I know that on the calendar that most of us live by we are coming up on Halloween, and the sugar highs that strike at our brains render us almost helpless in thinking about anything else. I know that, but this day has another meaning as well and I wanted to reflect on that for a few minutes. It is Reformation Sunday and whether we know it or not, this has shaped our lives in profound ways.
Martin Luther lived in the sixteenth century in Germany. His father was a member of the town council, and wanted his son to be a lawyer. Luther trained for this purpose, but found himself obsessed with religious questions. One day a lightning bolt struck near him, and he interpreted this as a sign from God that he should surrender his life in some dramatic way. He became a monk. His father saw this as a waste of a good education.
While he was in the monastery, Luther trained as a professor of Bible. During this time officials would come to Germany to raise funds for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The pitch went something like this: faith is not sufficient to put you into the good graces of God; faith must be joined with good works and charity. Good works could be fulfilled by donating money to the church. In addition, you could donate money to the church and free a loved one, who had died, from the depths of purgatory. All of this was captured in a popular saying. I can still hear my church history professor at Duke, Dr. Steinmetz, almost singing the words:
As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory into heaven springs!
At about this time Luther was being shaped by his reading of the New Testament, and especially Paul’s letter to the Romans. Romans gave him clear guidance: we are justified, made right with God, not on the basis of our good works, but through faith, which is a gift. This was the turning point in Martin Luther’s life: he gave up an angry, punishing God for a God of grace and mercy, whom we respond to in faith. This was for him the clear teaching of the scriptures, and it was good news, not bad news. For some reason, the church had hidden this message, buried it in the ground!
And so, on All Hallows Eve, the old English word was Halloween, the day before All Saints, in 1517, at about two in the afternoon Luther went to the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany and stood at the main door, which was something of a community bulletin board. He nailed 95 theses, or arguments, to the door, protesting the abuses and errors of the church.
These were distributed all over Europe – this was all accelerated by a new invention: the printing press! And Luther was literally the talk of the town. He became a popular lecturer and biblical scholar, and drew the wrath of the church. A few years later he was excommunicated, and the civil authorities also threatened him, unless he recanted. In a famous scene, when asked if he would withdraw the 95 theses, he said,
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.
Luther would later translate the Bible into German (and this influenced the later King James translation into English); he would marry a former nun, and write hymns that would influence Bach, including “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” His work and the implications of it came to be known as the Protestant Reformation, and in our family tree the branches include Lutherans, Presbyterians, Anglicans and Methodists.
That is a very brief sketch of Martin Luther and the Reformation. Why is it important to you and me? Because we are all children of the Reformation, we are all ancestors of Martin Luther, in three respects.
First, Luther helped us to struggle with the relationship between the Bible and the Church. In his own time, he felt, the church had become captive to a culture of greed and had missed the core message of grace. This has been a rediscovery of the church throughout history. John Wesley as a young adult was caught in the grip of trying to please God as a missionary; he failed at this and returned to his home in London. And then he describes this experience:
In the evening, I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.
I will let you in on a secret, if you promise not to share it too widely: the church is a fallible institution, and throughout history has been on the wrong side of justice and even the will of God. A catholic historian gave this analysis of the church in Luther’s day:
Night fell on the German church, a night that grew darker and darker – amongst the common people, a fearful decline in true spiritual practice into religious materialism and morbid hysteria; amongst the clergy, both lower and higher, widespread worldliness and neglect of duty; and amongst the very Shepherds of the Church, demonic ambition and sacrilegious perversion of holy things.
But God is never without witnesses. Men and women of conscience have come along – Martin Luther and John Wesley, Sojourner Truth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mother Teresa, and maybe even in our time Pope Francis – as witnesses to truths that had been buried in the ground, treasure waiting to be rediscovered.
And so the church is always in dialogue with the Bible. As Karl Barth, the great theologian insisted, “the church is always being reformed according to the word of God.” We always test whatever the church teaches or preaches according to the Bible; and, if this is to happen, we need to be able to read the Bible in our own language. This was a part of Luther’s reformation as well, to put the scriptures in our hands, to urge us to read them, for the formation of our consciences.
In my last parish, in Charlotte, I was in conversation through e-mail with someone in our church who did not agree with something I had mentioned in a sermon. I respected her for writing to me, and I told her so. We had a couple of meaningful exchanges. I listened to her perspective. I mention this because she is a child of the reformation. She reads the scriptures and this has formed her conscience. Before the reformation, this would have made no sense. If the church, if the clergy taught it, it must be true.
A second gift of the Reformation: that salvation comes through grace and not our good works. This was a scandal, a stumbling block to many, because we want to be rewarded for our good works. We make good grades in school, we want to be rewarded. We do what our parents ask, we want to be rewarded. We hit our numerical target at work, we want to be rewarded. We follow the teachings of the Bible, we keep the commandments, we want to be rewarded.
Right? Well, maybe not.
We are justified, made right with, acceptable to God through his gracious gift of salvation, which has nothing to do, really, with our good works. And so the mathematical equation is not God’s grace plus my good works equals salvation, but God’s grace plus zero equals salvation. Martin Luther and John Wesley and all of their descendents have claimed this to be orthodoxy, right belief.
And yet it is one thing to believe it in our heads; it is another to trust it in the core of our being – in our hearts. Because most of us have that sense that, yes, God loves me, but if I do something good God will love me more! But the old saying is true:
Nothing you can do will make God love you more.
Nothing you can do will make God love you less.
God’s love is unconditional. Paul writes, in Ephesians: By grace you have been saved through faith and this is the gift of God, not the result of works, lest anyone should boast (2. 8-9).
This is a needed word especially for a church that does a great deal of good works. It helps to articulate our motivation: we serve not for the reward, that someone somewhere will affirm us and love us; we serve because someone has already demonstrated that love, on a cross. While we were yet sinners, Paul writes, Christ died for us.
A third gift: the priesthood of believers. Luther felt that the heavy focus on clericalism was harmful to the church. It denied the calling that every Christian had to express his or her gifts in the world. Luther wrote,
Whoever comes out of the waters of baptism can boast that he is…a consecrated priest, bishop and pope…there is no true, basic difference between laity and priests…except for the sake of [the] work, but not…status.
For Luther, the great drama was not that spectators came to watch the priest and ponder the mystery of what that meant; the great drama is that we are all priests, doing the work of God in the world, wherever our callings have taken us. This is important. The laity’s true calling is not to try to do what the clergy or the staff of a church do. It is to connect their own faith with their participation in the world as a parent or a physician, a judge or a banker, a sales rep or a teacher, an accountant or an attorney. And so there is no divorce between sanctuary and shop, worship and workplace. There are not two classes of Christian citizens, the ordained and everyone else. There should be no privileged secrets among an insider group who has studied them and the masses who have not.
And so the answer to the question, “am I called to the ministry?” for every one of us, is “yes.” That ministry may take us to many different places, and in a given week your faith could motivate you to tutor a child who is behind in school, or hold up a sign in a political election, or treat an employee with compassion.
A needed word about the Reformation: it is not true that Protestants get it and Catholics do not. Vatican II pushed the church into the world, and gave a renewed importance to the scriptures and the common languages of the people. A few years ago the Catholic Church signed agreements with the Lutheran Church and the Methodist Church that salvation is by grace, through faith. And five years ago Pope Benedict admitted that Martin Luther had correctly interpreted Paul’s letter to the Romans, on the subject of salvation by faith alone, and not our good works.
In the history of Christianity we take the long view! But finally all of this is more than a history lesson. As Barth said, “the church is always being reformed according to the word of God.” This is true for us as individuals. There is a story about the twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich who was speaking to a group and afterward he was confronted by a man who had a tight grip on an oversized Bible, shaking it in the face of Tillich. “Do you believe this is the word of God for me?” he asked the theologian. And Tillich replied, “Yes, if it has a hold on you as strong as the hold you have on it.”
We are always being reformed according to the word of God. When we listen to it, allow it to speak to us and correct our errors and abuses, it is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. And so, on Reformation Sunday, more than perhaps any other day of the year, it is appropriate for us to say… This is the word of God for the people of God.
And all God’s people say, Thanks be to God!
Sources: Martin Marty, A Short History of Christianity. Timothy George, “Reformation Day,” First Things. John Wesley, edited by Albert Outler. Joint Declaration of the Doctrine of Justification by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church (affirmed by World Methodist Council on 23 July 2006)