Finally! It is Reformation Day! On this day, 500 years ago, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany—95 reasons why the church needed to take a close look at itself and determine whether or not scripture was really reflected in its theology.
For the past week, I have seen article after article about Martin Luther and his struggles, his reasons, his boldness, his sins, and so many other character traits and flaws that make humans, human. I have seen meme after meme, making fun of and praising Martin Luther. And today, this morning, I have received the traditional “Happy Reformation Day” texts from my kids! I know that it seems strange to receive that greeting when everyone else is shouting “Happy Halloween,” but what can I say? My children take after their mother and are a little strange, so for years the greeting for October 31 has been “Happy Reformation Day.”
I have read so many thoughtful and profound articles in the past week that it seems futile for me to think that I can add anything significant to the Reformation discussion. And yet, today it is with gratitude that I write this reflection, for myself really and anyone else who is grateful for the past reformation of the church and who anticipates the reformation yet to come.
As a child, in my imagination, Martin Luther was a strong man, who had no problems following God’s direction to be bold and confront the problems in the church. In my mind, he had no problems withstanding the persecution that came to him because of his defiant act.
Over the years, however, as I have read about and studied Luther, as I have read Luther’s writings my opinions about him changed. My opinions became conflicted about this man who set into motion the reformed expressions of the Christian faith.
I have always had a deep appreciation for the way God stuck with Luther, pouring wisdom and determination into his heart and mind as he sought to understand God’s relationship to humanity and humanity’s relationship to God. His fear of death, eternal life, and the deep desire to be forgiven and loved by God set Luther on a path to discover that God is loving, merciful, and trustworthy and that salvation comes through faith, not through moving our way down a check-list of must do activities in order to reach heaven. The constant feeling of unworthiness in God’s sight that was generated in his early years was the foundation that led Luther to rely on God’s strength and boldness to bring a challenge to the church. I have loved all of this about Luther!
However, later on, Luther’s writings revealed some biases that I believe are not reflective of Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels, particularly his opinions about the Jewish faith. Over the years, I have struggled with this knowledge as I have tried to reconcile how a man so frightened of death and unforgiven sin in his own early life could be so judgmental toward others.
It was with this unreconciled understanding of Martin Luther that I set out on my journey to Germany this past summer. I was hoping that I might somehow discover something that would help me understand this seemingly bitterness toward the Jewish faith that emerged in his later writings. And while I still don’t quite understand what caused such judgmental writing on Luther’s part, I do understand that his life’s work profoundly changed how the church preached and taught and presented the faith. Luther’s life work resulted in the possibility that all people could be included in understanding the faith, particularly that salvation comes through faith and the scripture should be accessible to all people.
So, of course, the life and work and courage of Martin Luther, beginning that October day 500 years ago is something to be celebrated!
Today, the second stanza of Luther’s great hymn sings in my heart:
“A Mighty Fortress is our God:”
“Did we in our own strength confide,
our striving would be losing,
were not the right man on our side,
the man of God’s own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is he;
Lord Sabaoth, his name,
from age to age the same,
and he must win the battle.”
In singing this hymn I am reminded of one other aspect of Luther’s life that I discovered on my journey to Germany this past summer and comes to mind today as I celebrate the 500th anniversary of the reformation in my own way. Luther had friends who helped make it possible for the reformation to happen. In other words, as much as we celebrate Luther today, Luther was not alone. If it had been only Luther’s strength the reformation probably would not have occurred, at least not in the manner that it did. Luther had help.
Luther was not the first reformer. He had a foundation of many people who dared to declare that reform was needed. There were many who came before Luther who were concerned about the practices of the church. Although their work did not lead to the profound Reformation and Counter Reformation that followed, their lives and their work are not forgotten. John Wycliffe, born in the 1320’s and died in 1384 was one such reformer who spoke against the privilege of the clergy and advocated for the scriptures to be translated into the language of the people. Another reformer, a particular favorite of mine—if I can say that—was Jan Hus, who in the early 1400’s in Bohemia spoke of reforms that sound familiar. He was against the privilege of the clergy and wanted the language of the liturgy and the scriptures to be in the vernacular of the people. The reforms of Jan Hus attracted quite a following and from his teachings the Moravian Church traces their origin. I grew up among Moravians and participated in many Moravian services and Love Feasts, so Jan Hus is near and dear to my heart. Jan Hus was declared a heretic and burned at the stake.
Martin Luther’s 95 Theses were profound in writing and in the intention that Luther had for them which was to spark conversation about where the church needed to change. Had it not been for some further help, we might not know so much about the 95 Theses. In 1440 Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. By 1517 the printing press was in such use that what would have taken weeks of painstaking copy by hand was now reproducible over night. On October 31, 1517, Luther nailed the 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenberg. Within a month, the Theses had been copied, reproduced, and distributed. Many, many people were able to read the Theses and so much was set in motion because people, in and out of church, knew the kind of discussions that Luther called for. Essentially, Luther became a celebrity and people took up the cause of reform.
Luther’s 95 Theses caused a lot of trouble for Luther, eventually leading to excommunication, a trial, and a price on his head. At the Diet of Worms, the church authorities demanded that Luther repent and recant all of his writings and ideas. It was at Worms that, when asked if he would recant, Luther declared: Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen. As Luther was leaving Worms and traveling back to Wittenberg, not quite certain what the next part of his life would offer, he was kidnapped and taken to the Castle at Wartburg. He was kidnapped by his friend and benefactor, Frederick the Wise.
For ten months, disguised as Knight George, Luther hid at Wartburg. It was during this time that he translated the New Testament into German. He was kept safe and protected by his friend. Without the support of Frederick the Wise, a significant contribution of Luther’s life might not have occurred.
I cannot write about all of the people who supported Luther during the darkest days of persecution in his life. It is probable that we do not know all the names of these supporters or exactly what they did for Luther. After the controversy died down and Luther went back to a settled life of teaching, he married Katarina Von Bora, a former nun. Together they had six children. As he continued to teach and to write, it was Katarina that managed all the other aspects of life in order for Luther to continue to promote the ideas and teachings that kept people learning and engaging the scriptures. Could he have managed without her? I doubt it. Katarina’s contribution to Luther’s work was significant.
As I sing this second stanza of Luther’s hymn in my heart today, the first two lines seem even more profound to me:
“Did we in our own strength confide,
our striving would be losing,”
If Luther had only his own strength to depend on, the reformation as we have come to know it would not have occurred. I think Luther must have thought about this over and over. He stood on a foundation of the scripture, of faith, of previous reformers, of friends and helpmates, but most importantly, Luther had the presence of God, who inspired him and never left him in the midst of his work.
And even though, I still find problems with some of Luther’s ideas, I am aware that these problems do not negate the reformation that took place 500 years ago. And on this day I am especially aware of the profound effect that Luther had on John Wesley, the founder of my own denomination. For it was in hearing Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans—that book of scripture that changed Luther’s life—that John Wesley’s own life and faith was changed and he declared that he knew in his own heart that he was saved. He knew that he was saved by grace.
So, today I am grateful for this event 500 years ago that set into motion reforms that brought the possibility that all people could hear the Gospel in their own language and that taught that salvation comes through faith not works, and that God is for all people.
And today, I am also aware that reformation is not a one-time deal. The church must continue to be willing to look at itself and examine where sin has crept in. I am certain that God continues to raise up reformers, those people who are bold to call the church to accountability and ask the important question: Are we, the church, a reflection of the Gospel of Jesus Christ or do we only reflect our own selfish desires?
To God alone be glory!