So it’s here—the500th anniversary of the so-called ‘start’ of the Reformation. 500 years ago (on Tuesday) Martin Luther pounded his 95 Theses into the door at the church in Wittenberg—that same church I visited this spring on my trip to Germany—launching a series of events that ultimately led to the church in Germany (and eventually several other countries, including England) breaking with the church in Rome.
Except he didn’t actually pound them into the door. He may have attached them to the door with wax, along with other public notices. At that time the church door sometimes also served as the community bulletin board. It’s more likely that he sent them directly to the church authorities in Mainz, because they were written in Latin, and the average German was not that literate!
He was not declaring independence from the Church of Rome; he was attempting to start a conversation about ways in which the institutional church was failing to live into the freedom of the gospel of Christ. He was just trying to get the Church to look honestly at itself. Since the days of Constantine, more than a thousand years before, the Church had been growing increasingly corrupt, aligning itself more and more with the powers of empire and losing sight of the true Kingdom of God. Luther was acting as a prophet in the real sense of the word—not one who predicts the future but one who has the courage to name the hard truth about the present. He was calling out the Church for the ways it had been seduced by political power and worldly fortune, and had forgotten its real purpose: to proclaim the Good News of God in Jesus Christ.
At the heart of his complaint were two practices the Pope was allowing in order to fund the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome: 1) the sale of indulgences, a kind of eternal promissory note that claimed a donation of money could buy a person out of purgatory; and 2) simony, the use of bribery to buy positions of power in the church hierarchy. As a point of reference, these are the years when the Borgias had their fingers in every possible political pie.
The truth is, Luther didn’t start the conversation; other European theologians had been raising objections for more than a hundred years. Luther came along and set a match to the dry kindling. With the help of Gutenberg’s brand new invention of the movable type printing press, suddenly, the information could get out to the people faster than the church could squelch it.
And it helped that there were plenty of civic authorities who were getting a little tired of Rome poking its nose into local politics. When Frederick III of Germany provided Luther shelter after the church called for his death, I don’t think it was for entirely theological reasons. The Thirty Years’ War may be called a war of religion, but there were plenty of political reasons for wanting greater freedom in their own country. The English Reformation, as well, was as much a political action as a theological one.
But Luther’s motives were entirely theological. He loved the institution to which he had committed his life, and he was deeply troubled that it had strayed so far from the teachings of Jesus. He believed that he was starting a dialogue.
He sincerely hoped that if he named the places where the church was getting it wrong, they would put the energy into getting it right. He was trying to call the church into self-reflection and assessment. He was trying to call the church into a better understanding of itself and of God.
At the heart of it, he was trying to call Christians back to the fundamental belief in salvation by grace alone: no one earns God’s love, no one buys their way into eternal life, no one manipulates God into doing things their own way. He was not trying to divide the church; he knew that the Church is the Body of Christ, and any attempt to be separate would be to tear at that Body, causing pain to the very heart of God.
Reformation Sunday is not entirely a day of celebration, either. Luther’s “presenting issues” may have been resolved, but at a cost. And some of Luther’s later writings led to a culture of anti-Semitism that found its ultimate expression in the Holocaust. That grand statue of Luther in the square in Wittenberg should really have clay feet.
The history books will tell you that The Reformation came to a close in 1648 with the end of the Thirty Years War and the Peace of Westphalia. (Those of us who have studied the English Reformation might argue that date!) But if we as Christians think the Reformation is over, we’ve missed the point.
The Reformation never ended. We are still living in the Reformation of the Church today. And that’s good news—because it means that God is still working on us. God continues to try to re-form us, to re-shape us into something that looks more and more like the kingdom of God, with kingdom values of justice, mercy, and love. God hasn’t given up on us, but we’re not done yet. The kingdom of God is near, but it is not yet here.
So now that we have looked to the past, what does the Reformation mean for the future?
How might the church be further reshaped in the next 500 years? Or 50, or even 5?
It starts with repentance—not just in the sense of admitting when we are getting things wrong, but also in the sense of ‘rethinking’—always being willing to be in conversation with God about what God needs us to be NOW. What worked in previous generations may not be the best approach for this one. It doesn’t mean we were wrong then. It doesn’t mean we are failing now. It just means that we have to be able to trust the Holy Spirit to guide us further along this path toward the kingdom.
We need to continue to ask ourselves hard questions. Are we too comfortable with the status quo? Are we afraid of change? Do we fear the loss that comes with change more than we trust God to bring something new and good and beautiful into being? Are we still walking the way with Jesus, or have we become a little too comfortable with the way things have “always” been?
Anytime the church becomes static it loses ground. We are NOT SUPPOSED to be too comfortable. We are not supposed to be too settled into the status quo. We are not supposed to be entirely happy with the way things are right now, because the way things are right now do not always provide justice and equality for all people. The way things are right now are not the way God wants them to be forever. We are constantly being called to examine what we do to bring the world closer to the kingdom. We are constantly being challenged to accept the transformation of God so that we become more and more the people God created us to be.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus offers a vision of what we could be. We could be free. Free from the power of death to make us afraid to live. Free from the power of sin to make us afraid to act. Martin Luther wrote to his friend Philip Melancthon those astonishing words—“Sin boldly!”—not as permission to do whatever we want, but to take risks for God, with the reassurance that God would rather have us sin boldly than do nothing at all. Act and hope that it’s the right thing—and if it’s wrong, trust that God’s grace and mercy will reach us and grant us forgiveness. Ground yourself in love of God and neighbor—and then DO something. Don’t be afraid. God will work through your efforts to bring about some good, even if you don’t get it quite right. Take a risk, and give God a chance to reshape you, to reform you into someone better able to do the work of the kingdom.
Finally, we have the promise that God is always trying to write the law on our hearts—to make that love so much a part of us that it will guide all our actions without us having to fret and fuss and wonder if we’ve gotten it right or not. We will not fear, we will just love. Without limits, without expectations, without boundaries. We will learn to love every person we encounter the same way we love God. Because that’s what God created us for—to open the gates to God’s kingdom wider and wider, making it possible for more and more people to come in and experience the grace and mercy and love and forgiveness of God.
This is what we celebrate on Reformation Sunday: that we are willing to risk our whole selves to let God continue to reshape us into the people God wants us to be. We celebrate that we are free—free to make mistakes. God will still love us. And God will continue to work on us, the way a potter works on clay, reshaping and remolding and reforming us into something that looks more and more like Jesus.