Reformation 500th Anniversary

A sermon based on Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on October 29, 2017
by Rev. Scott Elliott

I am not sure how many of us knew this before we walked into church today, but October 31st has a special significance this year beyond it being Halloween. It’s the 500th anniversary of one of THE most important events in the history of the Church, arguably even of Western civilization.

On the Eve of All Saints, October 31, 1517, a clergyman once trained in the law posted his now famed Ninety-Five Theses on the University of Wittenberg’s chapel door. That act lit the fuse of a powder keg of discontent with the Holy Roman Catholic Church that set off a revolution that we now call the Reformation.

The man was a monk and Wittenberg professor of theology named Martin Luther. The Holy Roman Catholic Church was the most powerful religious body throughout most of Europe, it was virtually the only religious option in most countries for most citizens and was intertwined with the power structures of most Western countries.

The powder keg Martin Luther set off blew the church apart like nothing before or since. The issues had been building for sometime, the Church had become not only a monopoly, but was experienced as corrupt in a number of ways, among them seeking money from congregants with claims that payments to the church, had certain positive affects in the afterlife, rescuing self and loved ones from torment . . . for a price.

Martin Luther protested a number of things but the one that most struck a nerve with the Church was his taking issue with the Church selling these reprieves from hell and purgatory. A person could buy from the Church indulgences (as they were called), and the Church would assure that payment helped save their soul or the soul of a dead family member from their sins–money was lal that was required. Indulgences were used as fund raisers and Martin Luther had had enough when Pope Leo agreed to accept 10,000 ducats for an archbisopric in Germany. The pope authorized Albert to hold a great sale of indulgences to raise the funds.

The man put in charge of the sale of indulgences . . . was the Dominican John Tetzel, an unscrupulous man who was willing to make scandalous claims for his wares as long as such claims would help sales. . . . Tetzel and his preachers were heard announcing that the indulgence that they sold made the sinner “cleaner than when coming out of baptism,” and “cleaner than Adam before the Fall” and that the cross of the seller of indulgences has as much power as the cross of Christ. Those who wished to buy an indulgence for a loved one who was deceased were promised that, “as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” 1

A number of theologians were incensed at the corruption and misrepresentations of Church doctrine, and Germans were angry at the church in Rome for fleecing their countrymen. Although Martin Luther had posted “Theses” before, the set he posted on October 31, 1517 shook the Western world to its core.

The printing press was coming into vogue and the dissent and contentiousness had reached a point where his arguments in Ninety-five Theses got relatively widespread interest, publication and reading. And Luther did not pull punches about the indulgences. Let me read just eight of the ninety-five theses, so we can get a feel for why everyone – especially the Church – got all riled up . .. Speaking of the Church he wrote in

Theses 27: They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.
Theses 28: It is certain that when money clinks in the money chest, greed and avarice can be increased; but when the church intercedes, the result is in the hands of God alone.
Theses 36: Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters.
Theses 37: Any true Christian, whether living or dead, participates in all the blessings of Christ and the church; and this is granted him by God, even without indulgence letters.
Theses 43: Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than he who buys indulgences.
Theses 45: Christians are to be taught that he who sees a needy man and passes him by, yet gives his money for indulgences, does not buy papal indulgences but God’s wrath.
Theses 46: Christians are to be taught that, unless they have more than they need, they must reserve enough for their family needs and by no means squander it on indulgences.
Theses 47 Christians are to be taught that their buying of indulgences is a matter of free choice, not commanded. 2

Powerful stuff!

The Ninety-Five Theses covered a number of issues – indulgences were the one that got the establishment very riled. However, probably the most famous is the first theses which is more general and states

“When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” 3

That first theses set the tenor for the rest by asserting the primacy of the individual’s response within, rather than the primacy an outward system – and Luther meant the Church– with dogma and rules, like confession . . . and payments based on false promises for afterlife luxuries. Luther noted that the church through the pope oversees its own rules but doesn’t have power to release guilt from sin, that is God’s power. Luther developed further this the idea of repentance as each Christian’s inner struggle with sin. Hammering home the point that the consequences of sin are not controlled through human structures, like the Church.

Luther disputed ideas about purgatory, including those who claim to know what happens there, as well as the Church’s authority to actually have a say or effect over afterlife. This included challenges about indulgences. The rather unethical idea that if you give money to the Church you can just buy eternal release from consequences of sin. Luther was appalled at the greed the payments caused and the false nature of the promises.

Luther asserted that only true personal repentance by the particular sinner mattered and led to forgiveness. Payment was not needed nor was it effective. Luther argued that the false easy payments plan to get out of trouble kept sinners from actually repenting and stopping wrongful conduct and facing the consequences of it. It was hindering doing what’ right. He went on to challenge the misleading use of doctrines and the disdain for the Gospels that they cause. He challenged the wrongful elevation of indulgences, and the corresponding failure to protect the poor from blasphemy and fleecing by greedy preachers.

Luther outlined a number of other criticisms and then ended with this idea from Acts 14:22 “ Christians should be exhorted to be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, death and hell. And thus be confident of entering into heaven through many tribulations rather than through the false security of peace.” 4 This final point being Christians cannot buy their way out of being like Christ, or the consequences of failing to be like Christ. Fraudulent pitches by snake oilmen in clergy garb to get money for the church and gave false sense of security was abhorrent to Luther, as it is to many of us today.

Well, as you can imagine Luther’s Theses caused quite a stir. His superiors in the church ordered him to recant. He refused to do so unless they could show scripturally that he was wrong. They couldn’t, but still insisted he recant. He didn’t and went into hiding. Luther was eventually excommunicated. But he and his ideas got a following and soon changed the Church.

That’s the short version of the how Reformation began five hundred years ago. All of the protesters that joined in with what Luther started earned the name Protest . .. ants . . . Protestants.

As I’ve pointed out more than indulgences were at issue. Luther wanted to help people connect to God and he pushed to cut out some convoluted and abusive and fraudulent practices . .. like indulgences. He also soon pushed for access to the Bible for everyday folks, to take away priests as the only interpreters of Scripture. Before Luther the Bible was primarily only found in Hebrew, Greek and Latin and only in churches where monks and priest could read and understand it. The Church was in control of the text and what part of it was heard and how all of it was interpreted. Luther translated the Bible into German and got it to the laity in a widespread way.

Luther eventually started a church, and it branched out and became a multitude of churches. Lutheranism eventually became the state church in Germany and Scandinavia. We now know this as the Lutheran denomination in America.

Other reformers emerged. The Swiss Reformation was led by Ulrich Zwingli and shortly after John Calvin, another Protestant joined in out of France. Henry the VIII infamously used the Reformation to break the churches’ power over him in England giving rise to Anglican and Episcopal church. Over time many other branches of Protestantism evolved.

Our Protestant church began in 1834 as a small anti-slavery breakaway from the Presbyterian church, a denomination that Calvin influenced. Not long after we became Congregationalists which trace their heritage to English and Presbyterian Reformation efforts. It gets even more complicated because in the 20th Century there was a movement to unite churches from the Reformation and so the United Church of Christ was formed and we joined it. This made us a part of not only the Congregationalists, but the Christian, Evangelical and Reformed traditions. So we harken back to German, Dutch, English, Swiss and French Reformation origins, and of course, Martin Luther who was the catalyst for the break away from the Holy Roman Catholic Church, which we sometimes forget are also brothers and sisters too.

Of course all churches trace their lineage back to the Jewish Jesus Following and Jesus himself–which is actually the following that we all like to claim we try to stay true to. The Reformation began when Martin Luther tried to cause the Church to do what he thought was just that, to follow in Christ’s footsteps.

As we heard in the special invocation this morning, Lutherism and the Reformation honed in on the very early Christian theologies that “it is through faith in God’s grace, and not through good works, that humans are justified before God . . . that salvation [is] a gift of grace, not something we’ve earned through our own merit . . . [that] every Christian is considered part of the “priesthood” . . . “[T]hat the Bible contains everything we need to know in order to be reconciled to God and live righteously . . . This idea elevate[d] Scripture above all other authorities, including the church and Christian tradition . . . “The Protestant reformers believed that centuries of church tradition had placed a heavy burden on the backs of believers . . . they reminded Christians that the gospel of Christ is meant to free people from guilt and sin. ”5 I mention all this historical and theological grounding because it is all important for Protestants.

So see, this Halloween there’s more than great costumes wonderful children and fun and candy collections to celebrate, we have this amazing 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

And let me close with this suggestion: that we consider thinking about what parts of Christianity as a whole need a new Reformation to unfold to remedy? What ails the Church with a big ‘C” and keeps it from being the healthy Body of Christ today? Here is one 2017 theses I have, and I’d be interested to hear yours over the next few weeks too. My Theses Number 1 is based on Psalm 136, Acts 10:28., Matthew 21 and Jesus’ number one rule to love our neighbors–which Jesus got from our reading today. My Theses Number 1 is: Since God’s love is steadfast and endures forever; since God commands us to call no one profane or unclean; since we are to tend to Christ in the stranger; and because we are to love all our neighbors, Christianity “the Church” with a big “C” needs to cease calling and treating anyone as profane or unclean and instead positively call on all Christians to love everyone steadfastly as Jesus and God have long called us do.

I am sure between us we could come up with ninety-four more 2017 Theses to match Luther’s ninety five. Let us give it some careful and prayerful thought on the eve of the Reformation’s 500th anniversary. Change, reforming, transforming for the better is a good thing. Let us be grateful for Luther’s Ninety- five theses, for all reformers, and let us continue the work they started to get us back on Jesus’ Way, the way of love.

1. Gonzalez, Justo, The Story of Christinaity, Vol 2, p21