October 31st, 2017 will be the 500th anniversary of the day that a young Roman Catholic monk and university professor nailed a list of 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. His list of 95 pointed and succinct grievances became the flashpoint for the beginning of a period of upheaval and change in western Christianity which would later be named “the Reformation” by historians.
And so each year on the Sunday on or before October 31st, we, along with Lutherans around the world, take the opportunity to commemorate this occasion.
This 500th anniversary year, in particular, has been a busy one for Lutherans everywhere. It began in Lund, Sweden (the birthplace of the Lutheran World Federation) last year as the President of the LWF, the General Secretary of the LWF and the Pope led a shared worship service as a sign of reconciliation between Lutherans and Catholics. This past summer, the ELCIC hosted its National Reformation Commemoration during our National Church Convention in Winnipeg at St. Gianna’s Roman Catholic Church with ecumenical leaders from a variety of denominations from across Canada.
Along the way churches and communities all over have been marking this 500th anniversary year with special bible studies, community events, concerts, and even in this part of the world a Manitoba Reformation Social.
And so even though today may feel like a fairly typical Sunday morning, we gather for worship with our Lutheran sisters and brothers in Christ from around the world to mark this significant occasion.
As we commemorate, and remember, and celebrate, and mark, and observe this Reformation moment 500 years on, things in 1517 were not nearly as festive. (There were definitely no socials).
Martin Luther’s intention in nailing his list of 95 theses articulating what he believed to be errors and failures of the Pope and institution of the Roman Church was perhaps to inspire some lively debate among his colleagues at the university. But the relatively new invention of the printing press changed all of that, and Martin’s writings were copied and spread throughout all of Europe. Today, we might say Luther went viral.
Luther’s main concern had to do with the Church’s practice of selling indulgences. Essentially papers issued by the pope (and sold by the church) giving people time off of purgatory. And not just for yourself, but also for your dead loved ones! Basically the church’s version of monopoly’s get out of jail free card. The selling of indulgences was Rome’s way of fundraising for the construction of St. Peter’s basilica.
What resulted was a showdown between Martin Luther and the arrayed political and religious powers of his day. Luther’s insistence that salvation was entirely a gift from God in faith threatened the church’s main source of income. Popes had been using the Vatican treasury to play politics, assemble armies for war and fund large building projects and art commissions. Indulgences kept the Vatican afloat, and needless to say, church leaders were not impressed with this nobody monk from the sticks and his growing popularity.
Now, nothing that Luther advocated for was new to Christianity. He certainly did not discover grace, that originated with that Jesus guy 1500 years earlier. Nor was Luther the first since Jesus to re-articulate the centrality of grace as a free gift from God, as we just heard that from St. Paul in Romans. And there was St. Augustine and others were also very clear about salvation being a free gift from God.
The thing that Luther identified in his day was how the church was turned in on itself and obsessed with its own history and power. For hundreds of years, the church had been very cozy to political power, crowning emperors and declaring empires to be holy. By Luther’s day, power and influence were the centrally important things for most Popes and other leaders. Rome’s identity was deeply wrapped up in being an institution of influence and power, and not in being the body carrying out God’s mission to the world.
And so when Luther showed up declaring that perhaps God and God’s mission to save a sinful world was more important than big cathedrals and military forces, it did not go over well with those in power.
The ensuing conflicts between Rome and Luther resulted in a split in the Roman church and the birth of numerous protestant denominations over the past 500 years.
500 years on from Luther’s moment at the church door in Wittenberg, things have a changed a fair bit. Those of us who bear his name as Lutherans no longer carry the same clarity of the gospel that Luther did, and we often fall into the same temptation that the 16th Roman church did of loving our past, the power and influence that we used to have, a little too much.
As we commemorate 500 years of our history, it is easy to forget that one of Luther’s key points was that our history is not the point. God’s story is.
God’s story of love, and mercy;
God’s story of reconciliation, and grace.
God’s story of redemption for a fallen humanity.
This story is not one that is told in past tense only, but in the present and in the future.
Martin Luther’s insistence on grace through faith had to do with a simple but radical idea that salvation is not something that we could achieve. We cannot save ourselves, we cannot save others, we cannot save the church, we cannot save the world.
Salvation is God’s alone to do. God is the actor, the one who gives the gift, the subject of the sentence, the one whose deeds of power achieve the goal.
A simple but radical idea.
Simple because it sounds like it should be obvious.
Radical because it challenges our notion that we are in control, that our power and influence matters, that our story and history is somehow significant when it comes to salvation.
And if any Reformation commemoration is going to tell the story of the Reformation faithfully, it is not going to just be about Martin Luther, or just about the Lutheran church. But it will remind us again of God’s story. Of God’s story where sinners are forgiven freely, and the dead are raised to new life.
This central focus of Reformation on God and God’s action is also the hardest part of Reformation. It is easy to get lost in our own story, to make our past the thing that defines us, to believe that the way things were are how they are supposed to be in the future. It is hard to set aside our own past and continually orient ourselves back to God’s story and God’s future…
In fact, as Martin Luther would remind us, it is impossible not to make things about us, it is impossible not to put ourselves into God’s place, whether we are the church of 1517 or 2017.
But what is impossible for us, is not impossible for God.
God who continues to form us into God’s image.
God who continues to make things about forgiveness and mercy; grace and reconciliation.
God who continues to shed us of our own stories and pasts.
God who continues to transform us with the story of resurrection and new life.
God who continues to reform us 500 years on from a church door in Wittenberg.
*This sermon was co-written with Rev. Courtenay Reedman Parker*