The United Nations or the Reformation: What Sunday is It?

United Nations Sunday

October 27, 2013 marks the 67th year that the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society has been promoting United Nations Sunday. The observance takes place on the Sunday closest to October 24. I don’t understand why a political institution – even a trans-national political institution – should be the focus of Christian worship. I say that with all due respect to the United Nations, with which I would gladly work as part of a U.S. force in peacekeeping or disaster relief operations.

Whatever importance the observance of United Nations Sunday once had, it seems to be waning in significance, even in the progressive wing of Christ’s church. The UMC’s General Board of Church and Society appears to be joined only by the Unitarian-Universalist Association and New York’s Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in publicizing the observance of United Nations Sunday this year. In general, the church’s life is less driven by the calendar of good intentions than it was a half century ago. The seasons of the historical and ecumenical Christian year offer a more Christ-shaped liturgical life.

Reformation Sunday

Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the Castle Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, initiating what would come to be called the Protestant Reformation.  Protestant churches with ties to Lutheran or Reformed Christianity continue to commemorate the event on the last Sunday of October. For many, it is an occasion to remember the distinctive emphases of the Reformation: sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura, solo Christo and soli Deo gloria. I can’t speak or write about the Reformation, however, without also coming back to Wesley’s sermon on “A Catholic Spirit.” See, for example, my posts:

In the American context, the Reformation principles of individual competency and responsibility before God have resulted in a hyper-individualistic, consumer-oriented version of Christianity. The reformers, however, believed that they were reforming the one holy, catholic and apostolic church. They certainly did not envision hundreds (if not thousands) of separate Christian denominations divided by doctrine, practice, culture and human sin.

I love the reformers and their writings. If, however, Reformation Sunday conveys the message, “We finally got it right and every other part of the so-called church is the devil’s handiwork,” then I want no part of it. Sometimes our forebears in the faith were right. Sometimes they were wrong. That holds true for Orthodox, Catholic, Reformed, Evangelical, Pentecostal, Progressive, Fundamentalist and every kind of forebear you can think of. We have something to learn from all of them. Within the contemporary church, however, we are not always going to agree about which parts of our heritage are more useful and which parts are less useful. Let us all take responsibility before God, then, for what we teach and do, always seeking to grow in faith and love. A spirit of earnestness, humility, amity and unity should always characterize our actions.

The Lord’s Day is no more an occasion to exult in our ecclesiastical divisions and differences than it is to venerate a political body. Christ alone is Lord and in him we are one. When I worship, I know that I am united to all who claim the name of Christ. In a sense, there can be no such thing as Lutheran worship or Methodist worship or Baptist worship or Pentecostal worship anymore than there is a Methodist heaven or a Baptist heaven. Worship takes us to the throne of God where there can be no such divisions.

Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost

October 27, 2013 is also the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost in the Christian year. The readings in many churches will come from Cycle C of the Revised Common Lectionary, much of which is shared between Protestants and Catholics. I have growing respect for churches who ignore the “special days” imposed on worship by a narrow segment of the church and simply see what God has to say in the Holy Scriptures. As this church year draws near to its close next month on Christ the King Sunday, perhaps we should just listen to Jesus’ words in this Sunday’s gospel:

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)