I must confess that I’ve always had a kind of love/hate relationship with our annual observance of the Reformation. The “pull out all the stops/ pomp and circumstance” part of me has always loved this annual celebration of “all things good and Lutheran!” And yet, at the same time, it sometimes felt a tad self-congratulatory. “Aren’t we just so wonderful!”
The worst Reformation festivals risk resembling overdone memorials characterized by a blind idolizing of our past heroes, pivotal and inspired though they may have been. We merrily march around to Ein Feste Burge, proudly slapping ourselves on the back, all the while sidestepping the fact that Luther’s challenge to re-claim, re-language and re-embody the Gospel is a call to the church of every generation – that it’s a call directed to us - here, today - as much as to anyone!
This year Christians around the world – not just the Lutherans – will commemorate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. We ritually and prayerfully entered into this commemorative year on October 31 of 2016 when LWF President Bishop Munib Younan and Pope Francis presided over a joint Lutheran, Roman Catholic service of commemoration in Lund Sweden. Similar services will be held around the world throughout 2017. In our own Eastern Synod I will co-preside with my Roman Catholic counterparts at ecumenical gatherings in Lunenburg N.S, Montreal P.Q, and Toronto, Sudbury, Kitchener and Ottawa in Ontario. Leaders in our synod’s 17 Ministry Areas are likewise making plans for special commemoration services and events designed for our particular Lutheran community.
We will do this with our eyes firmly set on the Lutheran World Federation 500th Anniversary theme, Liberated by God’s Grace. We, too, - perhaps even more so than the church of the sixteenth century - are prone to seeing right relationship with God as an “accomplishment,” as something that people can earn, attain, maintain and then hold onto – (whether by right sacrifice, right action or right belief) - rather than as a free and gracious gift that we are continually in the process of re-claiming, re-discovering and entering more deeply into.
Furthermore, the three LWF sub-themes will remind us any such claim to liberation will, by necessity, be accompanied by sober consideration of what implications this liberation carries for our contemporary discipleship. Salvation is not for sale. Creation is not for sale. Human beings are not for sale. These sub-themes, while echoing the reformers protest against the buying and selling of indulgences, give a new and provocative perspective for us to consider what it means for Jesus’ followers to seek reformation in a 21st century context. And that, of course, is the point of the whole exercise; claiming and living a renewed life as disciples. Otherwise, reformation really is nothing more than a once-a-year exercise in nostalgic self-gratification.
We live in a world, and in a church, that is in sore need of reformation. This commemorative year provides us with a rich opportunity to re-claim the banner of reformation as a defining expression of what it means to be disciples in the 21st century. We dare not let it idly pass! After all, that’s what – by God’s grace – we’ve been liberated to do and to be; ever more faithful disciples!