The Reformation at 500: A Mighty Fortress Is Our God

“How very good and pleasant it is when kindred dwell together in unity.” Growing up, I heard these words often from my mother, who usually spoke them to me and my brother—I have a sister, too, but she almost never needed to hear these words—whenever we were fighting, or about to start fighting. “How good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell in peace,” she would say, in the old King James version of Psalm 133. I never liked hearing those words, but I needed to hear them. I needed to be reminded that whatever state I was in with my brother—anger, frustration, disappointment, annoyance—there was something better for me, something good and pleasant for me to seek.

Today, the Church—you, me, the whole body of Christ—needs to hear these words from the psalmist. “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred dwell together in unity.” Division, not unity, is the spirit of our age. When someone does something we don’t like, rather than trying to understand their perspective or reasons for doing it, we go with our gut reactions of anger, frustration, and disappointment. And social media like Facebook encourage us, egg us on to be more divisive. Our friends cheer us on when we say something nasty about someone we don’t like very much, and we can mute anyone who doesn’t cheer on our grievances with a quick click of the mouse. So we need to hear from the Lord: “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred dwell together in unity.”

As members of the body of Christ, the church, we are kindred, brothers and sisters, here at Centre, as well as with every follower of Jesus across the globe. But we live as a broken family, split not just by the divisions that are tearing society apart today but also by wounds that we have been nursing for the last 500 years. When Martin Luther posted his 95 theses and launched the Protestant Reformation, he had not intention of dividing Christ’s church. But very soon he did start a new Christian church, full of people who called themselves Lutherans, instead of Catholics. Luther chose to walk away from part of his Christian family, and he led others with him. That is called schism. Others soon followed: in Switzerland, in England, in the Netherlands, and eventually across Europe.

There is a lot of good that came from the Protestant Reformation. This month we have celebrated four good things: the teaching that Scripture, the book of the Church, alone is the ultimate test for our beliefs and actions; the teaching that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone; the belief in the priesthood of all believers, which says that every Christian is called to bear witness to God’s love; and changes in worship that allow us to have worship services and read Scripture in a language we can all understand. These are all very good things. But at the same time, the Protestant Reformation brought much that is not good. Scholars have traced some of the worst parts of today’s world to the Reformation—unintended consequences, to be sure, but still there. Of all these consequences, the most painful is that today, 500 years later, Christians are still divided.

Yes, painful. It should be painful to all of us that Roman Catholics and Protestants cannot share in Communion at the Lord’s Table together. Not painful as in, “Oh, my feelings were hurt when the Catholic priest said I shouldn’t receive Mass,” but painful as in, “I long for the world where Jesus’s prayer for unity has been answered with a visible, ‘Yes.’” After all, it’s not just Catholics and Protestants. Even among Protestants, there are many denominations, and sometimes those denominations don’t get along very well, or they say things to make themselves look good and other Christians look bad.

Over the last 100 years, however, many Christians have started reading Christ’s prayer for unity as a vocation: each of us is called to live out the unity Christ prays for in our own lives. Soon, Christians who thought this way started banding together and formed a movement, called the ecumenical movement. “Ecumenical” comes from the Greek word for “household,” as in “household of God,” as in, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred (members of the same household) dwell together in unity.” The ecumenical movement speaks a word of hope for the divided church: greater unity is possible. And a lot has come out of this: Lutherans and Catholics are closer than they have been since Martin Luther’s days. Many Protestants now openly embrace each other, which certainly was not true even 50 years ago. I teach in Baltimore at a place called St. Mary’s Ecumenical Institute, a graduate school for Christians from all denominations that is hosted by a Roman Catholic seminary. It is the first school of its kind in the world, and next year it will be 50 years old.

Sometimes the ecumenical movement gets a lot of attention when churches that haven’t gotten along start making big moves to reconcile. Just last week one of my dearest friends, a man named Edgardo, went with a delegation of Methodists to have an audience with Pope Francis. Remarkably, Pope Francis called us Methodists his brothers and sisters. The pope also said, “Catholics and Methodists have much to learn from one another in how we understand holiness and how it can be lived out.” My friend Edgardo calls meetings like this “sitting ecumenism,” because everyone sits around in a room and hammers out agreements. Most of us are not called to live out a sitting ecumenism.

But Edgardo says there are many different ways of being ecumenical. He likes to talk about “walking ecumenism.” Walking ecumenism is when Christians from different backgrounds get together for a common cause or purpose in the name of Jesus Christ. This past winter when we hosted the homeless shelter for two weeks, a group from St. Margaret’s Roman Catholic Church in Bel Air was in charge of the first week. And we had Baptist, non-denominational, and Pentecostal Christians serving meals, talking with guests, and cleaning up for the entire two weeks. That’s walking ecumenism, and it doesn’t require any formal agreements or even the ability to share communion together. It’s just living out worship of God together.

Another way of being ecumenical is what Edgardo calls “kneeling ecumenism.” If walking ecumenism is getting together to do something, kneeling ecumenism is getting together with other Christians to pray. At Ash Wednesday last March and Thanksgiving last November we met with Presbyterians, Lutherans, and other United Methodists for combined worship services. We’ll be hosting a prayer vigil on November 14th here for this winter’s homeless shelter that will be open to everyone from the whole of Harford County. And we’ll be gathering again at Bethel Presbyterian on Thanksgiving Eve for yet another combined worship service. When we pray together, our divisions fall to the side, and the unity of Christ’s church becomes visible, even if only for the length of our prayer.

Jesus prays for our unity to be like the unity he shares with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. When we say that the Father and the Son are united, what we’re really saying is that the Father loves the Son, and the Son loves the Father, with an unbreakable bond of love, who is the Holy Spirit. When Christians unite, the world gets a glimpse of that love: our unity shows that the Father loves us, and that the Father has sent Jesus for the sake of the world. Jesus prays for this; we, too, should long for it, work for it, and pray for it. Not just in the life of the world to come, but here, in this age, now.

One of the most famous hymns to come out of the Reformation is Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” Luther wrote the hymn, based on Psalm 46 (which we read this morning), while he was holed up in a castle fleeing from enemies who wanted him dead. God, though, not the castle was his true fortress. God is the bulwark never failing: for those whose lives are threatened, for those who have fallen prey to sin. When we seek shelter in the Lord, when we take refuge with the God of Jacob, we enter a city where divisions must fall to the side, where schisms must be of the past and unity must be our new reality. “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred dwell together in unity.” Words to hear, words to live by for those of us, like Luther, who have found safety in the Lord of hosts, for those who live by the Word, even the prayer, of Jesus Christ.

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