Jesus speaks of truth and freedom as spiritual realities known through his word. He reveals the truth that sets people free from sin.
31Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”
34Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
The Sunday closest to oct 31 is observed as Reformation Sunday in many Protestant churches. Oct 31st 1517 is the day that Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. 95 sentences stringing together an argument against one particular practice of the Roman Catholic Church that was becoming extremely popular. My colleague and friend Pastor David Hansen said it well,
“Across Europe, the Roman Catholic Church was engaged in one of the greatest fundraisers in all of history. If a person – out of contrition for their sins and as a sign of repentance – made a financial gift to help with the building Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, then the church would furnish that person with a certificate acknowledging that gift and promising that they or their loved ones would be freed from a portion of the misery expected in the afterlife.” https://sojoy.org/reformation/
Was it a penance? A sacrifice of something showing your true repentance? Or was it just people purchasing forgiveness? Luther’s disagreement with the emphasis this practice was taking on kicked off a movement of other’s questioning church practices. Or at least what practices had become in the Catholic Church at that time….
Did you notice I didn’t say celebrate Reformation Day? I don’t really think the church needs to celebrate a day that started the largest schism in the church since the East and West broke in the great schism of 1054. We observe this day so that we can learn from it not reenact it. For centuries the protestant churches held this anti-catholic bias. To clearly make it known that we are not them, we don’t know ’em. We denigrate their practices and misconstrue their beliefs. We have misunderstood their ritual and spoke ill of their faith. We didn’t let our kids play with their kids.
I’ve used the example of my childhood on more than one occasion to parishioners who were shocked to find out that my best friend growing up was Roman Catholic and we went to each other’s churches all the time! 5pm Saturday mass at her church, sleepover at my house, 10am Sunday service at my church.
I never saw much difference to it at all – save the fact that I wasn’t allowed to receive communion at her church, while she was very much welcome to receive communion at mine. But I learned as an adult what an outlier this was in ecumenical relations.
Luther never intended to leave the Church. He never intended to start anything new besides an honest look at Catholic practices and what they were actually teaching the people versus their intention. The church had become so emphatic about our good works and our penance – that they stopped emphasizing God’s grace and mercy. The church had become so good at lifting up the religious vocations of nun, monk, and priest, that your average lay person didn’t know that their vocation was also god-given and blessed.
The church had become so adept at building and keeping tradition and faithful practices, that for some, christianity was just about those traditions and practices. You do your duty and your obligation, and here’s the right way to do it.
This is not in any way a commentary on the faithful Roman Catholic parishioners I know and love today. But the Catholic Church at Luther’s time had immense political, social, and economic power, and from where Luther sat, as a monk, as a priest, and as a professor, they were abusing that power. And he was not alone, there was a reformation going on within the Catholic Church at the time, an attempt to curb the abuses of power that were widespread, but also to encourage and educate the faithful.
The schism of the church that happened as some were excommunicated and some were not is not a cause for celebration, but a call for all the faithful of any church or congregation to acknowledge the brokenness of human systems and yet give glory to God for the oneness we have in Christ. That God would continue to use us, sinful and divisive though we are, as messengers of his word and parts of the body of Christ. God continues to work through the church all over the world to care for the vulnerable, show grace and forgiveness, and speak truth to the powers that would bind us and limit us.
This is the gift we are given in our Lutheran heritage. The ability and the responsibility to question the Church and its practices – to implore it to tell the truth and acknowledge when it gets it wrong. Reformation Day encourages us to do better. To Lower our defenses and listen with compassion. To repent of the barriers we have put up and the barricades we have used to keep people from knowing GOd’s love. To take a serious look at the ways the church’s teachings have been abused and misused to harm God’s Children. To continue to return to God’s word again and again for comfort and strength, even when the church itself has failed us. God’s word forever shall abide. Amen.