Skip to content
Support the Reformed Institute Donate Today

Unfinished Business

At the invitation of National Capital Presbytery, the Reformed Institute enlisted the Rev. Dr. Eric Spingsted, one of the members of our Company of Teachers, to be the preacher at the worship service at the November meeting of the presbytery, which was designed to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. We are posting here the text of the sermon Eric delivered on that occasion.

The Rev. Eric O. Springsted, Ph.D.
Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church
preached at National Capital Presbytery
November 14, 2017
Unfinished Business

Text: Ephesians 2:8-11, 14-22; 4:4-6

“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all and in all.” These are words that we boldly pronounce at the beginning of the baptismal service. They reflect our trust that there is in Christ a common unity of all God’s people. We go on in ordination services to stress that there are many callings and many gifts. We can delight in the diversity of the gifts because we trust in the unity of the Church that is Christ’s body, the place, where Paul says earlier, those who were far off were brought near, and where Christ is our peace even as he makes former strangers one. In declaring these words, with this understanding of God’s reconciling former enemies, and giving many gifts, we, at least in the PCUSA, declare what, I think, we most believe. This, I suspect, is what we really want to stand on.

The problem is that these words don’t really apply to us, no matter what we say. There is an element in our saying them that is just plain false. There is not a unified Church. It is not unified even within our own denomination, even if we use soft euphemisms such as “gracious leave taking” to muffle the sound of our loud cracking. But the Church universal is especially not unified, especially not the Western Church. We really ought to be embarrassed about that. We really ought to do something about that.

As we now think about what five hundred years of the Protestant Reformation means, this may well be what we need to think about more than anything else. Over the course of this year, there has been a lot of uplifting celebration. We have also thoroughly reviewed our history, and judging from the state of knowledge about the Reformation, that is something that is very much needed. There have also been a lot of calls to assertively claim our motto – “reformed, always reforming.” They have urged us to continue Luther’s and Calvin’s courageous challenges to a deformed church. Many of them who have kindly provided us with ready lists of projects that they think we need to work on. But I have not heard a lot about church unity — denominational unity or the especially vexing problem of repairing our breach with the Roman Catholic Church, a breach that gives us our very name of Protestant.

To be fair, it isn’t entirely accurate that nobody is thinking about unity these days. In recent years there have been calls from Evangelicals to think about Protestant and Roman unity. In a recent thought provoking, and important book titled The End of Protestantism, Peter Leithart has suggested just that. In much of what he says, he echoes earlier calls by some other prominent Evangelicals for unity with Rome. This newly discovered wish for unity with Rome is rooted in what they perceive is a common desire to resist the forces of secularism. That they think it can be done is the result of some common ventures with the Catholics on just that front in the political realm. Good for them. But since the Evangelicals resisted for the most part the earlier discussions that mainline Protestants had with the Catholics, their rejoicing in a newfound commonality is also a bit untested. There are a lot of common projects that can be undertaken, but actual unity with the Roman Church is going to take a lot more work, and it involves a lot more issues. Those in the mainline denominations who have been in discussions for many years with the Catholics, especially the Lutherans, know that as a matter of long experience. But, at least, they are making a start.

Now, preaching that church unity is the unfinished business of the Reformation may not ring a bell that a lot of liberal Protestants feel calls them. We are not very embarrassed by the apparent contradiction of confessing one faith, one baptism, one God and Lord of us all with a visibly split church. We are satisfied with the ecumenical status quo. Relying on the model of American denominationalism, and enjoying the peace between Catholics and Protestants that has come since Vatican II, we may well think that we now exemplify the principle of “one Spirit, many gifts.” Each denomination brings something distinctive to the rich mix of Christian faith, we say. The Church, an airy fairy transcendent, invisible entity, is one, we say. Yet, frankly, that sounds more like a divorce lawyer talking, telling each of the estranged parties to be happy with what he or she got in the settlement. For what all this misses is that we still do not have the unity that is the physical, tangible, God-commanded, God’s-care-for-his-Church unity that is the unity of table fellowship. Protestants who tend to treat the table strictly symbolically may not mind this, as it is just a symbol. But it is not just a symbol. God gives himself to feed us, and by feeding us makes us grow into Christ our only righteousness. If we cannot do that together, something has gone wrong. So, we cannot be satisfied with such a status quo.

But why not? Why worry? Well, let me put it this way: it is because the Reformation was a tragedy that needs redeeming. Let me explain carefully what I mean. Today, we use the word “tragedy” to refer to what is too bad, really too bad. The shooting in Sutherland Springs was a tragedy. It was horrific and monstrous; lives that should have gone on were cut short. But the ancient Greeks, from whom we get the concept, meant something more than that. A tragic choice is when a human being has to choose between two things, but choosing either of them means something awful. Tragedy is the stuff of finite, human life, they thought. They also added that a person with a tragic flaw was someone who thought that he or she could be more than human and was somehow smart enough to escape the inescapable negative consequences of having to choose in tragic situations. The gods hated that, and quickly reminded such people that they were human. Thinking you are smart only made things worse. To be sure, our relation to God instead of to gods is different. But I still say that the Greeks knew something about human choices. At certain times, you have to choose and either way you choose, you know that you are between a rock and a hard place. Although we confidently say that God will wipe every tear dry, still, God, who lives in eternity, has different timing than we do.  So, that is what I mean when I say that the Reformation was a tragedy. It was a necessary and a good thing. The Church needed reforming. But reforming it broke it, and that was a bad thing. Yet, to keep it together would mean not reforming it. That is a tragic choice and we are living with the tragic outcome.

I doubt Luther would have put it that way to himself; he seemed to have a bit of a tragic flaw in this respect. He didn’t think that he broke the Church at all in his reforming efforts. He thought that the Church was still one since the Roman Catholic Church just wasn’t a church at all. Calvin thought the same thing and so did John Knox, who in the Scots Confession called the Roman church a “filthy synagogue.” The Romans weren’t just some unreformed brethren. It was for the most part a collection of unbelievers led by the antichrist.

But we think differently – blessedly. We know that we really aren’t the Church whole and entire. What the Catholics said of us at Vatican II — that there really are elements of saving faith in Protestantism — we have to say the same sort of thing of them. And we have to say it of Anglicans, and Lutherans, and even a few others that we might hold our noses around, too. So, that means that we are living with the consequences of what was a tragic choice, one wherein the choice to reform the church, also broke the church.

But, again, why should we care? Well, as Ephraim Radner, an Anglican theologian, put it in his large tome, A Brutal Unity The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Church, it is because our brokenness is a matter of violence, and as Christians, we are called to do something about violence. And we certainly aren’t ultimately going to do a lot about the violence in the world out there if we won’t do anything about the violence amongst ourselves. There was, of course, a lot of violence immediately after the Reformation. Because of the need to reform, a lot of people were martyred because of reforming violence. There is in the countries surrounding the North Atlantic none of that overt violence right now. Great. But, still,  whatever peace we have isn’t the peace that passes all understanding. We still do not have one table from whence that peace comes, and even if we are free and open about it, our openness to other Christians coming to our tables doesn’t settle the issue.

Table unity and table practice makes a difference.  At Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church we celebrate communion at every worship service and have for fifteen years. What I think the church has found, and what other Presbyterian Churches have found who have gone to this practice, is that it changes the way we do things, although perhaps subtly. The sermon, and prophetic preaching does not go away. But we are not just organized, and we do not live our lives together just around what we say. We also live out of a table fellowship. That means that we have once in awhile to think about how we relate to each other. How we relate to each other is not just by propositions and plans and structures anymore, things at which very wordy, very logical Presbyterians excel. Because of table fellowship, whether or not we are always conscious of it, we organize our life in different ways. We do it because of a bodily relation we have to God in his giving himself to us at the front of the church in plate and cup. We at our best thus think about our relations differently because that is what we do together every time we gather for worship. It changes what the sermon means, too. It doesn’t take away from its importance; but it means that the Word of God has to be understood as spoken, and also as a visible, tangible Word, as Augustine said. Our Lord said words and was also the visible, bodily, tangible Word.

So, if we do not have common table fellowship that is what we are not getting fully in our ecumenical relations, and why our keeping ourselves from unity is an act of violence, even if we are very polite and unjudgmental. It is not good enough to say that we welcome everybody, and that the Catholics just need to catch up. We all have to realize that it isn’t a one way street; it never has been. A lot of the obstacles that exist to unity exist because of our continual reforming, even though we think that what we are doing is a matter of religious progress and righteousness and that the Catholics, as usual, are just being obstreperous. But in the end, what we aren’t doing, despite all our progress, is thinking about how to reduce the violence, the fracturing between them and us. I don’t know that they are, either. We both then end up being just smug and self righteous and that shouldn’t be our Reformation heritage.

There is a lot that we have done that has created obstacles. Many of them I, for one, don’t want to give up. But, still,  as we continue to reform we always have to consider our brothers and sisters. We have to reduce the violence between us and them so that we live together in a peace that is not worldly, but one that passes all understanding. As Radner suggests, and I think he is right, should we make reducing violence really our goal, and should we make healing the brokenness our priority, then, in our efforts, we might even come up with far reaching and innovative ways to heal the violence in the world, too.

Now, because we actually have had since Vatican II a lot of experience in trying to find unity, and still aren’t there, we know that this may well seem like an impossible task. We aren’t close yet. We probably aren’t as close as we were twenty-five years ago. But we have to keep trying. What does trying mean today? It means claiming and learning our common theological roots. The church did not begin with Luther or Calvin. It means getting over our anti-catholicism in the way we worship. So what if the Catholics do something – like weekly communion? We can do it, too, and it won’t hurt us. Trying may also mean a lot of small things and nothing big at the present. It might mean resuscitating our local ministeriums where we can pray and read scripture together, listening to each other and to how we may interpret it differently. It means working together. And if we can’t officially and overtly have table fellowship yet, even if we do manage to sneak it in once in awhile, we can publicly claim our commonly and mutually recognized baptisms to do joint projects together. Because just as in table fellowship, unity is more than policies and spoken words and plans. Unity is how we put our bodies and minds and hearts and souls together in proclaiming God’s triumph over sin and death, and our common life that is hid in Christ with God. That is our unfinished business.

Upcoming Events

Scroll To Top