October 26, 2014, was a day that dawned with profound joy in my soul. I shall never forget it as long as I live. It began with personal morning prayer in a guest home in Montreal. I was in this great city to do my first Gospel Call mission with Fr. Thomas Ryan, CSP. Tom directs the ministry of ecumenism for the Paulists and works out of their Washington, D.C. office. He invited me in 2013 to join him as his fellow team member/missioner for a four-day event that we hope to do at least three times per year in various parts of North America. Tom did his first Gospel Call mission almost twenty-five years ago in Canada. He has had three Protestant partners before me. I will share more about the mission this week but today I’d like to tell you my story of this unforgettable day, October 26.
After breakfast I went to St. Luke Catholic Church in Montreal. In the first Mass of the Lord’s Day I was invited to give the homily. The lectionary text was Matthew 22:34-40. I preached on the Great Commandment. I spoke with a free spirit and deep joy in the gospel. I was not hindered or directed by pressures in any way. I spoke of God’s love, how much he loves and saves us by his grace and how he calls us to love with the very love that he gives to us in Christ alone. I plainly sensed the Holy Spirit’s power and grace upon me and the Word of Christ as I preached. Conversations that evening gave me ample evidence that God used that sermon to touch lives in deep ways. I must say, very simply, this opportunity to preach astounded me. It is quite rare for a Protestant to preach at a Mass. I do not know the precise procedure for such an invitation being extended but I am sure the parish priest and bishop must have been on the same page if not formally in agreement.
On the Saturday evening, before this memorable morning, I met the archbishop of Montreal, the Most Reverend Christian Lepine. Archbishop Lepine sat next to me in the worship service and we chatted briefly. He gave greetings at our opening Gospel Call event. The evening event was hosted by St. Luke’s parish and led by Deacon Brian Cordeiro. Archbishop Lepine was appointed to his office on March 20, 2012, by Pope Benedict XVI.
I wore my clerical collar at the Mass, with a simple dark and no vestments. (It was interesting that so many members called me “Father” out of respect!) Right after the service I changed in the sacristy to a dress shirt and tie and then went several blocks down the street to the First Christian Reformed Church of Montreal. (This is the only CRC congregation in the entire province of Quebec.) I preached a Reformation Day sermon from Romans 1:16-17. Pastor Jacob Boer and I had never met until that morning but we had exchanged emails. I really wondered what kind of CRC congregation, and what type of pastor, would welcome me. What should I expect? I really had little idea. To my great joy I was again received with love and encouragement. I spoke about the 16th century Protestant Reformation and the power of this one text in Luther’s life. I explained how and why it transformed him. I also reminded the congregation of our apostolic call to unity and of just how much had happened for wide-scale reformation since the early 1500s. The message seemed to work. People were again most receptive and gracious. I loved the worship and the contrast between the two parishes was striking. Yet there was also no radical disjunction between them. We confessed the Creed, read the Word of God, heard the Gospel, prayed as the gathered baptized people, and came to the eucharist. (No, I did not receive the eucharist at St. Luke’s since it is not appropriate to do so except in unusual circumstances. This is not the place to explore this issue.)
So, why was this Sunday, October 26, so deeply memorable to me?
The mission that I now lead (ACT3 Network) began in 1991. In 1992 I launched it as a full-time work and became the president. In 1996 we held our first Reformation Annual Conference and drew nearly 1,000 people to Chicago. At the time this event was happening I was already being led by the Spirit to embrace my vision of missional-ecumenism, mostly in private because of deep fear. By 1998 I announced that we would have an event in 1999 with the theme: “One Holy Catholic Church.” Our numbers plunged, as I had expected, to about 350. The writing was on the wall. My deeply conservative Reformation crowd did not want to hear a conference on unity even though the speakers were of high calibre: e.g. Timothy George, J. I. Packer, etc. By 2000 the direction of this ministry had shifted and the decade-plus that followed 2000 was one of decline and struggle. Only by God’s grace and provision did we get through those very hard years. We were often financially ruined. Many openly attacked my “new” stance. But in 2012 the tide shifted openly. I was now being invited into this “new” world (at least for me) and was now pursuing my vision with clarity and the obvious evidence of the Spirit’s power resting again on the mission and my own soul.
There are so many people, dear friends most all of them, who stood by me and believed in me and supported this vision. Some did not get the vision but loved me anyway. For this I remain grateful as well. What I could never have imagined, even as recently as a year ago, was preaching a Reformation sermon on Reformation Sunday in a Reformed Church and also preaching a Gospel text in a Catholic Church the same Sunday – Reformation Sunday 2014.
I later told Fr. Bertrand Montpetit (on Tuesday evening at our final meeting for the Gospel Call), that he had honored me beyond anything that he could have ever imagined by entrusting this homily assignment to me as his guest. In so doing the Spirit had used his invitation to fulfill a dream that God had given to me back in 1998. I realized then that I would preach where I could never imagine that I would go and when I did I would know this to be true: “You, Lord God did it all!” This is why October 26 was one of the most memorable days in my life. On Reformation Sunday, 2014, I preached in a Catholic Church and also in a congregation directly and confessionally linked to the Protestant Reformation. God alone did this. I completely enjoyed it. I wonder what comes next? Please pray for me friends.