For most Lutheran churches, the last Sunday of October is Reformation Sunday. Luther posted the 95 Theses on October 31, 1517, so Halloween, or All Hallows Eve, the day before All Saints Day is the day that most recognize as the day that the Reformation was officially kicked off.
As we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I’m looking for ways to state clearly the importance of the Reformation without Catholic-bashing. Now, most Lutherans have great respect for the Roman Catholic Church. However, a few Lutheran groups still insist that the Papacy is the Antichrist (see http://www.wels.net/about-wels/doctrinal-statements/antichrist for example).
Of course hot-headed Luther referred to Pope Leo X as the Antichrist. Leo generally makes the Top 10 List of Worst Popes in history. From the Medici family, Leo X lived so lavishly he nearly emptied the Vatican treasury. He has been attributed the quote, “Since God gave us the Papacy, let us enjoy it.” There were much worse popes as well. We needn’t belabor it. See the book The Bad Popes. Suffice it to say, the Reformation needed to happen. It should be said that there were some absolutely phenomenal popes as well. John XXIII and John Paul II set the bar very high.
To equate the Roman Catholic church of yore with the Roman Catholic Church of today would be absurd. Perhaps it is a Lutheran peculiarity that we dwell historically and theologically in the 16th century. And many Lutheran sermons paint a picture of a defiant Luther, heroically nailing the 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Chapel.
My Luther prof at Valparaiso, Gottfried Krodel said, “The door of the chapel was the university bulletin board. Luther probably used Scotch tape.” The 95 theses were for debate. They were written in Latin, not German. They were for the university community to bat around. Someone got a hold of them and translated them into German. This Augustinian monk and professor was probably more shocked than anyone at the popularity of the theses. They hit a nerve. Leo was selling salvation to fund his lavish lifestyle, and pay off the debt he owed the Fugger Bank for loaning him money for St. Peters. Thanks to Gutenberg, within two weeks every village in Saxony had copies of the theses, and Luther was thrust onto the world stage. Forever. Both Luther and Gutenberg typically appear in the various top ten lists of most influential people in history.
A motto of the Reformation is that we need to be an ecclesiam semper reformandum, a church always in reformation. Institutions are inherently self-serving and at times prone to corruption. Churches would be perfect, except for the fact that they’re made up of people. Luther said to want a perfect church is to want no church at all. People are sinners, so the church is not immune. We therefore have to keep a corrective eye toward the very human tendencies that tempt human institutions. We must constantly be asking the reform question, constantly looking back to our foundations and charters, and asking, what does it mean to be faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ in this time, and in this place?
There is no value to running down our brothers and sisters in Christ in other denominations. In fact, it seems uncharitable. A vitriolic sermon exalting the virtues of the Lutheran Church over the Roman Catholic Church would be both ignorant and short-sighted. Both churches proclaim Christ as the hope of the world. Both churches have made colossal mistakes. Both have hurled accusations and anathemas at each other. Both have declared the other’s leader to be the Antichrist. I wonder if this is what Jesus had in mind when he prayed for his future followers in John 17 (vv. 20 and 21 e.g.).
Today we have the opportunity to acknowledge the complex conditions that led to the Reformation, while recognizing that conditions today are quite different. The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) recognized precisely this. It is now 12 years old. In it a consensus on the teaching about justification was reached: “By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping us and calling us to good works.”
The most recent round of the U.S. Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogue can be found on my blog. These dialogs focused on purgation, prayers for the dead and so forth. While there are still differences, many agreements were reached. Catholics and Lutherans agree that:
1. there is communion among the living and the dead across the divide of death;
2. Christians pray for one another and believe that such prayer is heard by God and
aids those for whom we pray;
3. at the very least Scripture does not prohibit prayer for the dead;
4. prayerful commendation of the dead to God is salutary within a funeral liturgy;
5. insofar as the resurrection of the dead and the general final judgment are future
events, it is appropriate to pray for God’s mercy for each person, entrusting
that one to God’s mercy, because such mercy is and remains God’s gift;
6. even as a good work, prayer is an appeal to the divine mercy and not a purchase
of spiritual goods.
Lutherans continue to believe that prayers for the dead are inefficacious, however, they are not forbidden by Scripture and therefore our differences on this issue should not be church-dividing.
Yes, we still have differences, primarily in the orders of ministry. We’ve had married priests for nearly 500 years. Now we have female pastors. These and other issues are not likely to get cleared up any time soon. But why would we need to? We don’t need to agree on everything. Perhaps it is enough to listen to one another, acknowledge our differences, and speak to one another with great respect.
I believe that the best way to approach Reformation Sunday is not a negative, sophomoric recounting of a complex and often misunderstood history, but rather a heart-pounding proclamation of grace. Preach justification by grace through faith. Preach forgiveness and a radical grace of God, who loves us even when we were dead in our trespasses and sins. “O love that will not let me go…” Preach that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. This is the most evangelical way to proclaim the Christian faith in a Lutheran key.
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone be found boasting. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.
All men who live with any degree of serenity live by some assurance of grace.
Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971)
Christ is no Moses, no exactor, no giver of laws, but a giver of grace, a Savior; he is infinite mercy and goodness, freely and bountifully given to us.
Martin Luther (1483-1546)
For grace is given not because we have done good works, but in order that we may be able to do them.
Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430)