Reconciliation and Unity The Quincentenary of the Reformation 1517-2017

Reconciliation and Unity The Quincentenary of the Reformation 1517-2017

Allan Davidson Romans 12.1-8

Sun 27 Aug

The sixteenth century Protestant Reformation irrevocably changed Christianity, changed Europe and changed the world. Western Christendom was permanently divided between Roman Catholics and an ever growing number of Protestant denominations. These divisions were exported and continued to multiply throughout the world. Theological and institutional division among Christians impacted on the whole of life: politics, culture, society. Religious prejudice was deeply ingrained, giving rise at one extreme to religious wars and at another to intolerance, hostility and bitterness between individuals and families.

The beginning of the Reformation has been identified with the action of an unknown Augustinian monk, Martin Luther. His challenge on the 31 October 1517, to the practice of selling indulgences for the remission of sins, has been recognised as the spark that ignited the conflict that tore Western Europe apart. Whether Luther actually nailed his 95 theses on the Castle Church door at Wittenberg is disputed. What is not in dispute is the way in which Luther came to European prominence. His personal quest for certainty about salvation was extended into a full frontal attack on the foundations of traditional church theology and practice. Luther was confronted by the weight of church teaching and power. He was excommunicated by the Pope in 1520. The following year the Diet of Worms, the imperial assembly of the Holy Roman Empire condemned Luther as an outlaw and heretic. Luther’s own life was in peril. He had challenged the authority of the Pope; he had questioned the teachings and practices of the church; he had thumbed his nose at the Emperor, Charles V and imperial power.

Luther was no longer an unknown monk.  He had made his stand against the Pope, the Church, the Empire, on the basis of his own compelling conviction. When asked at Worms to reject heresies in his writings, he answered:

 I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.

Luther articulated what became core Protestant principles: Sola scriptura – Scripture alone as the source and determining authority for belief; justification by faith – as the guarantee of salvation; the priesthood of all believers – as an expression of the equality of all people before God.

Luther’s personal theology was caught up with political, economic and social forces and was aided by the rapid distribution of his ideas through the printing press. Other individuals, independently, such as Ulrich Zwingli in Zurich, were also calling for abuses in the church to be reformed. Some who remained within the Catholic Church, such as the great humanist scholar, Desiderius Erasmus, who had mercilessly satirised the failings of the church, sought the way of peace and unity.

Attempts to hold together the one church proved to be impossible and the divisions among Western Christianity exploded and became permanent. While Roman Catholics were seen by Protestants as the common enemy, bitterness and hostility often characterised relationships between, and even within the different Protestant denominations. The intensity of debates over baptism, the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine at Communion, the way the church should be organised and led, resulted in deep gulfs between the followers of Luther, Zwingli and Calvin. Radical reformers, under the label of the Anabaptists, rejected political control and interference in the church and suffered horrible persecution from Protestants and Catholics.

The great Lutheran Church historian, Jaroslav Pelikan, on the eve of the Second Vatican Council, referred to the Reformation as a “tragic necessity”. By this he meant that while for many Catholics the Reformation was unnecessary, it was a tragedy because it resulted in millions being separated from what Catholics understood to be the true church. In contrast, for Protestants, the Reformation was necessary, because the corruption and abuses of the church required reform and renewal which the Catholic Church was unwilling to embrace.

For nearly five centuries now, Christians who have derived their faith identification from Western Europe have lived with the legacy of this “tragic necessity” and the division which the Reformation brought. Throughout most of that period relationships between different Christian traditions were characterised by divergence or isolation from one another.

The apostle Paul knew all about division within the early church. There was tension between Jewish and Gentile Christians; between those who followed the purity laws of Judaism and those who were meat eaters; between the circumcised and uncircumcised; between those who followed different leaders in the church. In response to division Paul used his analogy of the church as a body, with separate but inter-related functions, all needed to contribute to the healthy working of the body. In writing to the churches in Corinth and Rome he hammered home his message about individual diversity and the inter-connectedness of people as members of what he called “the body of Christ”.

Paul, in the passage we heard earlier, calls on the Roman Christians to give themselves completely to God’s way. He appeals to them by “the mercies of God”, or the compassion of God. Paul tells them to be transformed by discerning “the will of God” and describes this as “what is good and acceptable and perfect”. Mercy, compassion, goodness are among the values which God’s followers are to live by. As Bill Loader puts it:

Paul knows about shaping. He urges the Romans to engage in a process whereby they are shaped not by the prevailing fashions of the age but by Christ. It is in that sense a counter cultural renewal to which he calls the Romans. The renewing of one’s mind – stance, attitudes, orientation – is the basis not only for individual wholeness but also for a healthy community or congregation.[1]

People are not to exalt themselves above others, but to use what Paul calls, God’s measure – faith, to discern their relations with others. This faith is characterised not by theological statements, but by the mercy, compassion and goodness, values which Paul has already identified as indications of God’s being.

And it’s at this point that Paul introduces the analogy of the body, with its diversity of members with different functions, but held together in unity as one body. So, Paul writes, “we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another”. He does not deny individuality, but he emphasises interconnectedness, or common-unity, as the ideal which the church should strive for.

Paul then goes on to outline different gifts which people have: prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leadership, compassion. Paul is not saying that these gifts are restricted to individuals who practise only one of these gifts. They represent different abilities which are needed within a healthy community, and are shared within the church, not for building up the ego of the individual, but for the well-being of the whole body. They are reflective of the goodness, mercy and compassion found in God.

There’s a marked contrast between Paul’s model of the church as “one body in Christ”, and the broken, divided church that emerged from the sixteenth century Reformation. It’s interesting to reflect though how in 2017 different Christian communions are reflecting on the five hundred centuries of hostility, bitterness and division, which has often characterised relationships between Protestants and Catholics, and between different Protestant Churches.

While we live in a post-ecumenical age, one of the achievements of those who worked last century for closer ecumenical relationships between different denominations and Christian communions, has been the building up of trust and work towards reconciliation and mutual understanding. The work of the World Council of Churches and the impact of the Second Vatican Council have contributed enormously to the convergence between denominations that contrasts radically with the centuries of divergence.

A dramatic example of that convergence was a service in Uppsala in Sweden last year. Pope Francis told a body of world Lutheran leaders that there was more that united Catholics and Lutherans than divided them. Over the last few decades, Catholics and Lutherans have been walking a common path towards reconciliation. In 1999, for example, they issued a joint declaration on justification, one of Luther’s foundational theological principles.

“As well as pledging to work towards intercommunion”, the Pope and the leader of the World Lutheran Federation in a joint declaration urged “Lutherans and Catholics to work together to welcome the stranger, to come to the aid of those forced to flee because of war and persecution, and to defend the rights of refugees and those who seek asylum … adding that their “joint service” must also extend to God’s creation.”[2] As Luther is reputed to have said: “God does not need your good works, but your neighbour does.” 

Over the last ten years, the Evangelical Church in Germany, a federation of Lutheran, Reformed and Protestant Churches, has been building up to this year’s 500th anniversary of the Reformation. They “agreed that the way to commemorate ecumenically this Reformation event should be with a Christusfest – a Celebration of Christ”. By placing an emphasis “on Jesus Christ and his work of reconciliation as the center of Christian faith, then all the ecumenical partners” of the German Church “(Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Baptist, Methodist, Mennonite and others) could participate in the anniversary festivities”.[3] There are strong echoes here of Paul message to the Church at Rome: “we who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another”.

Ecumenical, top-down statements about reconciliation and unity mark a huge shift in attitudes between denominations that have over long periods experienced and contributed to hostility, bitterness and conflict. Reconciliation and unity, however, depend on people in local churches living by these commitments – seeking dialogue and understanding; healing the things that divide; working together on common goals to bring about justice and peace in our world; reflecting the goodness and compassion seen in the life of Jesus; accepting and respecting diversity and embracing the stranger as friend.

We pray with Pope Francis: “Holy Spirit help us to rejoice in the gifts that have come to the church through the Reformation, prepare us to repent for the dividing walls that we, and our forebears, have built, and equip us for common witness and service in the world.” [4] Amen


[2] “Catholic and Lutheran Churches pledge to work for shared Eucharist”,…

[3] “To those organizing the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity”,…

[4] Catholics and Lutherans sign joint declaration ‘accepting common path’,…