“For by grace you have been saved through faith,
and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—
not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”
What does it mean to be Protestant? To be Presbyterian? When I came back to the Christian faith, late in my college years, I intentionally chose the Presbyterian Church. I had visited a majestic downtown church with a dwindling congregation and a huge endowment. I liked its reverence and its beauty, but I especially liked its literary bent. I was an English major with grand visions of someday lecturing in tweeds with leather elbow patches, while tinkering with an unlit pipe. The preacher at that church was good—a native Pittsburgher, far from home, who ended up dying young. He was always quoting writers that I admired, but not in such a way as to make him sound snobbish or effete. He did it thoughtfully, like a man making sense of things. I settled into Presbyterianism as a grateful spiritual refugee—lo, these twenty-four years ago. (That’s half my life plus four years!) Since I’d grown up in a church that was big on guilt and condemnation, I especially loved the “Words of Assurance” that the minister intoned each week from that high stone pulpit: “Friends, hear and believe the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ: In him, we are forgiven.” I’d never heard those words before, and I’ve never heard them since—at least not in that exact form—on anyone’s lips but my own. But they were (and remain) powerful for me. At that time in my life, I needed to hear them week after week. Like so many people, I needed to be reminded of the things we so easily forget: that forgiveness is possible, that it’s available to me, that after receiving it, our job is to share it. We need constant reminding.
When October rolled around, I was shocked one Sunday to hear a loud yell at the back of the church. A man in a kilt was swinging a staff, as bagpipes began to wail. The caterwauling noise slowly took the shape of a recognizable hymn that echoed through the cavernous old church. On Reformation Sunday—the last Sunday in October—a whole troupe of Highlanders in kilts and tartans would come marching down the center aisle. We always sang “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” that great hymn of the first reformer, Martin Luther. Of course, we were celebrating the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s, when Luther and Calvin (and his student, Knox) worked to put the church back into the hands of the people. The reformers wanted committees instead of bishops, yes, but they mostly wanted laypeople to know that the forgiveness is free. For that reason, the sermon on Reformation Sunday was always about forgiveness: You can’t buy it. You can’t earn it. You can’t deserve it. You can only receive it, a gift freely given and freely to be shared. All the stops were pulled out on Reformation Sunday.
That was all in the early 90s. Reformation Sunday is probably less celebrated today. I see the point of those who don’t want to overemphasize the Protestant Reformation. We don’t want to be jingoistic or triumphalist, touting our brand-of-church above all others. We don’t want to celebrate schism from our Catholic brothers and sisters, either. Years of healing, cooperation, and mutual respect have done much to bridge old divides between Catholic and Protestant. I agree. And yet, forgiveness is still free, and that is worth an October Sunday’s celebration.
In fact, it’s worth a whole lifetime of celebration. It’s worth hearing those same exact words week after week: “Friends, hear and believe the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ…”
In Christ’s Peace,