Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | October 29, 2017

2017.10.29 “The 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation: How One Man Changed the World”

Central United Methodist Church
The 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation:
How One Man Changed the World
Pastor David L. Haley
Reformation Sunday
October 29th, 2017

Luther Nailed It


If there is any one thing I hear and even say myself during our troubled times, it is this: “What possibly can I do that will make a difference? How can I change the world?”

My answer would be, “One person, acting in faith and courage at the right time, can change the world.” Jesus was one, the Apostle Paul was another; but today, on the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, we remember that Martin Luther was also a man who changed the world. It was only two days from now, a mere 500 years ago, on October 31, 1517, that Luther posted his 95 theses for debate on the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church, beginning what we know as the Protestant Reformation, whose consequences – for better and worse – remain with us to this day.

The story of Martin Luther is one of the most fascinating stories in the history of Christianity. It is a story that has everything: parental conflict, spiritual struggle, life-changing moments, near-misses, disguises, daring escapes, princes, popes, emperors, castles, kidnapping, mobs, revolution, massacres, politics, courage, controversy, humor, and romance. And not only is it a good story, it marks a turning point in Christian and Western history. Hundreds of books have been written not only on the Reformation, but on Luther himself. (The official edition of Luther’s writings alone contains 113 volumes.) For this reason, unless you want to be here another 500 years, I can’t go into great detail.

If you would like to know more, I recommend to you a book written in 2004 by a former professor of mine, Martin E. Marty: Martin Luther: A Life. And there are many resources online, including videos (not least the 2003 film Luther, starring Joseph Fiennes. Rick Steves has a good video tour of the Luther sites, and Adam Hamilton has a sermon from Germany this weekend (Why didn’t I think of that?).

Essentially, the story of Luther is a religious story. Born in 1483 in Eisleben, Germany, Luther was born into a world ruled by religion. The only church was the Roman Catholic church, rich and powerful, who controlled – as Luther once put it – every part of the body. It was a world filled with demons and devils and the threat of hell; of these, Luther was terrified. Such that one day as he walked down a road, when a storm blew up and a bolt of lighting knocked him to the ground, he cried in terror, “St. Anne, help me! I will become a monk.”

And what a monk he was! Luther later wrote, “I was a good monk, and I kept the rule of my order so strictly that I may say that if ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery, it was I. All my brothers in the monastery who knew me will bear me out. If I had kept on any longer, I should have killed myself with vigils, prayers, reading, and other work.”

And he might have, if his superior, Johann von Staupitz had not refocused him as a scholar of the Scriptures, in Greek and Hebrew. Eventually, Luther focused on the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Hear Luther’s own words:

“I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, “the justice of God,” because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. My situation was that, although an impeccable monk I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him. Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.

Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that “the just shall live by his faith.” Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the “justice of God” had filled me with hate, now it because to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven.”

To put it concisely, Luther became convinced of two great Reformation principles: “sola fide,” that salvation is by faith alone, and “sola scriptura,” that Christian faith and practice are governed by Scripture alone. In 1508 he was transferred to the University of Wittenberg as a professor; what would happen there would surprise everybody, including Luther.

In Rome, Pope Leo X launched a fundraising drive, to build a new St. Peter’s. The drive consisted of the church selling indulgences. It worked like this: If you had a loved one in purgatory, you could spare them a few thousand years by buying an certificate of indulgence. As one of the most crass hawkers of indulgences, John Tetzel, put it, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

When Tetzel came near Wittenberg, some of Luther’s parishioners complained. They had bought indulgences, and wondered if it was so. So you might say the Reformation began with a pastoral problem, which was also an ethical and theological problem. Such that on October 31, 1517, Luther wrote to his bishop, protesting the sale of indulgences, and enclosed in his letter a copy of his “”Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences”, which came to be known as the Ninety-five Theses. Thesis 86 asks: “Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?”

It’s not clear whether they were actually nailed to the castle church door, but in any case, as we would say today, they went viral, thanks to a new invention by Johannes Gutenberg called the printing press (1439). In two weeks copies circulated throughout Germany, and in two months throughout Europe. It was like what Karl Barth said of his own unexpected experience as a reformer, that he was like a man climbing in the darkness of a winding staircase in an ancient cathedral. In the blackness he reached out to steady himself, caught hold of a rope, and was then startled to hear the clanging of a bell.

To make a long story short, the many pieces of the big map that was the Holy Roman Empire began to move. Some joined the protest – like Luther – for religious reasons; others for power and wealth and land. What Luther had intended as reform of the church, became the Protestant Reformation, the rise of the middle class, the beginning of European nationalism, and the beginning of the Renaissance. Some areas became Protestant, others stayed Catholic, by the Latin phrase: “cuius regio, eius religio,” which means “whose realm, his religion.” For those of us of European ancestry, this is why our families are Catholic or Protestant, depending upon where we are from. Later, European colonization of the world would spread this around the world; so that, depending upon which country and which accompanying missionaries you were a colony of, that was your religion. The Philippines, for example, because of Spain, are primarily Catholic, with a few Protestants (like Methodists) thrown in. I like what South African Desmond Tutu once said, “When the missionaries came, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, ‘Let us pray.’ When we opened our eyes, we had the Bible and they had the land.”

Luther TrialPope Leo X was not pleased, and Luther was summoned before the Diet of Worms, presided over by the Emperor, Charles V. There, Luther’s protector, Frederick the Wise, asked the Catholic scholar Erasmus: “Tell me, what great sin has my monk committed, that he is attacked so fiercely?” Erasmus replied: “Two very grievous ones: he has laid his hands on the crown of the Pope and the belly of the monks.”

Asked to recant what he had written, Luther uttered his famous reply:

“Since then Your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason, I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot  and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me.” (Later versions say Luther added: “Here I stand, I can do no other.”)

Luther was banned, his books were burned, and he was excommunicated, a sentence of death. On the way home, he was kidnapped by allies and taken to Wartburg Castle, where he hid out in disguise under the name of “Junker Jörg” and grew a beard and long hair. While there, not having anything else to do, he translated the Bible into German, giving the Germans a standardized language and a German version of the Bible they use to this day.

At the beginning, I asked if one person can change the world. Occasionally – as with Luther – there is an opportunity, but it always depends upon a constellation of factors. With Luther, it could easily have turned out otherwise. If Gutenberg had not just invented the printing press; if his ruler, Frederick the Wise, had not protected him; if the Emperor Charles V had not been off fighting the Muslims at the gates of Vienna, Luther would have likely suffered the same fate as the English reformer John Wycliffe or the Czech reformer Jan Hus, a hundred years before, both burned at the stake.

The Reformation spread to other countries: in Switzerland, it was led by Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin. In Scotland, by the fiery Presbyterian John Knox. In each place radical changes followed in church liturgy, architecture, and music: congregational singing, for example. In England, the Reformation was not only religious and political, but personal: King Henry the VIII needed a divorce, and the Catholic Church would not give him one, so Henry took over the church, confiscating the church’s land, and made himself head of the Anglican Church. Out of the Anglican Church would come our dear old Daddy, John Wesley, who – like Luther – only wanted to reform the existing church, not begin a new denomination of Christians. The schism has continued since, such that – in the U.S. alone, there are some 217+ denominations and 1,200 religious bodies.

Tragically, terribly, none of this happened without bloodshed. There was the German Peasant’s Revolt, which Luther himself approved crushing, which slaughtered 100,000 poorly armed peasants. There was extreme violence against such third-wing-of-the-Reformation Anabaptist groups as the Hutterites and Mennonites. There was the Thirty Years War, from 1618 to 1648, which resulted in eight million casualties, killing 25 to 40% of the population in Germany alone, ranking with famine and plague as one of the worst catastrophes in modern European history.

Great people also have great flaws. Luther himself, throughout his life and especially in his later years, until his death in 1546 at the age of 62, wrote some anti-semitic things, which later used by the Nazis (and the accommodating German Church) against the Jews, resulting in the Holocaust. I believe this is one of the reasons Europe is so secular today: they have suffered so much from the violence brought on by religion. This is also why so many of our ancestors left to come here to America; and why freedom of religion is such an important part of our Constitution. Without it, I fear we’d be killing each other again.

Where does this leave us today, on the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation? What are we still protesting? With Luther, we believe that our standing with God depends upon faith in God’s grace alone. With Luther, we believe that the primary guide of Christian faith and practice is Scripture alone. With Luther, we believe in the priesthood of all believers, that we are priests to each other. But guess what: in Councils (Vatican II) and conversations since, the Catholic Church believes these things too, in different ways. So we might even say – in most ways, if not all – the reformation succeeded.

The critical principle that came out of the Reformation was this: “the church reformed, but always needing to be reformed.” (ecclesia reformata sed semper reformanda). Or as another called it, always “correcting the correction.” So now, after 500 years, while we may take pride in Protestant faith and practice, we have sinned against the substance and unity of the church, and we need to correct the correction, working together with Roman Catholics and Episcopalians and Lutherans and all who own and follow the name of Jesus Christ.

We should also keep in mind what philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once said, that at heart, the Reformation was really a “family quarrel.” The Orthodox Church in the East and certainly not the Muslims or the Hindus or Buddhists of the world took note or cared. But now, we live and work with them. So while we choose and follow the Jesus Way and the Protestant way, let us recognize that all are God’s children, following our different paths of love God and serving othes and seeking to change the world, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse.

On this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I like what the late Phyllis Tickle had to say, which is that every 500 years the Church has a giant rummage sale, to throw out everything that doesn’t work anymore and that we no longer need (and I’m not talking about clothes and shoes). The last one was the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century; now it’s time for another. Such that, in 500 years, what will they say about us? That we – acting in faith and courage at the right time – changed the world for better or for worse? May God grant for the better. Amen.


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