As Reformation Day approaches, I remember with joy the very beginnings of our church in the poundings of Martin Luther's hammer. This fiery monk stood up against the church corruption of his day — and didn't back down when he faced excommunication and death threats. I'm proud that my tradition was born out of strong opposition to harmful teachings, but I'm also wary.
I'm wary because Lutheran pride in our history of opposition sometimes lasts too long. I was at a Bible study recently where we discussed what we love about the Lutheran church. One individual stated that Lutheran worship kept what was beautiful in the Roman Catholic tradition but got rid of the bad beliefs. The conversation quickly turned into a Catholic-bashing session. What bothered me most is that this wasn't an unusual experience. While in campus ministry I heard student leaders speak excitedly about working with their counterparts in other denominations, but they began to stumble when we mentioned that their "flocks" might include Roman Catholics.
Looking at the big picture doesn't help: anti-Catholicism has been a powerful force in U.S. history. During the Civil War neither side referred to the other as the antichrist because everyone "knew" the pope was the antichrist. Roman Catholic immigrants were treated with suspicion. Even in the 1960s it was surprising when the U.S. elected its first Roman Catholic president (John F. Kennedy). Today anti-Catholic graffiti still appears from time to time.
I say all this to remind us that we are no longer in the days of Luther. The power of the U.S. Roman Catholic Church is nothing like that of the Holy Roman Empire when Lutheranism began. We are all always being made new.
Recent years have seen even greater change. Lutherans and Roman Catholics have worked to bridge the great theological gap that first severed us. In 1999 the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity signed the "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification," declaring that the two groups now held "a common understanding of our justification by God's grace through faith in Christ." Hallelujah!
We have been trained by history — and maybe by human nature — to tune in to differences. But today I pray that the "Joint Declaration" and current dialogue between Lutherans and Roman Catholics remind us of the radical, miraculous unity of the body of Christ. Maybe we can learn to see our ELCA as an ankle, the Roman Catholic Church as a wrist, the United Methodist Church as an elbow ....
This Reformation Day may we celebrate not only our beginnings, but the journey we have made and the future that is to come.
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