Feast Day: Reformation Sunday
Readings: Isaiah 35; Psalm 85
“Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us,” (85:4).
Today we commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. On October 31st, 1517 a Roman Catholic monk by the name of Martin Luther wrote a list of ninety-five theses and nailed it to the Cathedral door in Wittenberg where he was professor of moral theology. He had hoped to provoke debate about corruption in the Church which he did and it spread throughout Europe like wildfire. Archbishop Justin Welby called it “the viral content of its day.” Within two decades the Reformation rent Europe in two between Protestants and Catholics.
Anglicans are those who are indebted to the Reformation and yet committed to a Catholic vision of the Church. As heirs of the Reformation we give thanks for the emphatic proclamation that it is Christ alone who heals our sinful hearts. Christ alone who brings us home to God. Christ alone. Yet in our commitment to the Church Catholic we ought to lament the fragmentation of the church and commit ourselves to pursing unity wherever possible.
The words of the prophet Isaiah which we heard proclaimed this morning help us, I believe, to honestly assess our present reality and see our way through to the promise of God into which live by hope.
First of all it is important to provide a bit of context. The prophet Isaiah lived in the 8th Century BC during what is considered to be one of the most tumultuous times in Israelite history. Israel herself was a nation cut to the heart by division with a number of tribes combining to form the northern kingdom of Israel and the remaining tribes left to form the southern kingdom of Judah. One people, divided.
In the mid-8th century BC the northern tribes were besieged and carried off by the Assyrians. By the turn of the century the southern tribes had met much the same fate at the hands of the Assyrian king Sennacherib, leaving the kingdom of Judah—home to Jerusalem/Zion—ravaged.
It is into this context—one of a people divided and torn asunder by strife and foreign powers—that Isaiah speaks the word of the Lord. The passage that we heard read signals a note of hope. Despite the fact that Israel is at present cut to the heart by division and under God’s judgement it remains true that God is using all of this, their stubbornness and all of the calamity that has befallen them, to refine them and bring them into a future that he has not only promised but is preparing.
The whole passage speaks of Israels return from captivity to Zion, to that great city where they will be at home with their God. Yet it is held up as a promise, as a reality that they are not currently experiencing but towards which they are being brought: “They shall see the glory of the Lord.” “He will come and save you.” “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened.” “A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way.” “And the ransomed of the Lord shall return.” All of this shall be but is not now. For now it is a promise. A promise that Israel is to cling to and not forget.
Israel’s present is like a parched desert in which nothing much can grow. But when the Lord their God comes to bring them home then that arid and dull land will burst forth with life and beauty: “Like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly.”
Another figure of God’s promise to Israel is that of a disordered body being made whole again. Weak hands and feeble knees will be strengthened and made firm. Fearful hearts are made courageous and at peace. Blind eyes and deaf ears will be opened. The speechless tongue will sing for joy. The lame shall leap like a deer (35:3-6a).
It is no accident that one of the primary figures the Apostle Paul uses for the Church is that of a body and indeed we are Christ’s Body. And yet at present this body, like Israel in Isaiah’s time, is disordered, out of whack, disfigured, bearing the scars of our division.
Archbishop Justin Welby wrote a piece for a British newspaper last week in which he recalled being at a service of Holy Communion in the Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral. Knowing that Anglicans and Roman Catholics are unable to receive communion together when Archbishop Welby went forward at the time of communion he knelt down to be prayed for by Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster. Recalling what happened next the Welby wrote: “He took my hand and lifted me to my feet. Both of us had tears in our eyes. We are the closest of friends, and being reminded of the divisions in the global Church pains us both very deeply.”
Here is the point: the wounds of our division obscure our witness to the world. Recently a faithful Roman Catholic woman visited St. John’s on a week when we used the liturgy for Holy Communion from the Book of Common Prayer. After the liturgy had ended she made a comment about how familiar it all felt. “Why are we divided?” she wondered. If this is what people of faith wonder we can only imagine the ways in which our division trips up those who are not yet believers. In this way our division is literally a scandal to the gospel.
Yet the wounds of our division cut deeper still. If you know your Church history you know that ecclesial division has very often led to brutal violence and murder. A Professor and mentor of mine from seminary wrote a book a few years ago about Church division which was initially titled Division is Murder. Murder in the sense that we kill one another but even more-so in the sense that division tears apart the one Body of Christ. The title of his book was later changed by the editors to A Brutal Unity, indicating that the way to unity, the overcoming and healing of our division is a costly enterprise. It comes at the cost of Christ’s own life.
“A highway shall be there,” proclaimed Isaiah, “and it shall be called the Holy Way.” “And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing.” This is true for the Church as well. At present we are divided and this division is a scandal. Yet Christ is bringing us home, calling us into a future in which the wounds of our division are healed and we are made one. And that highway, the Holy Way, upon which we the broken and divided Body of Christ travel is the broken body of Christ himself, once offered upon the cross and now in this Eucharist. As Isaiah writes elsewhere: “he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed,” (53:5).
We cannot heal the wounds of our division, that alone Christ can do and he begins to do so as he heals our sinful hearts. This is the great emphasis of the Reformation. That our salvation is bound up in Christ alone and our trust in him. Yet in the Gospel According to St. John Christ himself prays prays for his followers saying: “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one,” (John 17:11). We like Jesus to answer our prayers but I want to end with a petition that we be a church that strives to answer his prayer, that we be one.
I believe that one of the gifts of Anglicanism is to help us to see how we can be heirs of the Reformation in a way that conforms to a Catholic vision of the Church. So let me end with a few modest proposals.
First, and chiefly, submit yourself to the Word of God in every area of your life. Let the Bible stand at the centre of your life and feast upon it daily. Plumb the depths of Scripture which can never be exhausted and approach it with the faith that the living and risen Jesus is waiting there to meet and address you.
Second, submit yourself to the Sacraments. Approach the Eucharist with the faith that Christ gives himself to you in the form of bread and wine. Trust that God really gives you a share in his life and love in these seemingly ordinary things.
Third, as you do this, submit yourself to Christ’s judgement. For the Christian, every day is judgement day. Let the light of his word and his presence shine into the recesses of your heart and mind and let him purify any dark way that is in you. Let his love heal your sinful heart.
Forth, study the faith. Be not content simply to have faith but seek understanding as well. Read broadly. Pick up something by Irenaeus, Chrysostom, Augustine or any of the Church Fathers. Read something by the contemporary Eastern Orthodox theologian John Behr or by Pope Benedict XVI. Heck read some Calvin while you’re at it and some Richard Hooker too.
Fifth, bear with one another in love. Recognize that the baptismal bond we share makes us brothers and sisters and this should make us slow to sow dissension. Also, be quick to reconcile with one another. Do not withhold from others the mercy Christ has given you.
Finally, pray for unity. Really pray. Pray for other churches. Pray for persecuted Christians. Pray that Christ would give us the will and ability to do all we can to work for the unity of the Church.
May the words of the Psalmist be ever on our lips: “Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us,” (85:4). Amen.
 Justin Welby, www.standard.co.uk/comment/comment/justin-welby-luther-s-historic-act-did-so-much-to-shape-the-world-we-live-in-a3669686.html
 Old Testament Survey, 279.