The Reformation Today: Where Does it Go from Here?

October 1, 2017
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen

Revelation 22;1-6, 16-17; Galatians 3:23-29

The last several Sundays we’ve been exploring the 16th century Reformation and its impact on the Church today. We’ve seen how the three great themes of the Reformation 500 years ago continue to animate the 21st century Protestant Church: grace alone, faith alone, scripture alone.

But where does the Reformation go from here? What does the future hold for the great Protestant traditions flowing out of Europe 500 years ago?

I see at least three directions we might expect the Reformation to take in coming years…

First: an ecumenical, interfaith direction. Protestant Churches have shown themselves, especially in the last 50-75 years, to be uniquely capable of forming cross-denominational relationships, usually in institutional, organizational, and structured ways…councils of churches at the local level, the state level, nationally, and at the global level. In coming years this will happen in less institutional ways, less structured ways, and increasingly in local relationships.

The past week illustrates this emerging new reality. On Tuesday, for the first time ever, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America allowed one of its candidates for ministry to be ordained to serve a non-Lutheran church. We celebrated the ordination of Matt Johnson, Westminster’s Interim Associate Pastor, at Bethlehem Lutheran Church. Candidly, that break with tradition did not start in the bishop’s office or the presbytery’s office; it began with a few of us conspiring locally to make it happen. Localized ecumenical relationships, yielding that kind of change. Congratulations, Matt.

Then yesterday I co-presided with a Roman Catholic priest at the wedding of a Westminster woman and her Catholic fiancé, now husband. That would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. The fact that we pulled it off has less to do with relaxing of standards in Rome – we did not contact the bishop or presbytery – than with developing ecumenical relationships in local communities. The old walls separating us don’t mean as much anymore.

“In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith,” the Apostle Paul writes to the Galatians. “There is no longer Jew or Greek” – Paul dissects the binary way people tend to look at the world – “There is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:6-8)

It’s as if we were undoing the divisions resulting from the Reformation between Protestants and Catholics, and among Protestants themselves. If we ask where the Reformation goes from here, an obvious first answer is that it goes in the direction of a Christianity that has fewer barriers standing among and between the various branches of the Church than it has had for the last 500 years.

The same thing is happening with interfaith collaboration. The Reformation taught us the God alone is Lord of the conscience, and that grace alone saves us, not our behavior or a particular creed. From those Reformation-era principles it is a short step to respectful interfaith dialogue and cooperation.

A major world challenge on the religious horizon – locally and globally – is learning to live with people of other faiths. Protestant churches, with our emphasis on freedom and respecting the rights and responsibilities of individuals with regard to religious matters, can and will lead the way in interfaith collaboration.

Westminster is certainly doing its part. Our interfaith dialogue sermons and relationships with multi-faith organizations are not one-off novelties or the whim of your pastor. They are the vanguard of 21st century open-minded, open hearted Christianity more concerned with practicing the faith in real ways with real people, some of whom have other faiths, than perfecting or judging it.

In recent years I have co-presided at a number of Jewish weddings – again, something that even a few years ago would not have happened. I’ve also done this with Buddhist priests. Many of us have attended a Muslim iftar, when the Ramadan fast is broken. We never would have done that 10-15 years ago. These are local outbursts of interfaith commitment – not handed down from on high, but local efforts – resulting in a shifting religious landscape.

Where does the Protestant Reformation goes from here? It’s moving in an ecumenical and interfaith direction.

Secondly, on this World Communion Sunday we’re enjoying sounds and rhythms and movement from all over the globe. Again, this is not a one-time experience, where we trot out the world music on one Sunday a year. We’re now drawing regularly from the music of Christians in other parts of the world to enliven our worship, to teach us other ways of praising God, to inspire us.

Over the last 150 years Protestant churches moved out from Europe to the world, in particular the global south, where the Reformation churches are growing rapidly. There are more Presbyterians today in South Korea than there are in the U.S. The same is true for Kenya and South Africa.

Christianity is on the move. One hundred years ago two thirds of the world’s Christians lived in Europe. Today, nearly two-thirds of the world’s Christians live in the global south. The Church there is exploding in growth, and our churches are receding. North American churches had 15% of the world’s Christians 100 years ago; today we have 10%.

We can see the impact of this emerging reality not only from a distance, but closer to home. The Roman Catholic priest friend who co-presided at the wedding yesterday serves a Minneapolis parish overflowing with people from Latin America. He told me last Saturday he did 29 baptisms and yesterday 28 were scheduled. They baptize around 400 per year, and they’re all babies of Latino immigrants. The parish has discovered that their future lies not with the Euro-Americans who brought Catholicism here – Irish, Germans and others from Europe – but with Catholics form the global south. The Roman Church in the US would be shrinking if not for Catholics coming from Latin America.

Similarly, we Protestants who lament the decline of our churches here can rejoice in the vast growth of the Reformation churches in the global south. We, too, can welcome immigrants coming from other parts of the world, especially sub-Sahara Africa, where the Reformed churches are so strong. Westminster has experienced an influx of West African Christians over recent decades, now serving as leaders in our church –and what a richer, healthier congregation we are.

The global south will bear the Protestant stream of Christianity into the future.

The third emerging direction for the Protestant movement, especially in this land, is increasing openness to diversity. At the local level we’re coming to see that in the future our churches will either reflect the contexts in which we minister, or they’ll not be sustainable for the long haul. We’re too isolated, too divided in our communities, racially, ethnically and culturally. It’s not the way of the gospel. Mono-cultural eco-systems cannot continue to thrive. They must be diverse in order to have the adaptive capacities to live into the future.

One of the last images of the Bible is found in the Book of Revelation when the Heavenly City comes to earth and settles among the human family. There is a river flowing through that city, and on the banks of the river is the Tree of Life. The leaves of the tree, the text says, “Are for the healing of the nations.”

I’ve usually interpreted that verse as pointing to healing among the political nations of the earth. But the Greek word here for nations is ethnos, that is, the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the variety of ethnicities in the human family that do not live well together. This may be less a political comment and more a call to learn to live in harmony with those different from us within our own land.

The vision of the Holy City invites us to be part of the healing of the racial divide that exists among us, to finally put aside, to do away with, the old reality that Martin Luther King used to remind us of – that Sunday at 11AM is the most segregated hour in America. The Church’s future lies in congregations that are more diverse, that reflect God’s hope that the human family might one day learn to live together in peace.

Here at Westminster our new members classes in recent years have been 10-15% racially mixed. Around 7-8% of Westminster members are people of color. We’re changing, but the world is changing a lot faster all around us.

A recent study of more than 100,000 Americans in all 50 states shows that only 43% of the population is made up of white Christians. Forty years ago that number was 80%. Twenty years ago it was two-thirds. Things are changing rapidly, all around us, and the church will need to change.

And forty years ago 55% of the population was made up of white Protestants. Today that number is under 40%. We are watching in our lifetime the end of America as a white Christian nation. And some see that as a threat. We see the rise of white supremacy and white nationalism and the clinging to white privilege in response, much of it cloaked in Christian language.

The changing reality shouldn’t frighten us, but, rather, call us to open our doors and hearts and open our lives to new friends who’ve been our neighbors for many years. We can either move constructively with these challenging new realities and learn ways to be faithful in worship and mission, or we can struggle against them and find our churches continuing to wither and weaken and die. This is hard work, but essential to the future of the church. (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/sep/20/end-of-white-christian-america and www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/)

Where does the 500-year old Reformation go from here? The Protestants churches, heirs to the great legacies of grace alone, faith alone, and scripture alone, will need to grow new ministries that reach across divisions we’ve long accepted as normative. That means creating new ecumenical and interfaith relationships and partnerships, welcoming Christians from the global south and learning from them, participating in the work of racial reconciliation, which may be the most difficult of all these things, and developing congregations that reflect our changing world.

To do this, the people of God will have to trust that the Holy Spirit is at work among us, stirring things up for the future health and vitality of the Christian Church.

We will have to use a holy imagination to see and join the new thing God is doing among us. May that imagination, that holy imagination, be kindled today at this World Communion table, as we join with Christians around the globe in celebrating the love of God that unites us in one human family, in all its wonderful and rich diversity.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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