John Knox 500
Find resources to celebrate the 500th anniversary of John Knox’s birth on October 26, 2014.
The tradition of Reformation Sunday offers an opportunity to celebrate our heritage and history, to affirm our central theological convictions and to consider God’s ongoing reformation of the church. The Presbyterian Church does not have special scripture readings or resources designated for Reformation Sunday, since it is not part of the liturgical calendar. However the following suggestions may be helpful as you begin to plan for that day.
Preach a historical sermon
Reformation Sunday is the Sunday before Reformation Day (October 31), when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg. A preacher could take this opportunity to preach a historical sermon on the origins of the Reformation, taking note of primary concerns of the reformers:
- salvation by grace through faith,
- centrality of the Word (both preached and visible in the Lord’s Supper),
- and participation of all people in worship through congregational singing and vernacular reading of scripture and preaching.
Recall, for example, that the reformers, including Calvin, strove for more frequent celebration of the Lord’s Supper as a reaction against the infrequent communion of the medieval church. Recall, too, that the new emphasis on congregational singing was a powerful gift to enable worshipers to engage fully in the praise of God.
If you take this historical approach, bear in mind that the first reformers understood themselves as trying to rectify abuses from within the one church; they did not set out to form a new denomination. Also, remember that there are significant differences between the Roman Catholic church in the 16th century and the Roman Catholic church today.
Take a doctrinal approach
The preacher could take a more doctrinal approach, focusing on the central theme of salvation by grace through faith. If you take this approach, consider looking at the scriptures recommended by the Lutheran church for this day: Psalm 46, Jeremiah 31:31-34, Romans 3:19-28, and John 8:31-36. These emphasize the new covenant between God and the people, a covenant through which God saves by grace alone.
Since many of the reforms called into question the nature of the church, you may want to preach on what it means to be church. “The Church and Its Mission” in the recent Book of Order (G-3.000) is helpful here and includes pertinent scriptures.
Ask what God is doing among us now
Liturgy for Reformation Sunday
Emphasize the ongoing nature of church reform, which is in continuity with the original impetus of the Reformation, as Lukas Vischer notes. This is an opportunity to look not only back at the 16th century, but ahead to the ways in which the church is “reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God.” It could be helpful, for instance, to note that in 1999 the Lutherans and the Roman Catholics adopted a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, in which they agreed on the primacy of God’s action in salvation. This is a good way to avoid the anti-Catholic tendency of some Reformation Sunday observances. You may also want to take this opportunity to ask how a denomination or a particular local congregation is being reformed according to the Word of God today: what is God doing among us now to shape us into more faithful Christians?
Sing the psalms
Consider recovering some of the worship practices of the early Reformed church, especially congregational singing of the psalms, which was a hallmark of Reformed churches in the first centuries of its existence. There are many psalters available which enable such congregational singing. Here are a few suggestions:
The Psalter: Psalms and Canticles for Singing. Louisville: Westminster/ John Knox Press, 1993.
Michael Morgan, Psalter for Christian Worship. Louisville: Witherspoon Press, 1999.
The psalm section of The Presbyterian Hymnal (1990): hymns 158-258.
Download a Reformation Sunday Brochure from the World Communion of Reformed Churches, featuring resources based on the Heidelberg Catechism, which is 450 years old in 2013.
Consider focusing on one of the early Reformed confessions as a statement of what those Reformed communities believed and taught. The French Confession of 1559, greatly influenced (if not written) by Calvin himself, is a good example of such a confession. You could use part of it as a congregational affirmation and also use it as material for your sermon.
- “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (Psalm 46 paraphrase) (PH 259, 260)
- “O Praise the Gracious Power” (PH 471)
- “Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in your Word” (Lutheran Book of Worship 230)
- “Built on a Rock” (Lutheran Book of Worship 365)
- “I Greet Thee Who My Sure Redeemer Art”
- Bach’s cantata “Ein Feste Burg”
- Ralph Vaughan-Williams, “God is Our Refuge and Strength” (Oxford)
- Dietrich Buxtehude, “Lord Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word” (Concordia)
- John Ferguson, “The Church’s One Foundation” (Augsburg/Fortress)
Other Ideas for Reformation Sunday
Have a Reformation Party
Instead of a Halloween party, encourage people to dress up as a Reformer or martyred saint during the Reformation era. Get more ideas, including a song about the Reformation sung to the tune of “Supercalifragilistic.”
Research the History of our Presbyterian Ancestors
General Reformation history:
John Calvin, the Reformer who was our primary theological ancestor
Scottish Presbyterianism Many Presbyterians came to America because of the English Civil War that resulted in their persecution. Research the Scottish Covenanters who signed the Solemn League and Covenant.
For books on the Reformation, check out this bibliography.