October is a great month. The weather begins to turn. Harvest decorations come out. We just begin to turn to the holiday season with anticipation. October is also a special month in the Lutheran calendar. We celebrate the Reformation. There is a lesson for all of us in the Reformation story, but first let’s take a stroll through the halls of history. We will be in the Middle Ages hall, from roughly AD1400 to AD1600.
A quick glance up the hall reveals it is a great time of intellectual fervor. Big changes are afoot! In 1492, Columbus sails the ocean blue. Leonardo Da Vinci begins painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in 1508. In the 1530’s, Copernicus’s idea that the Earth is not the center of the solar system — let alone the universe! — began to gain currency.
The first picture we encounter is a corrupted Catholic church. There are still good people in the church, but the hierarchy has gone really bad. Clerical offices (which meant a good living at the time) were for sale, as was forgiveness of sin through a certificate, called an indulgence, which one could buy from the church. Many popes in the middle ages were known to have mistresses. The Catholic Church severely punished people who teach against them, including burning heretics at the stake.
The next picture is of the political times. The rulers of what is now Germany would like to get out from under Vatican control, including Vatican taxation. The Turks are beginning their attempted conquest through Eastern Europe. The Vatican has a formidable army that could have been sent to Germany were it not for the Turkish threat.
Finally we see a picture of reformers. The first two are John Wycliffe in England and Jan Hus in Germany, both of whom were condemned by the church. Then there is a particularly stubborn monk named Martin Luther who, after years of trying to live a life worthy of God, discovered in the scriptures that it is God himself who makes sinners worthy through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Martin Luther is surrounded by others whose names you might know: Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, King Henry VIII, John Knox, Phillip Melanchthon and many others.
As we look at the detail near the center of the reformers, we find a document dated October 31, 1517. This is the document which Martin Luther nailed to the public bulletin board (the door of the church, in this case) in the university town of Wittenberg. In this document, Martin Luther called for new debate on the sale of indulgences, asserting that not only were they not effective in bringing forgiveness, but they were driving people away from the true forgiveness that God offers repentant sinners in Christ Jesus. This document sparked heated religious controversy, including death warrants, that lasted more than fifty years.
Down the hall we begin to see pictures of new church bodies, including the Lutheran church. The expression on the faces of the reformers in these pictures is bittersweet because though the reformation succeeded, their intent was not to break up the church, but to call the church back to Christ.
The lessons of the Reformation are numerous. Take care with what you come to believe and why — nobody starts out trying to become a heretic. Stick with your convictions. It can be helpful to have powerful friends in high places whose interests dovetail with yours. God is at work. Examine your own life to see if you need a little reformation yourself. Building programs can be big trouble if not kept in perspective. The truth will win out when people are courageous enough to continue to proclaim it in the face of threats (this does not mean that people will not possibly suffer and die in the process). I’m sure there are many more lessons. Perhaps you can share with me what you learn from the Reformation story.
Celebrate Reformation Day in your life by reading the scriptures (you might try the book of Galatians, one of Luther’s favorites) and allowing yourself to be pulled into the tender mercy of God who forgives penitent sinners for Jesus’ sake.