The Reformation! 500th Anniversary
October 29, 2017 – Reformation Sunday
Pastor Monte Stevens — North Riverdale Lutheran Church — Dayton, Ohio
Happy 500th Anniversary! In one of the recent books I’ve read, it stated: “Christianity isn’t the only religion that loses its way from time to time. That’s why every religious community has prophetic voices who arise and call for spiritual renewal and reform.”
If you know anything about the history of the reformation then you know that Martin Luther was a Reformer. He saw that the church of his day was in need of reform and his voice became a prophetic voice against the abuses of the church and for a better understanding of the truth that will set one free.
But Luther didn’t start out as a reformer. He started out as the son of fairly wealthy miner and copper smelter who was an adherent to the religion of his day: The Roman Catholic Church. He was part of the late Middle Ages and the Medieval Church and during that time there was an image of God that people believed in and effected how they lived their life.
Here is an example of what that image of God was before Luther, but also was still prevalent for Luther in his time. In the 14th century, there was a movement known as the Flagellants. This was during the time of bubonic plague as it was sweeping across Europe. The bubonic plague was popularly known as the black death. During this time, this movement among Christians, known as the flagellants walked through the streets and towns of Europe lashing themselves with whips, as an act of public penitence.
This was no small group. They were 10,000 strong across Europe. This obviously was a time when they knew nothing about viruses, germs or bacteria that might bring sickness. These Flagellants only knew that they were living in a time in which one-quarter of the people in Europe were dying of the epidemic.
Why was this happening? They believed that this devastation was because God was angry with the people because of their sin. These Flagellants believed that if they brutally lashed their own bodies to the point of bleeding, if they punished themselves severely enough, God would withdraw the divine punishment of the plague from their families. Bishop John Spong says, “It was a strange practice based on a faulty, but deeply believed, premise; namely, that punishing their bodies would somehow win for them divine approval. The idea was that if they punished themselves, God would not have to do it.”
Today we say, “God doesn’t work like that. God would never have us do that.”
Even though this was well before Martin Luther, this image of God as a punishing deity, a capricious God, who would punish his children—because of their sinfulness—was still the primary image of God.
The first instance of what Luther’s image of God was like is when in 1505 on his way home to Erfurt as he was caught in a violent Thunderstorm. He begs God to spare his life and if God does, he will become a monk and dedicate his life to God. So, Luther, against the wishes of his father, who wants him to become a lawyer, enters the monastery and becomes a monk in the Augustinian order.
From 1505 to 1517, when he posted his 95 theses on the community bulletin board of the Wittenberg Castle Church, he struggled with his relationship to this God who was wrathful, capricious, judging and punitive. For 12 years of monastic life he struggled with how he could stand in a just relationship with this God. How he could earn God’s love and make it into heaven. Luther was full of, not only, self-hatred toward himself for his sinfulness, but despair that he could never please God, or stand before God or be sure he was saved.
He wrote letters for spiritual help to others higher ups in his Augustinian order and talked all the time to his spiritual advisor about his sense of dread about his salvation. How could he please this wrathful God? And like the Flagellants, he would punish himself by sleeping outside in the cold and abusing his body in the hope that it might cleanse his soul. Luther was a spiritual mess!
But this was the image of God that the church passively or actively taught. They certainly allowed it to thrive and only the church had ways to mitigate the wrath of God and ensure salvation.
The Catholic monk reads scripture
But let’s not jump to Luther’s disgust of indulgences and holy relics, found in Luther’s 95 Theses, too quickly. Let’s stick with Luther’s first discovery which was the beginning of that which became the prism through which he saw and evaluated everything.
That first discovery was, of course, that God was a gracious God. He discovered this in reading the Bible over and over again to prepare his lectures at the University of Wittenberg. It was verses like these that caused him to have his epiphany.
For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law. Romans 8:3
The righteous shall live by faith. Romans 1:17
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God. Ephesians 2:8
His Epiphany was a new, you might say, radical, image of God. God was gracious! God was loving! God makes things right for salvation. Just trust in that promise. God gives us the gift of faith and salvation.
This is a dramatic shift in how the church and others have been perceiving God for over a thousand years! In this Epiphany, God is not wrathful, God is gracious and justifies by faith, not your personal works. We no longer have to meet the needs of a capricious God. God gives the free gift of salvation. You don’t have to earn enough points to make into heaven.
After this epiphany, you begin to see how Luther sees the entire world differently. You no longer have to be a Flagellant on any level. You no longer had to abuse your body to get rid of sin to please God. You no longer had to buy your way into heaven or work your way into heaven through your good works. No more indulgences were necessary. No more trips to Rome to visit holy relics.
Luther spent all his life, up until 1517, living in fear of this wrathful God of the Middle Ages; living in the angst of not knowing if he could ever please God. Penance was now no longer an economic exchange between God and humanity—with the side benefit of financially helping the church. Luther was now free from what had so burdened him for most of his life.
Two of the three Sola’s of the Reformation came from this insight: Faith Alone, Grace Alone. And now Luther says, “Free from being concerned about my standing before God I can now be completely focused on the need of my neighbor.”
In discovering this graceful God in the scripture, he then saw all of scripture in a new light. If the pope and previous councils had erred in their interpretation of scripture, if the Authority of the Church was wrong, then what could be the new authority?
Scripture was the only authority, Luther declared. It was above the pope and councils. This was a dramatic shift from all authority being with the pope and the church…to authority residing in scripture itself. The pope did not like his authority being challenged, nor taken away. This led to Luther’s third sola of the reformation. Sola Scriptura—Scripture Alone.
Luther was called to the Diet of Worms in 1521 to recant all of his writings and new ways of thinking. The pope just wanted everything to go back to the way it was before. Luther courageously stood his ground and famously said, “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason—for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves—I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus, I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.”
Luther was excommunicated as a heretic and would have been assassinated if not for his protector Fredrick the Wise who kidnapped him on his way back to Wittenberg. Luther was taken to the Wartburg Castle where he hid away for over a year and translated the Bible into German so the German people could read the clear words of scripture for themselves.
But what were the consequences?
What Luther did not anticipate—and it’s one of the great unintended consequences of the Reformation—is that when people read the scripture for themselves they will not all agree on what it says.
Luther didn’t anticipate that different people would disagree with him on what the scripture says. Within just several years Luther lost control of the Reformation…if he ever had control. All those who agreed to the principle of, Scripture Alone, agreed on some things, like you don’t need to buy forgiveness, but didn’t agree on the age of baptism or how to understand the presence of Christ in Holy Communion.
The world split into Roman Catholic and Protestant, but within a decade, it was clear, that there would be many variations of what Luther started. And just as Luther had fights with the pope, he also had fights with his fellow reformers, whom he thought we taking reform too far and too quickly. Luther had some strong words against the pope, but also had strong words against his fellow reformers, as they interpreted scripture differently than he did, and as this led to different practices and beliefs than his.
Reform is in our DNA
So where does this leave us? Here are my top picks of the positive realities we take away from Luther and use today.
First, God is Gracious! If God is gracious and offers salvation as a gift, then you are free from all the worry and angst of “am I good enough to get into heaven?” Too much of today’s Christianity is consumed by the Medieval theology of a wrathful God—that if we step out of place we will be punished—and “you had better live right” or you won’t make it onto heaven.
The logical outcome of Luther’s reformation theology is that through the grace of God, we’re all loved and saved eternally. Now that you are free from the bondage of earning your salvation, you are free to love and serve your neighbor.
Luther said, “God does not need your good works, but your neighbor does.”
The first, and most important take away, from the Reformation: God is Gracious! But, boy it is hard to get that wrathful, angry, punitive god out of our heads and hymns and liturgy.
Second take away: The shift in authority from the Church to authority being located in the scripture. Luther said, “A simple layman armed with Scripture is greater than the mightiest pope without it.” Luther encouraged us to read the scripture for ourselves, and he shifted power and authority from the hierarchy to scripture.
What Luther didn’t appreciate, is how hard it would be to interpret scripture as the church left the Middle ages and entered the modern world. Now in the post-modern world it is even more difficult, especially, if you begin and end with a gracious God. And it must be noted, that history has shown, how even Luther read certain scripture wrong, especially how he used scripture in anti-Semitic ways. Like I said: Start with God’s grace. Luther didn’t at times.
My third take away is the spirit of Luther who questioned and challenged and was willing to change and reform, and adapt what he loved most. It was through this spirit that Luther thought the church always needs to reform itself. We are never going to get it perfect. As Pope and Councils erred, so humanity would continue to err when it comes to God. The church must always reform.
I started my sermon with this quote: “Christianity isn’t the only religion that loses its way from time to time. That’s why every religious community has prophetic voices who arise and call for spiritual renewal and reform.”
Luther was that voice. You too can be that voice. I try my best to be that voice, when and where it is needed. Where church doctrine has lost its way, or is no longer relevant we must reform it.
Where faulty images of God persist in Christianity, we must reform those images.
Where we need to migrate to new ways of understanding the purpose of religion, we must reform.
When we discover new realities about scripture that change how we understand scripture, we must reform.
It’s in our Lutheran DNA to keep Luther’s Reformation going.
I am so happy to be in this tradition mostly because it is a tradition of grace responding to a gracious God.
I am happy to be in this tradition because it is a tradition where we are free to lovingly serve our neighbor.
I am happy to be in this tradition because it was willing to change what needed to be changed—to be closer to the will and reality of God.
Let me close by reminding us that we are all reformers! We are all little Luthers!
The Holy Spirit will work through each of us and this community and will call us, and lead us into all Truth.
On this 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, let us continue in the Spirit of the First Reformation! We can do no other!
May what we do be pleasing to God!