The theme for Sunday remembers the events surrounding the Protestant Reformation. United Methodists officially celebrate Reformation Sunday “with a sense of moving toward unity and community." Honestly, we must admit that this theme of searching for unity and community seems ironic with the current conflict and division in the United Methodist family. In worship, we cannot engage Reformation Sunday without acknowledging the brokenness in the wider church and our brokenness.
Looking back at the Reformation is always conflictual. We see sincere efforts at renewal that happened in Protestant and Roman Catholic churches. Yet, in contrast, we also see the extraordinary pain that this severing of the church caused. Europe, for example, was thrown into a Thirty Years’ War as civil authorities took sides. A result was millions of deaths though military action and civil disruption.
In 2017, The Lutheran World Federation and the The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity produced a common document, the result of years of conversations: From Conflict to Communion: Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017. This document is both historical reflection as well as statement of “ecumenical imperatives.” It acknowledges that “Repeatedly, we have stood in the way of the good news of the mercy of God.” It hopes that study will result in a “deeper communion of all Christians."
In fact, the document calls on churches to work “from the perspective of unity and not from the point of view of division.” Differences are to be acknowledged and common commitments named, but, more important, the “experience, encouragement, and critique” of the other is honored. What profound advice! Seeking unity, listening respectfully, honoring another’s experiences, and joining in “service to the world” witnesses “to the mercy of God.”
In the midst of the admissions and hopes of this document, let’s turn to the lectionary texts, focusing on the Joel and Luke readings. Joel is looking out at the devastation of the land. The vision before him is as if locusts have eaten and destroyed everything. Probably a post-exilic prophet, Joel sees brokenness everywhere. Yet he also sees possibilities for new life. Joel writes: “You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame” (Joel 2: 27 NRSV).
Joel, as all prophets, advocates for the people to turn back to God who is “gracious and compassionate” (Joel 2: 13 NRSV). The prophets were disgusted when the people took advantage of one another and broke community. They knew God expected more – faithfulness and care for the least.
In many Jewish communities, Joel is read as the prophetic text (the Haftarah) the week before the great celebration of Yom Kippur (or the days of atonement). The rabbis who shaped Jewish patterns of worship (Torah and Prophetic readings) believed that Joel’s themes of “repentance, lamentation, divine forgiveness, and restoration” provided a fitting prelude to seeking the renewal of community through Yom Kippur. Living in community is always difficult. People will never see eye to eye, but efforts to seek the best for others and to build relationships are expected.
The Luke text is another amazing parable. Luke sets the parable in the context of “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” (Luke 18: 9 NRSV). What a challenge, both in Jesus’ time and today! Can community ever be built with those who regard others with contempt?
Typically, we have heard the parable interpreted as a contrast between the self-righteous religious leader and the unworthy sinner. That interpretation does fit so much of Jesus’ ministry as he reached out to those who were excluded. Yet, a commentary by the Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine offers additional insight. In Jesus’ day, the hearers of the parable would know that Pharisees were exemplary. Pharisees worked hard to live faithfully. They were respected in contrast to others who colluded with Rome. Some of the colluders included tax collectors. Tax collectors served Rome garnering the tribute Rome expected. In addition, they often took advantage of the weak for their own personal gain.
All parables have a surprise, and this one is no different. Dr. Levine writes: “Perhaps the Jews who first heard this parable understood the Pharisee’s merit positively to have impacted the tax collector. This would be the parable’s shock; not only that the agent of Rome is justified but that the Pharisee’s own good works helped the justification.” Just as the sin of taking advantage of one’s neighbors breaks community, efforts to live faithfully and witness to the grace of God restores community. What a surprise! What a challenge for the hearers of the parable who regarded others with contempt.
Efforts, all efforts, to embody and live God’s love and grace can miraculously build relationships. Similarly, From Conflict to Community advises us to honor “each other’s experience, encouragement, and critique” and keep “service to the world” paramount. The effects can be surprising.
Questions for Reflection:
- Remember, Reformation Sunday is not simply a celebration of heroes; it is a prayer for unity and community. How can you highlight the theme of building community?
- Research on the sense of community suggests that uniformity is not the key factor in building community; rather, common projects and common efforts build community. Working together for a goal builds community. In what efforts in your community can you engage, even with people with whom you disagree? What projects call you to work together?
- Looking at the parable: if efforts at living faithfully and openly do have an effect on others, how might we work to honor “each other’s experience, encouragement, and critique”?
The Rev. Dr. Jack Seymour ([email protected]) is professor emeritus at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, where he taught for 30 years. He is an ordained elder in the Northern Illinois Conference of The United Methodist Church. Jack is the author of Teaching Biblical Faith: Leading Small Group Bible Studies (Abingdon, 2015) and Teaching the Way of Jesus: Educating Christians for Faithful Living (Abingdon, 2014). He has retired in Nashville, TN, where he is active writing and teaching in the church.
 It is available on both Lutheran and Roman Catholic websites: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrstuni/lutheran-fed-docs/rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_2013_dal-conflitto-alla-comunione_en.html and https://www.lutheranworld.org/sites/default/files/From%20Conflict%20to%20Communion%20EN.pdf ).
 Ibid., pp. 7-8.
 Ibid., pp. 87-88.
 The Jewish Study Bible (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 1167.
 Amy Jill-Levine, “The Gospel According to Luke,” in The Jewish Annotated New Testament. Edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 138.
 From Conflict to Communion, 87-88.