christ are dying. It must matter to us that the world God created refuses to listen to His church – and gets away with it.
Can you even begin to conceive how the world would come to heel if Christians spoke for our Lord with one voice? And, yes, despite our insignificant numbers and our remote location, we in Broken Arrow have a role to play.
Look at what’s happening across the globe. Relations among the 14 loosely linked patriarchates that make up Eastern Orthodoxy have been as strained as those between Moscow and Rome, but the heads of most of those churches met in June in Crete. The Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church convened for the first time in more than 1,200 years.
These events are not remote from us. Our own Bp. Sutton has traveled with other high officials of the ACNA to Moscow to meet with the patriarch and to Rome to meet with the pope’s representatives. And they have been most graciously received. Christians worldwide are beginning to join hands across boundaries.
Doctrine matters; so does dialogue. When we close ourselves up in our cocoons we are failing in our Christian duty to strive for unity in the body. The apostle John reports our Lord’s words:
“I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me” (John 17:20-21).
Beloved, Advent begins next Sunday. Our Lord is coming. He is One, and we are one in Him. Amen.Posted on: November 20, 2016Ed Fowler