Fifteen years ago, on October 31, 1999, we ceased celebrating Reformation Sunday and began observing Reformation/Reconciliation Sunday in response to the Lutheran â€“ Roman Catholic Joint Declaration on Justification by Faith signed in Augsburg, Germany that day. Three years from now, on October 29, 2017, the five hundredth anniversary of Martin Lutherâ€™s action in Wittenberg, Germany, Reformation/ Reconciliation will cease being observed or celebrated at all. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America â€” at least in its liturgical resource department â€” is already moving in that direction, already suggesting that this year this Sunday should be celebrated as the green 20th Sunday after Pentecost and not as red Reformation at all. Itâ€™s time. Itâ€™s time to put the 16th and 17th centuries to sleep. 500 years is probably long enough to celebrate a western Christian, Euro-centric event in the midst of a multi-ethnic, multi-faith, globally-connected world. The theological principle that God comes to us in Promises remains essential and eminently useful, yet in the 21st Century we have newer challenges to meet and bigger fish to fry than the re-heated knockwurst of the 16th Century.
Three quarters of a century ago and just before his martyrdom, Dietrich Bonhoeffer prophetically raised the questions that are before us today:
We are approaching a completely religionless age; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore...[I]f we eventually must judge even the Western form of Christianity to be only a preliminary stage of a complete absence of religion, what kind of situation emerges for us, for the church? How can Christ become Lord of the religionless as well? . . . The questions to be answered would be: What does a church, a congregation, a sermon, a liturgy, a Christian life mean in a religionless world? How do we talk about Godâ€”without religion? . . . Christ would then no longer be the object of religion, but something else entirely, truly lord of the world. But what does that mean?
Writing in the Summer/Autumn issue of the Harvard Theological Review, columnist James Carroll boils these questions down to this one: Who is Jesus Today?
Today, when churches throughout Europe â€” the very churches that stood in Lutherâ€™s 16th Century â€” now stand empty.
Today, when tribalism and sectionalism and â€śme-ismâ€ť tear apart our world.
Today, nearly 3 generations after the unspeakable horror of the Shoah â€” the Holocaust â€” the implications of which the church, the city and world have yet to confront â€” as anti-Semitism once again rises, virulently in Europe and inexorably in the USA.
Today, as we define the majority of everyone and the center of every belief on the basis of their exploitative extreme (consider Bill Maherâ€™s recent comment, â€śIslam is a terrorist religionâ€ť).
Today, as we inexorably seek our own isolation and the exclusion of â€śothersâ€ť on the basis of widely-disseminated misinformation and contagious fear, as we are beginning to hear even here from attendees our own programs: â€śAll Africans, all African-Americans carry Ebola; all Latinos are illegal.
Today, when the I-Cloud of ceaselessly flowing and ceaselessly accumulating global information has created more isolation, less communication and a world in which more and more speak and fewer and fewer listen at all.
By now itâ€™s undeniable that our filters are gone; that we are living in an increasingly fractured, increasingly fear-driven, increasingly isolated, religionless world. How shall we be? What is the Church? Who is Jesus Christ today? Every one of our questions requires a reformation answer. Every one of our questions demands a reconciliation response.
These questions probably require a whole season â€” a whole lifetime â€” of listening and reading, of study and discussion, of preaching and praising and prayer. So on this third-to-the-last Reconciliation/Reformation Sunday, Iâ€™m going to take a stab at an outline of an answer to but one: Who is Jesus Today?
My first response is to point to the Jesus we meet here every Sunday, particularly passionately and eloquently last Sunday: A boundary-less Jesus who opens wide Godâ€™s hands to welcome and embrace every living thing. The Jesus who eats with Pharisees and tax collectors; who sits the filthy rich and the equally filthy poor side by side without distinction and without shame. The Jesus of the Last Supper. The Jesus at table in Emmaus. The Jesus who makes this a welcome table and makes every
table a place of Godâ€™s hospitality for all. A boundary-less Jesus in a religion-less world. Thatâ€™s a Jesus and a Church for our 21st Century city and our 21st Century world; Jesus for today.
Who is Jesus today? My second response is my usual first response: A fearless Jesus who not only stands with others but also stands for others; the Jesus who touches lepers, embraces prostitutes and sinners, debates with and loves an earnestly inquisitive lawyer, stands with the poor, embraces the least, seeks the lost, makes the last, first, confronts collaborative connivers and when he is brought to Pilate to answer for his inclusive intrusions, opens not his mouth at all. A fear-less Jesus in a religion-less world. Thatâ€™s a Jesus and a Church for our 21st Century city and our 21st Century world; Jesus for today.
Who is Jesus today? My third response is this: A Jewish Jesus, which is to say a fully human Jesus. The Jesus worshiped by Christians, revered by Moslems and respected by Jews. This, I believe, is the historical Jesus who is our most effective leader as we respond to rising anti-Semitism, anti-Jew, anti-Moslem, anti-human and ultimately anti-Christ â€” activities. On the eve of his martyrdom, Bonhoeffer said it best,
â€śAn expulsion of Jews from the west must necessarily bring with it the expulsion of Christ. For Jesus Christ was a Jew.â€ť A Jewish Jesus, who in his exemplary humanness shows us the kind of God we need God to be. A Jewish Jesus in a religion-less world. Thatâ€™s a Jesus and a Church for our 21st Century city and our 21st Century world; Jesus for today. It is that Jesus â€” a boundary-less Jesus, a fearless Jesus, a Jewish Jesus who confidently strides into our midst every Sunday to teach us, to hear us, to nourish us and send us on our way.
If todayâ€™s realities â€” stateless terrorism, global warming, Ebola, the I-Cloud, our pick-and-choose use of communication, the growing divide between rich and poor, diminishing denominations, rising anti-Semitism and a host of other matters, mundane and major â€” demand one thing of us, itâ€™s this: We need to re-think what we say about Jesus so that Jesus is useful to us â€” and to the church, the city and the world â€” as we confront these new and ever-changing realities of life. In the 21st Century, thatâ€™s the power of reformation; thatâ€™s the imperative of reconciliation.
So today I make a modest proposal. Letâ€™s not do
away with Reconciliation/Reformation Sunday. Letâ€™s move it â€” away from its obsession with western Christianity; away from its Euro-centric roots. Letâ€™s move it to the Third Sunday in Advent or the Fifth Sunday in Lent or the Third Sunday of Easter, or better, to the Sundays closest to Yom HaShoah or Eid Al-Fitr or Eid Al-Adha. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Reformation changed the whole world. It can change it again is the 21st as well. As James Carroll concludes:
The God to whom Jesus points is the God beyond â€śGod.â€ť We recognize in Jesus all that we need to know about God who, otherwise, remains incomprehensible. And this recognition, because it is well-rooted in the past, is powerful enough to carry us into the open-ended future, even extending beyond what can be imagined.
Amandus J. Derr
Saint Peter's Church
In the City of New York