Celebrating Religious Reform

There is more to observe today than Halloween or Samhain, as Phillip Winn notes at Blogcritics:

I don’t have a problem with Halloween. But the fact that I’m dressed in a costume at work today has nothing to do with that. Rather, I’m dressed as a monk to celebrate Reformation Day.

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his list of 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany, and more or less unintentionally set into motion the series of events that we now call the Protestant Reformation. Roughly half of the Christians in the world today –€” one billion of them –€” worship today in churches that exist because of Luther’s actions, more than half of them directly and knowingly continuing in the traditions established by Luther.

From Sunday School Lessons, here is an abbreviated story of Luther and the Reformation:

Because the Roman Catholic Church was desperate to raise money to complete St. Peter’s in Rome during the Middle Ages, many clergy used fear as a tool to obtain money from poor and unsophisticated people. They told the people that they had to pay money to the church so that their sins and the sins of their families might be forgiven. The people bought pieces of paper called pardons and indulgences from the church so that they could believe that they would go to heaven when they died.

Luther was deeply disturbed by these and other abuses in the church. At the same time he was aware of his own sins and imperfections, and he tried very hard to make himself into a person that he thought God would like. The harder he tried, the worse he felt. He thought he was growing farther and farther away from God, and that it was becoming impossible for God to like him at all.

In despair, he began a deep study of the Bible, especially the letters in the New Testament that were written by Paul, and he began to understand what Paul had told the early Christians over a thousand years before.

In his preaching and writing, Luther began to emphasize two main points: justification by faith and the priesthood of all believers.

Justification by faith means that Christians can never earn God’s love or forgiveness. All that Christians must do is to accept God as God, and God will love and forgive and cherish them.

The priesthood of all believers means that every Christian has his or her own personal relationship with God, reading the Bible and worshiping in his or her own language, and praying directly to God without anyone’s going in between.

So Protestant Christians give thanks to God on this day for the opportunity to lead lives of faith, instead of lives of fear.

When one looks at the recent and not-so-recent trials and tribulations of the Roman Catholic Church, it does not take a rocket scientist to conclude that many of the RCC’s problems can be traced directly to the grievances Luther nailed to that wall 486 years ago today. No wonder some old-school papists continue to insist that the Protestant leader was mentally ill and call the Reformation a “demonic deception.”

As the Rev. Henry Ernst, former pastor of Brandenburg United Methodist Church in Sykesville, MD, noted in a 2001 sermon, even some Protestants have ignored this occasion. That is disheartening news, he said, because a serious treatment of Reformation Day provides all Christians with an opportunity to reassess their denominations.

Reformation Sunday has tended to fall by the wayside and has been ignored. The reason is not far to seek. Changes have taken place, changes in some instances as startling as those that took place in the 16th century. Indeed, some competent observers are suggesting to us that we are living in a period that later historians may call a second reformation. The Reformation, the reforming, the renewal of the church, is not something that merely took place 450 years ago so that we celebrate Protestant history together. The Reformation is taking place in our midst so that we –€“ Roman Catholics and Protestants –€“ celebrate its reality today together.

What happened, of course, was Vatican II, that great Catholic Council that took place from October 1962 to November 1964. Since that time, Protestants and Catholics have worked and worshiped and studied together. Roman Catholic and Protestant families have met together in each other’s homes and churches, coming together in small groups and larger worship experiences, exploring each other’s faith, seeking an understanding of each other and of their own faith.

This is possible because of a new openness, a new honesty that Vatican II encouraged. Both Protestants and Catholics are approaching the Bible with a view to seeing what it really says instead of trying, as has happened all too often in the past, to find points with which to score in debate. We are reading each other’s books and Protestant scholars teach in Catholic institutions and Catholic scholars teach in Protestant schools. My own doctorate, which is in Protestant theology, was earned in a Catholic school, St. Mary’s Seminary in Roland Park in Baltimore.

We are realizing that we cannot deal with the problems of society alone and so our planning includes not simply members of other Protestant denominations, but also Roman Catholics. I remember a meeting I attended in which the church was seeking ways to minister to the inner city. There were three resource leaders, one a member of the Board of National Missions of the United Methodist Church, one a Lutheran minister specializing in the work of the inner city, and the third a priest of the Roman Catholic Church responsible for his area for the archdiocese of Baltimore.

The reforming of the church that Brother Martin sought has finally engulfed Protestant and Catholic. He is our father in the faith, just as John Wesley and Francis Asbury are. There are direct ties to John Wesley and the Methodist movement, by the way. When, on the evening of May 24, 1738, John Wesley, lately returned from being a missionary to the colony of Georgia in America, went to a meeting at Aldersgate, it was a reading from Luther’s preface to Paul’s Letter to the Romans that was the catalyst that changes his life.

He is also a father in the faith for Roman Catholics. One of the best studies of the thought of Martin Luther was published jointly by two publishing houses –€“ one a Protestant press, the other a Catholic publishing house. It was written by a Roman Catholic scholar! Marvel of marvels. To use a term that came out of Vatican II, we are –€œseparated brethren–€ but we are brethren. Those are our brethren in the Catholic Church. We do not agree on all things. But then, we do not agree with our fellow Protestants either. In fact, Methodists disagree with each other. And sometimes we are on the same side of the fence, not with fellow Methodists, but with our fellow Christians down the road who are crowding into mass.

As the last session of Vatican II drew to a close, the great Swiss Protestant theologian Karl Barth admitted to being very impressed. And he said something like this –€“ I am not quoting exactly but giving what I believe to be the essence of what he said: –€œWhat if the Holy Spirit is now to be found more in the Catholic Church than the Protestant?–€

You see, we can’t simply be satisfied that we are Protestants and therefore have the truth. Our Catholic friends are reading the bible, studying the Bible, being shaped by the witness of God in the Bible. Today some of the finest Biblical scholars are Roman Catholics, and their people are appropriating the fruits of their scholarship. What about us?

John Wesley continued the Reformation in his day. We tend to forget that it cost him. He faced angry mobs that wanted his life. It is one thing to celebrate what churches are doing. It is something else to be part of the life of a church, so that the Holy Spirit can continue to move.

Today is a celebration, but it is also a challenge. How seriously do we take our church? How seriously indeed?

It is something for all Christian believers to consider.

And so today, let us take that opportunity, that responsibility — Catholic and Methodist and Lutheran and Episcopalian and Metropolitan Community Church and so forth. Let us celebrate Luther’s courageous act and challenge ourselves and our denominations to faithfully serve the Creator and to love and respect one another as Jesus told us to do.

Happy Reformation Day!

Posted in Uncategorized