Reformation Sunday

Reform: Verb: to change to a better state, improve by alteration, substitution or abolition, to cause to abandon wrong or evil way of life, to put an end to an action, to correct, to better, to amend, to repair, to restore.

To form again.

The year was 1415. A priest stood in a cathedral before a great council of the church and was condemned for heresy. You see, he believed and taught that it was Jesus Christ the Son of God, not the Pope, a human being, who was the head of the church. He also believed and taught that many of the practices of the church at that time were corrupt and that many church leaders were guilty of manipulating and abusing the laity. This man sought not to bring down the church but to change it to a better state, to improve it by alteration and to encourage it to abandon wrong and evil actions.

This man was John Hus. He had struggled for many years in this effort to reform the church and his long battle was about to end. Hus, whose name means Goose, was marched out of the cathedral, stripped of his clothes, tied to a sake and burned. His last words were, ‘you may cook this goose, but a swan will rise from its ashes. In a hundred years, God will raise up a man whose calls for reform cannot be ignored.’

102 years later, on October 31st, a priest and professor took a list of 95 items for discussion regarding what he saw as corruption in the church and nailed it to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. This man was Martin Luther. The great swan of the reformation.

When we think about the reformation—when we celebrate the reformation today—we often imagine Luther as this Lone Wolf rebel pounding up a kind of declaration of ecclesial independence on the door of The Church. And Luther truly is a powerful and imposing character on history’s stage with a vivid and passionate life. However, at the risk of shattering some deeply held Luther mythology, he was not the lone creator of the reforms he sought to implement, he was not interested in revolution and he did not seek to create a separate church.

For one thing, Luther would be appalled that there are pastors all over the world who are talking about him from the pulpit this morning. He would not have thought that was appropriate. Not because of modesty but because he would not have wished to stand in place of the gospel. But we are going to talk about the life of Luther today because he, his story and the story of the church he helped to form again is part of our faith history. The story of Lutheranism is not something that stands in place of the gospel but it can help to explain it—help us to understand God’s love for us in his Son, Jesus Christ. At its very best, it makes the Gospel message and God’s amazing grace accessible to us all.

So what exactly was Luther seeking to reform? What was in all those 95 points he hung on the door? Why did it cause so much trouble?   What does it matter today?

Luther was a monk, a priest, a professor and a campus pastor. Unlike some of his fellow monks and even some of his fellow priests, Luther studied the scriptures thoroughly. This is not to say that there were not others who cared about scripture at that time, but hard as it may be for us to believe now, there were many professional religious people who knew very little about the bible at all and reading scripture was not only uncommon because fewer people could read but also because it just wasn’t considered important. At the time, people believed that the church would tell them anything really important about their faith.  Very much in the same way we assume that scientists and doctors will tell us all we need to know about the world and our lives. Scripture was for scholars and bishops and the pope. Over time, Luther began to see some serious inconsistencies between what the authority of the church did and said and what scripture said. One of these areas was in the practice of selling what was called “indulgences”.

When the church started selling indulgences it did not, like a lot of things, start out as such a bad idea. The principle was that good deeds or actions showing one’s great devotion to God were a good thing and would be rewarded. Sounds logical right? Then we add into this the idea of a place called purgatory. Purgatory, too, on the surface, is not an unreasonable idea. The concept was when people die they might still have a lot of sin in them so they go to a place kind of like a laundry matt for souls. That way, they’ll be clean, pressed and pure when they get to heaven!

Obviously, I am oversimplifying, but the truth is, that does not sound like such a bad IDEA.

When you put these two things together you get a kind of system where good deeds or faithful actions can sort of swap out the time a soul would need in the spin cycle. Now there is no place in scripture that describes either of these things. It was an idea of how to understand something that people felt was unclear.

These good deeds and faithful actions were called indulgences and a person would certainly want to know that their actions counted, and the church was happy to certify these things and eventually even began to associate specific numbers of years swapped out of purgatory to particular actions. These would be all kinds of things, from making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to feeding the hungry to saying certain prayers. One of the many good deeds or faithful actions one could do would be to give money to the church for all its many ministries. Again, not necessarily a bad thing. However, it is only one step away from where the church ended up in Luther’s day: just plain selling indulgences.  

Indulgence Priests would go from town to town preaching about the many benefits of giving money for indulgences but now, instead of the point being how to understand the after life, our good actions of faith and what God does with all of that, the intention was to raise money to rebuild St Peter’s cathedral in Rome. It had become a purely financial transaction. You could buy your way into heaven. You could buy a loved one’s ticket to paradise. The slogan was “A coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs!”

Just imagine how many people could be taken advantage of with this! Not to mention the fact that this is a far cry from the original ideas; so far in fact as to be flat-out contradictory to scripture. Our Actions Don’t Save. The only action that every saved anyone was Jesus’ death on the cross. We heard in our second reading for today the words of St Paul to the early church that we

“are now justified by God’s grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. God did this to show his righteousness because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed, it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.” Romans 3:24-26

So Luther, appalled at this practice, begins his attempts to reform the church—correct it where it is in error, to better it and to amend it. And the rest, as they say, is history.

 And today, we celebrate the Reformation. So, what is it we are celebrating exactly? The dividing of the church? The heroism and remarkable personality of Martin Luther, pounding on tables and famously stating truly remarkable things such as ‘Here I stand, I can do no other’?

Maybe we are celebrating the horrible violence that came from the reformation, when, as so many times in history, Christian turned against Christian in murderous hate. Maybe we are celebrating a terribly dark day in the history of Lutheranism, a piece of our history we’d much rather forget; a time in which the early reformers decided that the Anabaptist, those who believed in baptizing only those adults who have first professed faith, were the utmost enemy of the church and in so-called defense of the faith, tied stones around the feet of some Anabaptist and threw them in the river to drown. Perhaps the thirty years war, one of the most destructive conflicts in European history, begun primarily in conflict between Lutherans and Roman Catholics.

Perhaps we are celebrating a continually divided and dividing house—a church in which all cannot gather around the table together to share the meal of our One Lord because we have so much division. Because we spend so much time defining ourselves by what we are not rather than what we are. We aren’t Catholics. We aren’t Baptist. We aren’t this or that. Rather than We Are Followers Of Christ.

 While there is much to be thankful for and to celebrate when it comes to Reformation Sunday, much that is good and has helped to further the Kingdom of God, there is also much that is hurtful, painful and ugly about that time in history that we must see realistically. The best way to celebrate the reformation of the church is as the whole church, seeing ourselves as a group of humans called, gathered and enlightened by the Holy Spirit, but still broken humans. We are simultaneously saint and sinner and so too, therefore, is the church. Reformation Sunday always reminds me of how many people the church has hurt over the centuries, how many people we have alienated from God, how often religious organizations even with good intentions have represented Jesus as an image of our human understanding of judgment, political correctness, social standing, and success rather than as The Image of the Invisible God of grace, mercy, love and righteousness.

 We celebrate the Reformation best when we seek to be the bearers of the Gospel to the world, to keep a close eye on how we as Christians and as the church as a whole are actually representing out faith to others, and to return to God knowing that it is by God’s grace we are saved. It is by God’s grace that have anything at all. I believe Martin Luther would have us remember on this day not what he did but what God does. I believe he would have us remember not the name of Luther but the name of Christ. As we leave today, may our final hymn at the close of worship be for us a reminder that “The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord”.


2 thoughts on “Reformation Sunday

    • Rosemary, once again you demonstrate multi-faceted gifts for theology, teaching, and writing on the human level where people live. I am moved today by the coherent synthesis of historical events with the development of our faith. Since I missed the historical discussion in our class on Lutheranism, this message goes a long way to set the stage and spark further curiosity. As I always tell people, “watch out when you make a librarian curious.” – thanks be to God –

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