The lectionary passages for Reformation Sunday are not specially selected for this day. They are not impossible passages for the day, though, at least if one is willing to use a bit of imagination.
The OT lesson is the death of Moses (Deuteronomy 34:1-12). This would appear to be a stretch, although in vs. 10-12 it extols Moses, for there “was never a prophet like him.” A judicious reference to the argument of the Letter to the Hebrews that proclaims that for all his worth, Moses was still a servant and Christ was the Son. The point of the Reformation was to proclaim the centrality of the Word. All else is meant to serve it. Reclaiming this in a secular culture, especially in the American church, which let itself be captured by the culture, can be a new work of Reformation.
The Gospel passage is Matthew 22:34-46. There are two parts to this: Jesus’ proclamation of the summary of the Law ( the first and greatest commandment....) and his question to the Pharisees when he asked them whose son the Messiah is, claiming that he is not the Son of David, but David’s Lord. This second part could also take up the issue of the Lordship of Christ in a secular world that has not been very able to say who he is. The summary of the Law passage, however, is very serviceable for this Sunday. We know what it commands: to love God above all, and to love neighbor as oneself. But how well has this been practiced since the Reformation with the church in pieces? The love of God we are bid to have is a love that comes from a unified self (and that unifies the self; no limping with two opinions, here.) Yet, in the church, there is not the unity the Bible wants for Christ’s church. We are separated from our brethren at the table. Perhaps there is not the enmity there once was, and this is all to the good. But we are still a long way from that unity. This is a great opportunity not to look backwards, either smugly or critically, on the Reformation, but to look forward to its unfinished business, to think about how we may work for unity.
Reformation Sunday is also appropriately observed by preaching on any of the great themes of the Reformation. This should not just be a time of looking backward. Think about what challenges the idea of Reformation sets for us. Some of these are
Justification by faith. This is all over Romans and Galatians. In a world of achievement and competition what does it mean to receive by faith our standing?
The Reformation motto: ad fontes! To the sources! The Reformation was not an attempt to create something new, but to return to the purity of the original revelation, and thus, like humanist Renaissance in which it was situated, it worked hard at uncovering and understanding the original fountains of Christianity, believing that they had the ability to remake the church. The thought of how a heritage is important is a worthy theme and expandable in many directions.
Christian Unity: There are obviously several biblical passages which talk about Christian unity. How are we in the church going to recover that? In a fractured world, how we love one another may well be a witness that we need to make.
Scriptural Witness: The Reformation based itself on sola scriptura – the Bible alone! What does this mean in our day? How do we hear, not simply pronouncements, or just the words of human authors, but God speaking to us? What difference does this make? More deeply, how does the Word by which all things were created, and by which they will be redeemed, come through in words? How can we hear it? How can it be the Word behind all our words?
©The Rev. Eric O. Springsted, Ph.D.
Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church
921 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10021