Martin Luther was a very serious and learned German monk. Sometime in the 1510’s, while he was in his early thirties he was assigned to the Wittenberg University in Germany to be an Old Testament scholar. The university was in the Cathedral of Wittenberg, The cathedral had a lot of priests but they had no one assigned to be the priest for the people, to preach, hear confessions, baptize, commune, etc…They assigned this task to the serious young monk and Old Testament professor, Luther.
Luther who doesn’t seem to have done anything half heartedly, threw himself into his role as pastor. He became disturbed that the congregation was showing him pieces of paper that said their sins or the sins of their dead relatives waiting in line in purgatory to get into heaven were forgiven . These pieces of paper, called indulgences, were from the authority of the Pope, Pope Leo X.
Pope Leo did not invent indulgences. Luther would have seen slips of paper like this throughout his life. There were more of them in Germany at this time than normal because Pope Leo was ambitiously trying to build a new church in Rome, a little place called St. Peter’s Basilica. To raise money, he had sent priests to the German states to sell a special indulgence, a once in the life time only offer that were little more expensive than normal indulgences, but a little better too. Luther happened to live in one of the top salesman’s territory, so there were a lot of these slips of paper floating around.
Luther’s concern was on several levels. Like many religious scholars of his day, Luther thought the idea of a person buying a get out of hell free card from the church was bunk. Pastorally, Luther was concerned that the aggressive sales of indulgences was causing his poor peasants to spend what little money they had to save their souls or of the souls of someone they loved. Primarily, though Luther was worried about the eternal fate of his people, trusting their salvation to the purchase of a slip of paper rather than God’s grace that comes to them freely.
Pastor and Professor Luther responded by calling for a university debate on whether buying indulgences could save someone from hell. His hope was to prove to the common people that they shouldn’t waste their money and to shame the church leaders to get their salesman out of Wittenberg. A debate like this in the day of Luther was a thing. People would have come to it to be entertained. There were no cat videos to watch on YouTube after all. He called the debate by nailing 95 reasons that Indulgences don’t make sense to the front door of the Wittenberg cathedral on October 31, 1517.
This started a cascade of events that eventually led to Luther being tried and found guilty of being a heretic, German princes in a show of political power refusing to release Luther to be burned at the stake, Luther hidden in a castle for years spending time reading and writing and becoming convinced that beyond indulgences there were all sorts of things wrong with the church in his day, and because of the printing press, scholars, royalty and common people reading what he wrote and becoming followers of his ideas. Eventually, followers of the monk, professor and priest Martin Luther started a church in protest of the one church. They were called protestants-protesters and even in the day of Luther but especially after he died in 1546, Lutherans.
So, what are we celebrating today? We are not celebrating that Martin Luther discovered the only bad idea the Church ever had and fixed it. The Church has had all sorts of bad ideas that eventually were fixed and honestly many more still waiting to be fixed. We are not celebrating as our ELCA Reformation Logo suggests that Luther in 1517 discovered grace-God’s undeserved love, and introduced it to the church. I think Jesus had something to do with that. We are not celebrating splitting, dividing, breaking up the body of Christ. I hope our unity service last Wednesday night made that clear if nothing else.
What are we celebrating? A reporter from the Dispatch called up the church to ask me just that question on Thursday this week. A seminary professor knew of our relationship with St. Pius X and wanted to ask about that. She thought it awkward that we would invite Roman Catholics to our church to observe a holiday that celebrates leaving the Roman Catholic church. Well, I said, when you put it that way, it does sound odd.
Lord knows what nuggets of wisdom she could have mined from my fifteen minutes of ramblings. What I wish I had made clearer is that both churches are simply observing that reformation is a good thing. The body of Christ is a living body. Like all living bodies, not every cell that grows on us or in us or around us (if you know what I mean) is as good for the body as other cells. As the button of my pants that is courageously trying to hold back the flood of fat cells of my belly from bursting forth can attest, sometimes cells gotta go in order for the entire body to be healthy. Monsignor Funk acknowledged statements from the Vatican since that affirmed Luther’s concerns and in the decades after Luther, the Catholic Church underwent her own reformation.
I told the reporter we will have a big celebration on Sunday morning, whooping and hollering about this 500 year thing, but then on Monday morning get back to the business of reforming. Grieving the ministries that have died because they no longer fill a need, discovering and destroying the bad ideas-not bad people-in our church that need to get out if our congregation is going to be healthy, and most of all nurturing and encouraging the new ideas, that are going to be the promise of life for our future. We are a death and resurrection people. We don’t fear when things die, because we have confidence that God makes life from death.
Luther did what all church leaders should do, turn our heads back to grace-God’s love for us that saves us, when we get distracted by wrong ways to save ourselves, whether that be slips of paper signed by the pope or millions of dollars saved in the bank. Luther emphasized the priceless grace that is given to every believer. Grace, God’s love for us, is the only thing about us that will never die and never need reforming. It is all the rest of the junk that grows up around it that needs pruning away. Amen