|Reformation Sunday – October 28, 2012 (October 25, 2009)Jeremiah 31:31-34 – The days are coming when I will make a new covenant with Israel and Judah: law on their hearts.
Psalm 46 – The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold. (Ps. 46:4)
Romans 3:19-28 – No one will be justified by the law. Now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been revealed.
John 8:31-36 – You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.
In 2012 we are five short years away from the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. There are three observances that we are watching.
First, there is the German “Luther Decade” that has been going on for several years already. These are being put on by the evangelical churches and the state government. Each year has a theme. In 2008 Bishop Hanson attended the dedication of the Luther Garden in Wittenberg and preached
for a worship service that was broadcast live on German television. This year’s theme is Reformation Music.
Second, there is a Lutheran World Federation observance being rolled out for 2015-2017.
Finally ,the ELCA will be putting out materials and having events around the Reformation. If you have not yet visited Lutherland, this may be a good time to consider doing so. Several trips are being planned.
The Reformation is dated to the moment in 1517 when Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Chapel (or perhaps, some historians suggest, he simply mailed them to the Archbishop of Maintz). In any case, within weeks there was not a town in Saxony that did not have a copy of the 95 Theses. The new technology of the day assured that: Guttenberg’s printing press, which, ironically, was first used to print indulgences.
Behold “the seven-headed Luther.” Martin Kunz in the ELCA Churchwide offices reminds us that Martin Luther’s first biographer was a Catholic polemicist named Johannes Cochlaeus. His 1529 book presented a scathing attack on Luther and the illustration on the cover page showed seven different Luthers. From left to right:
- “Doctor” Luther as a (false) teacher
- “Martin” Luther as a (disobedient) monk
- “Luther” Luther as a hostile “Turk” or enemy of Christendom
- “Ecclesiast” or “Preacher” Luther
- “Schwaermer” or “Enthusiast” Luther – a fanatic with a swarm of bees around his head
- “Visitor” Luther – a helmeted church official or overseer
- “Barrabas” Luther – a barbaric wild man with a club
As Luther’s personal legacy and influence were complex, so are the religious and cultural developments that resulted from his actions on October 31, 1517. It leaves us to ponder the meaning of the Reformation for today.
Some folks are still mired in 16th century polemics. Witness Richard Marius’ scathing assessment of Luther (as mentally ill) and the Reformation (as a disaster in Western Civilization). And Lutherans are not without their forays into the old battles. Some Lutheran bodies still refer to the Pope as the “antichrist.” Any good look at the Reformation must take into account the obvious reality that we live in a different world. The Pope, while an influential spiritual leader today, does not wield the temporal power possessed by his predecessors. The Inquisition has been scaled back considerably. The economy has evolved. Government is a different animal.
In 1517 Luther invited the faculty at Wittenburg to discuss 95 theological position statements. There was nothing out of the ordinary here. Such discussions were common, and posting an invitation was normal. What made these theses “pop” was the strong opposition to the sale of indulgences. Luther was irked by a 16th century Dominican televangelist who was peddling indulgences. “”Do you not hear the voices of your dead parents and other people, screaming and saying: ‘We are suffering severe punishments and pain [in purgatory], from which you could rescue us with a few alms, if only you would?'”1
For Luther the sale of indulgences was both a theological and practical problem. In Medieval Christendom, forgiveness was a sacramental power given by the Papacy to priests through ordination. Luther was concerned that this forgiveness was being sold, and that it was being done so indiscriminately. That is, forgiveness without repentance or turn of the heart. But he was also concerned for the economic disparity this revealed. The wealthy could afford indulgences. The vast majority of Germans were poor, and could not afford them. Yet they would deprive their families food to scrimp and save in order to free some dead relative from purgatory. 50-65% of the population lived on the edge of subsistence. Luther taught that it was more righteous to give to the poor than to buy indulgences. This was his heresy.
Samuel Torvend writes:
One wonders, then, what was going through [Luther’s] mind on October 31, 1517, as he sent a copy of his theses to Albrecht, the new archbishop of Maintz and the man who had hired Johannes Tetzel to sell indulgences in the diocese bordering Wittenberg. Did he imagine that the archbishop and the indulgence preacher would come to the university for a sip of schnapps and a cordial debate with the faculty? It mattered not. By December of that year Albrecht had forwarded the document to Pope Leo X. Within a few days, every member of the papal household new the German monk’s name and wanted him silenced.
I think we forget that the Reformation was as much economic and political as it was theological. But the theological undergirded the whole thing. It comes down to this: What is at the heart of the gospel? Or to put it in theological terms, whence cometh salvation? Who controls the purse strings to the treasures of heaven? Dismantling the oppressive hold of the religious establishment meant dismantling the theology that supported it, for something Luther had unearthed in Romans: justification by grace through faith.
There is no small mental shift from a God who is hell-bent on damning everyone and everything, and has given us a little bit of a loophole in Jesus Christ, if we will just come under the authority and sacraments of the church, or believe the Bible, or believe the creeds, to a God who is heaven-bent on redeeming those whole cosmos, lock, stock and barrel, that only relentless rejection of the free grace offered to us will jeopardize. This is a shift from an angry God of guilt and torment, to a loving God who numbers the sparrows and hairs on our heads. This is a God, who Jesus teaches his disciples to call “Daddy,” in his famous prayer, who invites us to trust God like a Father, to trust God’s mercy and propensity for redemption as surely as the waters of baptism make us wet. This is truly good news. This is a truth that will indeed set us free. This frees us from and endless obligation of penances and masses, to immerse ourselves in a joyful relationship with the God of grace and love.
The question remains for the preacher: How will you translate this into the 21st century American context? Do we whip people up into a Medieval dither about an economic and ecclesiastical system that no longer exists? I think not. We must emerge from the bipolarity of Lutheran-Catholic animosity and recognize the truth that set us free: grace. I have heard and read some of the most powerful pronouncements of free grace from Roman Catholic colleagues, and I have heard the most legalistic claptrap from Lutherans. No denominational system has a corner on the gospel. Perhaps this is the true spirit of the Reformation, that we recognize that all our ecclesiastical structures are penultimate, limited and in need of reform.
Last week an official from the Roman Catholic Church’s ecumenical team addressed the Conference of Bishops. He said something to this effect: “The 500th Anniversary of the Reformation must be observed with a spirit of repentance… not because we wish it hadn’t happened, but because we must acknowledge that mistakes were made on both sides.”
This year we are celebrating the 25th anniversary of the ELCA. The theme is Always being made New. This is our work as church leaders. There is no preordained church structure in the Scriptures or the Confessions. We are to shape the church to match the mission: to proclaim the gospel and share the sacraments. This is at the heart of our synod’s strategic plan, which calls for us to streamline synod structures, help congregations become more effective at evangelism, create a new entity that will resource leaders and plant new congregations. All this forces us back to our calling: proclaiming the good news and making disciples.
Perhaps the way our churches, denominations and our lives are made new is by returning to the gospel of grace. Instead of clinging to yesterday’s expression of the church, or reaching out to last year’s expression, or the last century’s expression, we instead cling to the gospel which has given us different expressions of the church over the years to respond the context of that day. A commitment to returning to the gospel of grace would be a worthy meme for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The gospel is unchanging; the church, an imperfect community, a broken body, is always changing, semper reformandum, always be rising from the dead.
The church of Christ in every age,
beset by change but Spirit-led,
must claim and test its heritage
and keep on rising from the dead.
The let the servant church arise,
a caring church that longs to be
a partner in Christ’s sacrifice,
and clothed in Christ’s humanity.
1. D. Martini Lutheri Opera Latina varii argumenti (Frankfurt and Erlangen: Jung et Filii, 1865-73), 1:273, as quoted in Oberman, Luther, 188 as quoted in Luther and the hungry poor, Samuel Torvend, p. 14.
2. Ibid. p. 19.