Luther, Calvin, and the Pope Meet: A Reformation Day communion service with reader's theater
Every year around Halloween, our worship committee strains brains and resources: How can we memorably, intelligently, and accurately place worship of God above “Trick or Treat” to our increasingly diverse congregation? We have many from various Protestant and Roman Catholic backgrounds, and some who claim no Christian heritage at all. Thus in 1999 our Reformation Day communion service tried graciously, seriously, yet somewhat lightheartedly, to present three main Reformation-era figures in a conversation imagined from eternity. The three members who played Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Pope Paul III did not memorize their parts but rehearsed them thoroughly.
The congregation’s response was wholly appreciative. Many volunteered that they had never before so vividly grasped both the glory and the pain of the Reformation’s theological conflicts and accomplishments. The celebration of the Lord’s Supper evoked, we pray,
So Close to God; So Far from Each Other
what it intends: reconciliation with God among God’s people.
Narrator stands at the podium, perhaps to one side; Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Pope Paul III sit in chairs, prepared for conversation together. The three historical figures are miked and dressed plainly and similarly—dark slacks, white shirt. (Alternatively, each person could wear a black robe and a distinctive hat.) They look straight ahead until the narrator finishes.
Narrator: [Reads Acts 13:38-39; Romans 3:19-28]
Around 1540 in the history of the church there were three great Christian leaders: Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Pope Paul III. On earth they never met each other. In fact, the Lutherans, Calvinists, and Roman Catholics they represented often struggled violently against each other.
But God rules time from eternity. Part of God’s plan to make all things new is to help us gain perspective on who we are as God’s children. In that light, we are to confess our sins to God and to each other and to forgive each other.
Imagine the place where God is all in all. The time, eternity. Here Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Pope Paul III can worship God together—and speak courteously and graciously to each other.
Martin Luther: Gentlemen, if we were still living on earth, do you know what day it would be?
John Calvin: Brother Martin, you still think rather highly of yourself. I know you’re thinking it’s what some call Reformation Day, and you invented it.
ML: Well, after the year 1517 that was a day to remember, Monsieur Calvin, if I must say so myself. It wasn’t the easiest thing in the world to write ninety-five points about the Christian faith and open up a debate.
Pope Paul III: Martin, Martin—I’d still prefer to call you “Father Martin,” for you were a priest. But then I must remember that we did remove you from the church. I still regret it. Anyway, Martin, you certainly started a debate. Some have said you divided the church and started wars among Christians.
And while you’d like to call this “Reformation Day,” many remember it as All Hallows’ Eve—the day before All Saints Day. Too bad that has become only a night for candy and skeletons.
But how could anyone from our time forget those ninety-five theses you nailed on the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg? Now I can appreciate why you did that. But at the time I was furious.
ML: Father Paul—but I’ll call you Brother Paul now—there was so much for me and many others to be furious about. Much of the Roman Catholic Church was a corrupt mess. The practice of Christianity was a cartoon of what Jesus’ first followers practiced.
JC: Martin, right away you start to get steamed up! I remember hearing a lot about your hot temper. That never really helped your cause, even though many of your ideas were sound. Still, you rediscovered what St. Augustine had taught more than a thousand years before—“justification by faith.”
ML: Thank you, Brother John. I’ll try to watch myself. Of course, Augustine was not the first to teach “justification by faith.” He merely taught what Saint Paul had written long before him. Justification—it’s all about how God saves people. That was the seed of what came to be called the Reformation.
Please, Brother Paul, I should think that by now you’d admit that by the sixteenth century the church had sunk to a low point. It had stolen salvation away from God and was trying to run God’s show.
Paul: Martin, I agree with John Calvin. You still exaggerate and seem almost to try to inflame people for the sake of debate—even now in eternity, in God’s gleaming presence.
But you have a point, I’ll admit. We never said that the Roman Catholic Church saved people. We always said that God saves and forgives through Christ’s death.
ML: I’m not exaggerating now, friends. You and the church always insisted that “no one could be saved outside the church.” I’m just quoting one of your own church’s documents. Along with many others, I tormented myself because of that teaching. We were never sure that we were saved. We always felt that we had to prove ourselves good enough so the church would say we were forgiven.
JC: Martin, I remember hearing about your torment. When you were a monk, you whipped yourself...
ML:... until I was bleeding. For years I did that, trying to convince myself of my salvation.
Paul: And you insisted that it was the church’s fault.
ML: Because the church stood between God and people. You kept people captive to the church and made them wallow in guilt—so they never come to know God and God’s great salvation!
JC: Martin, you’re starting to boil again. Be careful!
ML: I’m sorry; I’ll try harder. Anyway, I never realized that God’s sheer undeserved grace to all sinners saved us—not until I studied the Bible. Then I worked through Paul’s letters to the Romans and Galatians and saw a light I’d never seen before—because the church didn’t trust laypeople with the Bible.
Paul: Martin, I’ve got to hand it to you there. You were as good as your word. You translated the whole Bible into contemporary German. But without the help of early printers, the Bible could never have found its way into the hands of priests and scholars—and later into homes and the entire European society.
JC: Martin’s work also encouraged a revival in preaching. Preaching had nearly disappeared from worship, Brother Paul. Worship revolved around the Mass. In the Mass the church focused mainly on Jesus’ crucifixion. But Jesus’ death was only part of his work of salvation. Just as important, he conquered death in the resurrection. “Up from the grave, he arose,” they’ve sung in churches for years. No crucifixion—no forgiveness, of course. But no resurrection means no salvation, no new life—only the guilt that Martin described and suffered.
So my complaints about the Mass were that you virtually killed Jesus again and again every time Mass was celebrated. We considered that blasphemous.
Paul: Brother John, you too have a way of overheating.
JC: I suppose so. But I believe you get the point. In fact, your whole church these days on earth is getting that point. Your present successor, Pope John Paul II, says over and over, “There is more that unites us than divides us.”
One thing that unites us now—and I’m glad you’ve come to see it Martin’s way—is that preaching has strongly awakened in Catholic churches. What’s more, Bible study is growing in ways that you discouraged in your day.
Brother Paul, you have to admit that you have turned somewhat more Protestant in recent years. Your people sing in worship—maybe not as well as Reformed people, but they’re getting there. In fact, why don’t we sing one of Martin’s most famous songs right now?
[Congregation sings “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” PsH 469; PH 260; RL 179; TH 92; TWC 43]
JC: We keep learning. Priests are preaching from Scriptures that were silent in the churches for centuries. Many Roman Catholics are studying the Bible as never before.
ML: But we are still not completely agreed about the central point of justification. Does God save us because he is completely gracious in giving us Christ? Or does God save us because somehow we draw ourselves closer to God?
You and your church are not completely clear on that, Brother Paul. You still emphasize doing good works to prove a person’s worth. And you still claim that the church is the gateway to a saving relationship with God.
Paul: But you Calvinists and Lutherans have always made salvation too easy. You confess only to God—not to each other. No visible authority keeps you together.
There is still one Roman Catholic Church with many branches. But there are more than 20,000 Protestant denominations, many of them independent, squabbling with each other. The Calvinist Reformed churches split so quickly and easily. Our witness is divided.
JC: Perhaps we have divided Christ because we haven’t listened to God or to each other. We have been swayed by other considerations. We always need forgiveness for that.
ML: But what does unite us, really? Doesn’t Christ’s poured-out blood flow over all of us? Don’t we all believe that it is God who saves? God makes us right—we don’t do that ourselves. We are utterly dependent on God.
Paul: Martin, you are still preaching that! You’re worse than a dog with a fresh bone. But you are right. We disagree about the function of the church. We disagree about how God gives us salvation. But we have come to agree that it is God and God alone who gives it. Thank God for that!
JC: And we have come to that because we have read the same Scriptures. We come to that agreement only when we trust first and last in God’s Spirit to guide our hearts, our reading, our study, our worship.
I have to admit that the people who call themselves Reformed today have learned about God’s Spirit from that group of independent churches called charismatic or Pentecostal. We have to trust God’s Spirit more. We have to celebrate together more.
Narrator: And that is why we are here today. We are part of God’s eternity, united by God’s grace with many whom we have fought in the past. We are here in this time and place to mourn divisions, but also to celebrate what unites us—whether we’re Lutheran, Calvinist, Catholic, Baptist, or Pentecostal. We are here because God calls us here through Scripture and preaching to hear God’s Word. We are here to remember Christ’s death and his resurrection, believing that Christ died to give his people new life so that they can live close to God and closer to each other.
Call to Worship
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
Grace be to you, and peace, from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
Now as our Lord gives to us his peace, so let us pass the peace to each other, saying, “The peace of the Lord be with you.”
Song of Praise: “God Is Here” PsH 516; PH 461; TWC 701
Most holy and merciful Father, we confess to you and to one another that we have sinned against you by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart and mind and strength. We have not fully loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have not always had in us the mind of Christ. You alone know how often we have grieved you by wasting your gifts, by wandering from your ways, by forgetting your love. Forgive us, we pray you, and free us from our sin. Renew in us the grace and strength of your Holy Spirit, for the sake of Jesus Christ your Son, our Savior. Amen.
Declaration of Pardon
To all who confess themselves to be sinners, humbling themselves before God and believing in the Lord Jesus Christ for their salvation, I declare this sure promise: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
Response: “Glory Be to the Father” PsH 635; PH 577-79; RL 561 63; TH 734, 735; TWC 807
Let us, God’s forgiven people, now listen to God’s law for our lives. From a responsive form in the Psalter Hymnal, page 1018
Proclamation of the Word
Prayer for Illumination
Let us pray: Almighty God, grant us your Spirit, that we may rightly understand and truly obey your Word of truth. Open our hearts that we may love what you command and desire what you promise. Set us free from private distractions and from selfish pride so that we may receive the promise of your grace. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Scripture: Acts 13:38-39; Romans 3:19-28
Message in Drama: “So Close to God; So Far from Each Other” (p. 15)
Hymn of Response: “Christ Is Made the Sure Foundation” PH 416; RL 392; TH 342; TWC 699
Doxology: “Praise God, from Whom All Blessings Flow” PsH 637, 638; PH 591-93; RL 556; SFL 11; TH 731-33; TWC 808, 809
The Lord’s Supper
Congregation in Christ, since the Lord has fed us at his table, let us praise his holy name with thanksgiving with selections from Psalm 103. (Ps. 103:1-5)
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God and of his Son Jesus Christ, our Lord; and the blessing of God almighty, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be among you and remain with you always.
Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.
Song of Parting Praise: “Go, My Children” (RW 48, p. 30)