Remembering the Reformation

The other day I was coming from a meeting and decided to stop at Target to pick up a few items. Parking lots can be confusing, and the Target lot is a bit of a challenge to navigate, so I wasn’t surprised when I got behind a car that seemed to be waiting on another car to park. It looked as if a red Cadillac was either going into a spot or coming out, and a white SUV was waiting on them so that they could pass. I surely didn’t wait more than a second or two before the SUV just parked in a different spot and I pulled up to the red Cadillac.

It was then that I noticed that the Cadillac was empty, sitting in the part of the parking lot where you drive, perpendicular to the flow of the traffic. For a brief second I thought that maybe the rapture had occurred, the driver had been taken, and I had been left behind.

I got out and walked up to the empty car, as did the driver of the white SUV. My first thought and fear was that the driver had passed out and was laying over in the seat. But the car was empty. The next thought that crossed my mind was that they probably forgot to put it in park and it could have rolled a bit. But no, it was in park, and when I tried to push it, it would not budge.

The only logical explanation for why this car was sitting where it was sitting, how it was sitting was that the driver probably thought that they were in a spot, having pulled behind another car, and went into Target to do their shopping.

They simply parked it in the wrong place, and maybe, just maybe, that person should not have been driving.

I think this serves as a good metaphor for the church of the Middle Ages. We kind of parked it in the wrong place, theologically speaking, leaving it somewhere it really shouldn’t have been. And the reason it got where it did is because of the person, or maybe I should say the people who were driving it. Someone should have taken his keys a long time ago!

We are talking about the Protestant Reformation today because Tuesday, October 31, 2017 marks the 500-year anniversary of a famous event that marks the unofficial beginning of the reformation. On All Hallows’ Eve Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany.

What better way to end our sermon series on Rites, Rituals, and Holy Days than to discuss Reformation Sunday on Reformation Sunday just two days shy of the 500th anniversary? This is actually the first holy day we have discussed on that holy day! Last week I mentioned that the Methodists do a great job focusing on All Saints’ Day. Does anyone want to guess what denomination focuses on Reformation Sunday the most? The Lutherans! Today we are going to talk about Luther, his concerns for the church, and where we might be going for the next 500 years of the church.

Before we get into this teaching, I just want to say that I do believe that there will be Catholics in heaven. It might take them longer to get there because of that whole purgatory thing J, but I believe anyone who calls Jesus Lord will be saved. That doesn’t mean that I agree with all Catholic theology, and Catholics today would condemn the teaching that I am going to be critical of today as well. The role of the pope today is much different than it was 500 years ago. So when I am critical of the church today, please don’t assume that I am being critical of the modern Catholic Church.

Luther grew up in a poor community in a comfortable family; his father owned a copper mine. But Luther saw hunger, sickness, and poverty all around him. The noble men were in their castles, the clergy were in their churches, and the working families were barely getting by. Luther’s father sent him to school, where he studied to be a lawyer. But one night, as he was traveling by horseback, he was caught in a thunderstorm and thrown from his horse. In the midst of the storm, Luther made the promise to God that if he survived the storm, he would dedicate his life to the work of the church.

You’ve got to be careful when you make those promises! Luther made it home, and in the summer of 1505, at the age of 22, Luther left to join a monastery, making vows of chastity and poverty. While in the monastery, Luther became known for his sharp wit and sharper tongue. He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, as we will soon see.

Luther and another monk were chosen for some official business and sent from their monastery in Germany to the holy city of Rome in 1511. While there, Luther was appalled at the greed and loose morals of clergy and church leaders. Rome was believed to have been the place where the apostle Peter was martyred, and a church was built at his grave. Peter, as you may recall, is said by the Catholics to have been the first pope, and St. Peter’s Basilica is built at that holy site, the living quarters of the pope are right next door.

During his visit to Rome, Luther might have seen some of the major renovations and upgrades taking place in the home and church of the Pope. The Pope employed two of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to do his work: Raphael was hired to paint the walls of the Pope’s home while Michelangelo, who had just finished his sculpture of David, worked on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Where did all of this money come from? The pockets of the church members, of course! Now imagine you are Luther, growing up in a community of poverty, and having taken a vow of poverty yourself, living in a cold, damp monastery, witnessing these beautiful but very costly building projects. Luther left Rome greatly discouraged.

In 1512 Luther completed doctoral studies and began teaching biblical studies in Wittenberg. He was 29 at the time. Luther taught and preached in Wittenberg where he ruffled a few tail feathers, but didn’t really cause a big uproar in the church or community. Then, in 1517, the church began selling indulgences in Germany, in Luther’s backyard, to fund a major renovation project at St. Peter’s Basilica. I’ve never been to the Vatican, but from the pictures I’ve seen, I think I can say it was a rather extensive renovation, and it makes an excellent location for a Dan Brown novel.

Let me explain indulgences for a moment. To understand indulgences you need to first remember that most people in the world in the Middle Ages could not read and most copies of the Bible were hand-written in Latin, as the printing press wasn’t invented until the middle of the 15th century. Bibles were very rare. All of this is to say that most people did not have access to a Bible, and if they did have access, they couldn’t read it. So you had to rely on the religious elite to tell you what to do.

Catholic tradition also claims that most people do not go directly to heaven when they die. They go to purgatory, where the remnants of their sins are purged from their souls in a painful experience that may last hundreds of years, depending on how sinful a person was. And all of your good and evil acts are set up on a kind of balance scale. You needed more good deeds than bad to go to heaven.

The only people who went directly to heaven were the saints. This is where the indulgences come in. The saints had performed so many good deeds that they had some left over, excess good deeds that they did not need to get in. And the good news is that these good deeds were transferable in the form of an indulgence! All you needed was an official piece of paper from the pope and you could purchase forgiveness for sins. Perhaps even better, you could purchase the forgiveness of sins for your loved ones.

Is there a better way to raise money than to offer someone the opportunity to get their mother, father, grandmother or grandfather out of purgatory and into heaven? Just give a little more and you will relieve your loved one’s suffering. You do love your mother, don’t you?

There was a phrase that was repeated among the bishops who were selling indulgences: “When a coin in the coffer rings, another soul from purgatory springs.”

After years of frustration with the greed of Rome, Luther decided to step up and do something about it. So he wrote out 95 theses, 95 statements, most of them directed toward the pope, the abuse of power, and the selling of indulgences. He took this handwritten, Latin list and nailed it to the door of his church on October 31, 1517. The official title of his document was “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.”

When I hear this story, I think, Wow, that guy had some courage. He had some gumption. He had some nerve to post this on the front door! But this was really an everyday kind of act. The front door was often used as a bulletin board to post announcements. Luther’s list of grievances has a preamble that invites people to the church to discuss these thoughts. He couldn’t post them on Facebook or send out an e-vite to his discussion.

What really made a difference is how Luther presented his thoughts and the fact that someone translated them into German and mass produced copies on that new invention we call the printing press. Luther wrote in a very direct fashion and didn’t mince words. And later in his career he would be even more direct, and insulting! If you are ever looking for a way to kill some time, search for “The Luther Insulter” online. The Luther Insulter generates memes with quotes from Luther, some of which aren’t appropriate to share in church!

We’ve neither time nor energy to cover each thesis, but I would put them into three categories, and in the spirit of Reformation Sunday, I’ll use the Latin phrases that Luther would have used: 1. Sola Fide, Sola Gratia; 2. Sola Scriptura; 3. Presbyterii Fidelium. Before we look at these categories, I should just note that Luther wasn’t saying anything new. Other’s had made these critiques of the church before; some of them died because of it. But the time was right for Luther, and he had some friends in high places who helped keep him alive during this time.

Sola Fide, Sola Gratia. Literally this means faith alone, grace alone. What Luther wanted to communicate is that we are saved by the grace of God simply by putting our faith in Jesus Christ. As a young monk, Luther would spend hours at a time in confession, always worried that he had forgotten to confess some small sin because those small sins add up. And when you have the balance scale in heaven weighing your good deeds against your bad deeds, you want to make sure to have as many of those bad ones forgiven. Luther also spent hours each day in prayer, face down on a hard floor, considering his life, his victories, and his failures.

It was in his own studies that Luther came to Ephesians 2:8-9 and felt a burden disappear: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”

Christianity wasn’t about buying indulgences. In fact, Luther would write that he found no mention of indulgences in the Bible. Furthermore, he didn’t find any mention of purgatory or the pope (that one might have got him into a little trouble). Luther was a dedicate student of the scriptures, which brings us to our second category: Sola Scriptura.

You have probably put together by now that “sola” means “alone,” and you can probably guess what scriptura means. Luther believed that our understanding of God and the practices of the church should be based on scripture alone, not on what the church or the pope said, and not just based on tradition.

Let’s also consider here the third category of theses as there are some overlapping areas between this point and the following one. Presbyterii Fidelium, which is a lot more difficult to guess. This one comes from our scripture reading for today; it is the Priesthood of All Believers.

Luther believed that theology and ethics should be based on Scripture Alone, and he also believed that everyone should be able to read and interpret the texts on their own, which is a part of the priesthood of all believers. So Luther spent his later years translating the original Greek and Hebrew texts into the common German vernacular. In 1522 he published his translation of the New Testament, with Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation all stuck at the end because he didn’t think that highly of those books. Remember that he called James an “Epistle of Straw.” He would then publish the entire Old Testament with a separate Apocrypha in 1534.

Just a little bit of fun trivia for you, Luther’s translation is still popular in many German-speaking circles and is often the Bible used in Amish worship settings. Luther’s translation was so popular that were around 30 additional translations made into various common vernaculars in the middle of the 16th century, which may have influenced a man named King James to authorize an official translation into English, which was finished in 1611.

Luther did not believe that a priest or professional clergy person was necessary for God to hear our prayers and that anyone could go to God through prayer without the mediation of a priest. He also believed that everyone could and should read the Bible for themselves. Luther has been quoted as saying, “Any shepherd boy behind the bush with the Holy Spirit can interpret the Scriptures better than the pope” (as quoted by Palmer Becker in Anabaptist Essentials, 83). I’ve never felt that it was my job to pray for you because God didn’t hear the prayer of the non-ordained like you, and I’ve never felt that it was my job to tell you what the Bible says and expect you to just believe me. No, we are walking through this together. I encourage you to read, study, pray and together we will discuss what this means.

I think of the church of the Middle Ages was a lot like that red car I saw in the Target parking lot. Somebody parked it in the wrong place, and maybe that person shouldn’t have been driving at all.

For the last 500 years, the church has been protesting; that is, after all, what it means to be a Protestant. And we have gotten really good at pointing out where we disagree with one another, protesting the beliefs of this church and protesting the beliefs of that church. It is my hope that as we begin the next 500 years of church history that we will flip things like Luther did, only now, rather than pointing out the things we disagree with, I hope we can start pointing out the things that we appreciate about one another.


About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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