Today we celebrate the 500th year of the beginning of the Reformation. This sermon will be unusual in that it will focus more, therefore, on church history. As you know, Martin Luther is known as the father of the reformation, though his work of reformation was continued by John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingly whom we name as the Presbyterian Founding Fathers. Most years on Reformation Sunday I therefore have focused more on Calvin and Zwingly but because this year marks the 500th anniversary of the publication of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses in 1517, today I will focus more on Martin Luther and what was happening that began the Reformation 500 years ago.
Martin Luther’s was not the first attempt at reformation within the Catholic Church. Jan Hus, Peter Waldo, John Wycliffe all made significant efforts at confronting problems in the Church. However, Martin Luther took advantage of the newly available Gutenberg printing press and with that at his disposal, he was much more successful where others had not been able to make significant strides in either changing the church or creating a new church movement. Martin Luther was a prolific writer and he used the printing press to quickly disseminate religious materials to the people. Luther had been a Augustinian Monk and a lecturer at the University in Wittenberg. And his publication of his 95 theses was not for the purpose of starting his own break off denomination, but rather it was simply an attempt to reform the Catholic Church. However, he was excommunicated in 1521 at the Diet of Worms. After his excommunication, he translated the Bible into German (before that it had only been in Latin and therefore only the priests were able to read it).
Martin Luther’s main issue with the Roman Catholic Church, as you may have read in the 95 Theses, was the sale of indulgences, which basically were “get out of purgatory with payment for sins” cards. Luther stated, in particular, that the Pope had no authority over purgatory, could not grant people “get out of purgatory” tickets, and certainly could not SELL them. That was his primary gripe. However, he also confronted the idea of saints as people to whom we should pray in place of God. He felt very strongly that this was not a biblical concept in any way. As the reformation continued, there were several key points that he emphasized. First, that it was the Bible and not tradition that should inform spiritual practices, or as we say it, “scripture alone”. Second, that we find our salvation through our faith and not through works, hence, “faith alone”. And third that salvation comes only from God through grace, not by anything we can do and certainly not by someone else speaking on our behalf, praying on our behalf or selling us a way into eternal life, (in other words, he challenged the idea of praying to specific Saints for them to advocate to God for us, confessing our sins to a priest rather than directly to God, and again, the priestly ability to grant people access to heaven) hence, “grace alone.” These are the main points of the protestant reformation, though there were many other points made along the way. Since purgatory is not a biblical concept that was tossed out. As I said before, the idea of saints was rejected by the protestants except in the global sense that all who die in the faith become the saints of God. “The priesthood of all believers” meant that all of us are able to have personal and direct relationships with God. We are also all able to read scriptures in our own languages and with our own interpretations. Other issues that were important to Luther included a confrontation of the Catholic devotion to Mary, as well as the mandate for clerical celibacy. More importantly, he presented a different idea in what constituted sacraments (as you know we only have two: baptism and communion), and what the sacraments really are (for example, do the communion elements become the literal physical body and blood of Christ or not), as well as whether or not they are considered necessary for salvation. The reason we only have communion in most Presbyterian Churches once a month was a statement, for example, against the Catholic idea that it was necessary to take communion to clean yourself of sin so that you had to have it as close to death as possible. For most Protestants, it is a celebration of community and the Church, it is a way to remember all that God has done for us, and most importantly, it is a way of participating in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, but it is not necessary for salvation. He confronted and challenged ideas about censure and excommunication, challenged practices of Christianity’s involvement in secular laws, and continued to challenge the authority of the Pope in many matters. He also challenged which books of the bible would be considered “scripture” and as you know, protestants have fewer books than Catholics as a result. Luther decided that what should be considered “canon” would be determined by practice, or what had been used most frequently and liturgically, theology and politics.
Many of the issues that divided the Catholic and Protestant churches continue to do so: Protestants still do not focus on Mary, we do not pray to saints, we do not follow a Pope or even hold our pastors with too much authority, we still only have a few sacraments and our understanding of those sacraments remains different, we don’t believe in purgatory, we still stick to the three key phrases of the Protestant Reformation, “Scripture alone, faith alone, grace alone.”
At the same time, as you know, these differences have become much less important than they once were. For example, the idea of “faith alone” has been tempered by most Protestants with the understanding that if you really and deeply believe in the words Jesus gave us, works will be part of your faith. As the book of James in our scriptures says so very articulately, “My brothers and sisters, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it? Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. What if one of you said, “Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!”? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs? In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity. Someone might claim, “You have faith and I have action.” But how can I see your faith apart from your actions? Instead, I’ll show you my faith by putting it into practice in faithful action. It’s good that you believe that God is one. Ha! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble with fear. Are you so slow? Do you need to be shown that faith without actions has no value at all?... As the lifeless body is dead, so faith without actions is dead.” As a result of these statements in the book of James, Luther actually did not want to continue to include the book of James in the Canon. He felt very strongly that our actions have nothing to do with salvation and so found these words offensive. But, the people prevailed on this. The book of James was very much in use and he was unable to strike it from the Canon.
Additionally, the problem that Martin Luther was most concerned about, that began the whole Reformation, naming the selling of indulgences, is no longer practiced in the Catholic church either. The Catholic Church additionally now uses lay leadership to a much greater degree, recognizing that all of us have a call, and Bibles are translated into many languages and read in the native languages of the people in almost all congregations. I think one of the greatest changes recently is that we are now working together, across denominations, more and more. We no longer see those differences with the same sense of importance that we had before.
There were many results of the Protestant Reformation. It led to a series of religious wars that culminated in the thirty years war which killed between 25-40% of the entire population of Germany between 1618 and 1648. While many believe the Reformation ended in 1648 with the passing of the Peace of Westphalia (which declared that each prince could determine the religion of its own state but also allowed Christians of different denominations to continue to practice their own faith in peace), many others say it never ended since we continue to have different Christian denominations and splinters within all of those denominations continue. Scholars credit the Protestant reformation as being the catalyst for a higher literacy rate, lower gender gap in school enrollment, higher school enrollment, more pro-market and pro-work attitudes, among other things. In the negative, Witch Burnings were more common and witch hunts more active in communities that were torn between Catholic and Protestant believers.
While Luther was the founder of the Reformation, as you know, the forefathers of the Presbyterian Church: Calvin, Zwingly and later, Knox, took the reformation further even than Luther. One of the phrases of our denomination is “reformed and always reforming” or “reformed and always being reformed” depending on the translation. We believe that God is always at work among us, guiding us forward into new and deeper understandings as well as into change. But we also know that change is hard, change is not comfortable, and if it is not intentional decision to move forward, the church will stumble.
Diana Butler Bass wrote, “Luther and his associates were protesters rather than reformers—they stood up against the religious conventions of the day, arguing on behalf of those suffering under religious, social, and economic oppression. …In the United States, Protestantism has often been torn between the impulse to protest (the abolition movement, women’s rights movements, the Civil Rights movement) and the complacency of content by virtue of being the majority religion. After all, if you are the largest religious group in society—if you shape the culture—what do you protest? Yourself?”
Bruce Epperly put it this way, “Reformation faith is forward, rather than backward-looking, evolving rather than static, at home in this world, rather than in a previous age or a heavenly realm.”
But the unfortunate truth is that Protestant Churches have become “stuck” as well, in large part because we ARE the dominant religion, the religion of our culture. Christianity began as a movement against the status quo: challenging the system that oppressed many and lifted up a few. But now we are the dominant group, and that means we are part of the system that is oppressive. So, as Diana Butler Bass wrote, do we protest ourselves?
Change is hard. And we are not keeping “at home in this world rather than a previous age” with a great deal of success. As a result, there is a new movement “out” of the Protestant Church just as in the Protestant reformation, there was a large movement out of the Catholic Church. You know this, I’ve mentioned it before, you see it within your own families as your own children or your children’s children no longer value church or go to church. And what is interesting is that they are right on schedule. There has been some kind of major Reformation of the church every 500 years and as we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, we are right on schedule for another one. What will that look like? We know, we trust that God is simply doing a new thing, but we do not yet know what that will look like.
In the face of all of this, what is important to take away? Perhaps what is most important is what has always been and what always is most important: that our identity, worth, and well-being should not determined by our successes and failures, by our actions, by our virtuous living, even, but by God's gift of loving us into being. It is, therefore, our relationships with God that matter. We could argue theology and we could argue about how we do worship, what we emphasize, what the sacraments mean, who should have authority and who shouldn’t. We could grieve the changing, diminishing Church, as I know many of us do. And we could look forward towards where and how the Church will be newly reformed, what it will look like and how we will move forward. But I think all of these things are not ultimately that important. What matters again is the relationship. And as far as Church goes, the question should always be, when we come to see who Jesus is, does it matter to us, does it affect us? Are we changed in our encounter with the living Christ, are we challenged, moved by our presence in this place. And if we aren’t, what is Church about? What is the purpose in coming here if it does not change us and strengthen us to be the people God calls us to be in the world? And perhaps what is of bigger question to us today as we reflect and remember the Reformation, what would make this place, now, a place that inspires growth, change and movement? What reforms need to happen within the Church, big C and within this congregation, little c, that would make this a place of growing deeper in our relationships with God and in our commitments to live lives that challenge systems that oppress, that help people who are suffering, that change the world? I encourage you to think about this because in our fellowship hall we have sheets up that I would like to invite you to write on about Reformation – what do you value about who we are, both as Christians and part of the big Church, and as members of this little congregation. But additionally, what changes, reforms, protests need to continue to happen in the large church; and what changes, reforms, protests need to happen within this congregation.
Are we willing to let go of what we think we want, what we think will make us happy, and instead to be open to the path Jesus wants us to go, to follow in the way, in the path of a man who ends up dead before he ends up resurrected? Does our faith, does our encounter with the living Christ make a difference for us? The question on Reformation Sunday is: are we willing to give up what is comfortable and easy as a church to follow Jesus? Are we willing to step out to hear what the people of God, God’s children, all of God’s people really need to experience God’s love, God’s grace and God’s presence in this place at this time?
That is the question that we are constantly called to ask as we continue to seek to be a church that is reformed and always reforming. Amen.