The Danger of Denominations: A Sermon For Reformation Sunday


St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Arlington MA

Reformation Sunday- October 30, 2016

John 8:31-36

 co2ucejShe spoke with the humility of someone who actually spent a lot of time in prayer. Her words were precise, nothing wasted. I had developed a sweet friendship with a Greek Orthodox woman who loved her Church, loved her people, loved Jesus Christ and had a particular devotion Mary, the Theotokos or God-bearer. I saw her again after a long absence, and she asked where I was worshipping this Sunday. “I’m preaching at a Lutheran Church for Reformation Sunday.” “What is that?” she asked. “Well, on that day, we Christians in the Reformed traditions commemorate Martin Luther, and the nearly 500 years since he nailed the 95 thesis on the church door, sparking needed reform in the Church…” I stopped as her brow began to crinkle, her brown eyes squinting to understand. She said, “My church, we do not commemorate the Great Schism that divided the Eastern Church from the Western Church. Why would you celebrate as a holy day the time when the Church divided?”

Let us pray…

Holy One, give us the Word we need this day. You speak to every generation and every people. Help us to hear your voice this day. Help us to see where we are still bound. Help us to be set free. I claim you again, my rock and my Redeemer. Amen.

You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free. We hear this line so often out of context that perhaps we forgot where it comes from. I did. I forgot it comes from Jesus teaching again among the religious leaders of his day. For generations, the Church would use this verse and others like it, especially in the Gospel of John to perpetuate the superiority of the Christians who accepted Jesus as Lord over the Jews who did not, a theological sin with lasting and lethal consequence. For centuries, we’ve been captive to this sin. Instead, we can see the religious leaders of Jesus’s time as much like many churches now, thinking we’ve got all we need, thinking we are not entangled, thinking we can free ourselves of all that ensnares us.

I have sympathy for those religious leaders. They’ve got a nice big temple right in the center of town, enough people to fill the pews, and the situation with the government is pretty good as long as you don’t question the empire too much. Whatever Jesus is selling, they aren’t buying. Jesus says, this way of life will set you free. And the religious leaders say, “nah, we’re good.” “They take umbrage at something Jesus doesn’t even say. You’ll be set free, Jesus offers. “We’ve never been slaves!” they respond.

Except, they’re wrong.

In verse 33, they answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.” But, “We’ve never been slaves” is not accurate. Abraham’s children were enslaved by Pharaoh in Egypt, but they’ve forgotten their history. By failing to remember their enslavement, they also forget that God freed them. They misremember themselves as self-sufficient just because they’re doing ok now. Moreover, Jesus is in Jerusalem for the Feast of the Tabernacles, the festival commemorative God’s provision in the wilderness after the Children of Abraham are released from Pharaoh’s enslavement. The self-involvement of the religious leaders is so thick that they’re missing the irony of the feast and failing to name God’s liberating role in their history.

Theological self-sufficiency is a dangerous thing. We delude ourselves into thinking that we’ve got all we need. Jesus didn’t intend for us to be this way, separated and divided from one another. Norm Kansfield, a Reformed Church in America pastor & seminary president said, “denominations, by their very existence, are examples of the sin that is present in the world.”

On Reformation Sunday, we aren’t exactly reveling in our denominational sinfulness, but we’re not repudiating it either. It’s an awkward thing, to celebrate a day of division. I felt that talking with my Orthodox friend. It’s awkward when your heroes are their heretics, your saints are their sinners. I am proudly, gratefully a Christian in the Reformed tradition. I’m also sufficiently convinced of our human tendency towards brokenness that I believe in the necessity of the Church to constantly be reforming. And yet, denominations delude us into that same theological insularity that lulls us into thinking like religious leaders in Jesus’s story. We come to believe we’ve got what we need.

We make a mistake when we treat denominations as our primary identity, the icing rather than the cake. Jesus did not say, “Go, therefore and make Presbyterians of all nations.” Jesus did not say, “They will know we are Methodist by our love.” As John Thomas, the former General Minister of the United Church of Christ once said, “Denominations are powerful adjectives, but idolatrous nouns.” Lutheran is a powerful adjective, but an idolatrous noun.

Powerful adjectives, and idolatrous nouns. My mother-in-law made the switch from noun to adjective. For years, she worked as a historian and interpreter at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home outside of Charlottesville VA. For many years, the official tour at Monticello was all about the famous family, not about the stolen black labor that made Monticello run. They had forgotten their history of enslavement. But in 1993, the Head of Research Cinder Stanton, found a way to make a change. My mother-in-law, Zanne MacDonald, sat with a group of 12 tour guides or interpreters to meet with Dorothy Redford. On a quest to find the missing history of her ancestors, Redford, traveled to Somerset Place, one of the largest slave plantations in North Carolina. There, She discovered a comingled history of black and white people that culminated in nationally publicized homecoming she organized, bringing together more than 2,000 descendants of the plantation’s slaves and owners. Redford taught these historical interpreters at Montincello to make a shift, from a noun to an adjective, to see the humanity of those who had been captured, forced, and enslaved. No longer would they talk about “slaves” but “enslaved people.” They traded the noun for the adjective. They would get precise in their historical language, naming the Jefferson family not as masters, but owners, owners of other humans.

Quickly, the interpreters made a change, and then slowly the tourists changed too. On each tour, the tourists would pick up on the new language, using “enslaved people” to talk about those who grew the food, tended the livestock, ran the house, and raised the children without pay. They began to imagine the enslaved persons as people with names, histories, and families of their own. They began to imagine the greater humanity, not just the enslavement, but the person who has every right and longing to be free.

For a long time, the divided Christian denominations in the ecumenical movement have been primarily focused on working out the theological differences. We’ve spent many long years talking about how different our adjectives are; how different Lutheran is from Methodist is from Baptist is from Quaker is from Roman, all the while forgetting the common Christian identity that unites. Much of that good and important work on our theological differences has either been resolved or our divisions are not longer as divisive. My conviction is that the work of our era is not to resolve our denominational difference, but the other things that divided us, particularly America’s pernicious contribution to Church division in the form of racism and white superiority.

But the truth will set us free. We tell ourselves some pretty big lies, sometimes. We tell ourselves there’s not enough for us, let alone anyone else. We tell ourselves that if they’re winning, we must be losing. We tell ourselves that we got here only by our hard work. As a country we’ve convinced ourselves of the lie that some of God’s children can be free while some are enslaved. We’ve bought the lie that we can do it on our own, that we have no need of one another. But Jesus points to another truth, the absolute necessity of our interdependence on one another and our utter dependence on Christ.

Just down the road in Cambridge today, the Old Cambridge Baptist Church is inviting over Faith Lutheran Church to talk about Martin Luther on Reformation Sunday. Two churches in the same neighborhood, who could conceivably imagining one another as competition, are searching for the truth together. Communities pointing to Christ together, assured that they cannot untangle themselves from the snares of sin on their own.

St. Paul’s, you have a head start. You don’t even need to leave your building! You have two other churches that worship in this very space in the Haitian Adventist congregation and the Korean Presbyterian congregation. What if they know something about God that will set you free? What if you know some things that they that they have been longing to hear? You’ve already shown that you can be brave and listen across divisions of nationality and tradition when you dug deep to partner with those fleeing the violence of Sudan. You know what it is like to have a sense of the utter necessity of one another and the need to constantly be re-forming to be the Church God calls you to be. You know this. This is your history.

“So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed,” Jesus said. The truth is, we need the Son, and we need each other to keep reforming, to truly be made free. May you step towards this freedom today. Amen.















Published by RevEverett

I'm a pastor in the United Church of Christ here in Boston. I serve as the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches. Cycliss, seamstress, my book is "Holy Spokes: The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels." NJ by birth, MA by choice. Opinions are my own. Love abounds.

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