Growing up in the countryside five miles outside Ada, Michigan, Roman Catholics were largely unknown to me. When I was about ten, my parents sold off a small chunk of the farmland they had bought some years before, and the Smith family built a house half a mile up the road from us. They went to St. Robert Catholic Church.
I asked my parents about Catholics, and they largely parroted the answers they had received from their parents in the mid-twentieth century. They told me that Catholics just don’t believe like we do, that they prayed to Mary, and that they did a few other things that, to my young mind, made them seem only slightly less exotic than the African or Brazilian natives we’d see on missionary slide shows in the church basement from time to time.
The Smith family aside, I never knew any Catholics. The only nuns I saw were in The Sound of Music, and seeing a priest was unheard of in the circles we ran in. I don’t know that my parents ever said precisely that Catholics were not Christians, but the religious status of Catholics was clearly of a very different nature than that of the Reformed Church in America folks we knew or even the Assemblies of God folks with whom we came into contact after my uncle left the CRC to become an AoG pastor.
All that started to change, though, in the 1980s as I finished high school and started college. People kind of liked this John Paul II person. As denominational identities and loyalties started to shift late in the last century and as societal and cultural patterns also shifted, people looked for more horizontal commonalities across denominational lines instead of the traditional vertical-only silo commonality of any one communion.
By the late 1990s, when I was a pastor and participating in the Pastor-Theologian Program through the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, I vividly remember what happened one day in a seminar. My Protestant colleagues—many of whom were first-cousin Presbyterians—were discussing the nature and extent of biblical authority. By that time most of my fellow pastors had thrown biblical authority overboard. My own seminar paper was one of the few that argued for a traditional view of inspiration and authority deeply rooted in my Reformed theology. The person who liked my paper the most and helped me defend it vigorously against my fellow Protestant detractors was our resource theologian, Gary Anderson, a very devout Roman Catholic scholar, who taught at Harvard. I was grateful for his help and, especially when I reflected back on what I had once thought of Roman Catholics, was grateful to appreciate what we shared in common on some pretty important core areas.
But what, I hear you and my Reformed Worship editors asking, has any of this to do with preaching?
Well, 2017 is the big 500th anniversary year for the Protestant Reformation. What’s more, this is the Lent/Easter edition of RW, and perhaps no single season of the church year gives us a chance to ponder what John Calvin called “the hinge of the Reformation” (viz., justification) more than the cross and resurrection.
So suppose we are minded to note and celebrate the Reformation as it hits its half-millennium birthday, either during Lent/Easter or later this year when we get closer to Reformation Day itself. Yet suppose we don’t wish to mark this occasion in ways that will be wounding to our Catholic sisters and brothers nor alienating to the younger people in our Reformed congregations who now count as close friends more Roman Catholics than I could ever have imagined knowing when I was that age. Suppose we don’t want, in essence, to slap Pope Francis’s hand, since he has extended it to so many these past few years in gracious and generous statements and stances with which we’d be hard pressed to disagree morally and religiously.
How can we celebrate our Reformed heritage in preaching and worship in ways that are generous and hospitable?
The answer is right in front of us in terms of the Reformation itself and the other big theme of grace. Yes, in the immediate throes of Reformation fervor, as may always be true of those who are on the vanguard of a new movement, both John Calvin and Martin Luther were known to be, shall we say, just shy of gracious when it came to dealing with “Papist dogs” and their horrid theologies. Martin Luther famously made every calling in life—not just ministerial ones—a holy vocation from God. Except, Luther noted, for prostitutes, robbers, and monks.
But that was then—500 years ago. We can still be happily Reformed in our theological thinking and through our confessions without feeling the need to do so by taking swipes at others, starting with Catholics. Grace means we are not saved by our works, but it also means we are not saved by the jot-and-tittle correctness of our theologies either. In our preaching we can celebrate the wonders of grace without doing what seems to have become in many places a kind of Reformed reflex: defining ourselves ever and only over against what we are not. “We thank God that we are not like those other Christians. . . .”
Celebrating the Reformation in preaching and worship means celebrating God’s grace in Christ. But as the apostle Paul knew, when you are steeped in grace and when your baptism gives you a whole new identity in Christ, then graciousness follows. There is a wideness in God’s mercy, and if there weren’t, would any of us formerly sinful people be in Christ’s fold today?
Yes, we have legitimate issues to keep talking about and arguing about with our Roman Catholic friends. But if we can do that in a spirit of love and generosity, we may discover as much—if not more—to celebrate about what we share than where we disagree.
In 1999, Lutherans signed a concord with the Vatican on a joint statement on justification. Everyone agreed we are all saved by grace in Christ alone. A couple of months later, Pope John Paul II announced that a plenary indulgence was available to all who made pilgrimage to Rome during the upcoming Jubilee Year of 2000. “Ah well,” I remember thinking, “the discussions will continue!”
But salvation by grace alone, and living as gracious people as a result, means that the discussions can continue and must continue. What’s more, grace means we can give thanks to the God from whom all blessings flow without clogging up our doxologies with sideways glances toward those “others” who aren’t as blessed as we are to understand Scripture so well.
As we celebrate our Lord’s death and resurrection in this 500th Reformation year, it will be enough at the end of every sermon and every service to imitate our brother Johann Sebastian Bach by putting Soli Deo Gloria at the end of those sermons and services and letting that be the last, best word.