In 2017, the world will mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Like all anniversaries, this one is a little artificial. To date the Reformation from October 31, 1517, the date Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the door of the University Church in Wittenberg, Germany, is sort of like saying that my wife and I have been married 25 years next Tuesday. It's true, on the face of it, but the marriage starts long before the wedding day and you don't really figure out what it means to live in a covenant relationship until long after you say "I do." In similar fashion, the Reformation was building long before 1517 and didn't really take shape until long after Luther put his hammer away.
But anniversaries are important anyway as a way to mark the passage of time and influence.
Speaking of influence, in the year 2000 Life magazine featured the 100 most influential people of the last thousand years. A little presumptuous, maybe, but a good way to gain some perspective. First was Thomas Edison, and if you think for a few minutes you'll see why from our perspective that has to be the case. Second was Martin Luther.
Most people think of Luther as influential in the world of religion, and that's certainly true. However, Luther's thought, writing, and celebrity (yes, they had celebrities in the 16th century, and a cantankerous university professor was a likely candidate in those days) reached far into economics, family life, education, politics, vocation, and much more. I think Life got this one right, putting Luther just behind artificial light and recorded sound and just ahead of Chris Columbus in his impact on the world of the year 2000.
So what will the world do to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation? Like most things, I suspect it will take us a little bit by surprise. We'll wake up one day and it will be October of 2017 and we'll say, Huh. We should have some kind of a party.
Lutheran churches at the very least (as well as many others) ought to be thinking ahead about this one, talking about it, anticipating it. We ought to be asking the question, What does Luther mean for us today? How do we translate his thought into post-modern, post-Christendom reality? (By the way, this is the biggest danger for Lutherans and other hidebound traditionalists. We are so tempted just to import Luther into the present day without translating his thought and his context into our own time. Caution!)
Let me offer some suggestions as to how we might proceed.
First, it's worth getting to know Martin. If you haven't already, spend some time reading a good biography of Martin Luther. Roland Bainton's Here I Stand is one good place to start, though it's a little idealistic and a little scanty on details about the difficult later portion of Luther's life. Also, as long as you're at it, read some of Luther's own writing. The Large Catechism or the Smalcald Articles are good places to start. Also, find some of Luther's sermons. Read his sermons on the gospel of John. To spice things up, get a copy of Table Talk, which is a debatable collection of Luther's offhand comments around the table as his students were listening in after meals.
Second, churches (especially those that consider themselves to be part of Martin's tradition) ought to spend some time digging into his stuff. Do a series on the history of Luther and his impact on the present. Dig into the Small Catechism. At Calvary, we're considering preaching through Paul's letter to the Romans during 2015-2016 -- exactly 500 years after Luther lectured his way through it. By the way, it was in preparation for these lectures that Luther experienced what you probably have to call a "conversion" in his understanding of the grace of God. Everything he did later proceeded out of this conversion, this new understanding, and so you might say this is one of the deepest roots of the Reformation.
Third, Lutherans and other Protestants need to start now to think about what impact Luther's thought has on Christianity today. It's not enough to fire up the pipe organ and sing another chorus of "A Mighty Fortress." God created an amazing movement in the church and the world through the Reformation, and we need to be able to do the hard historical and philosophical work to think it through in the present. We will have a window -- probably a narrow, fleeting one -- to say something to the world in 2017. If we haven't thought through this stuff ahead of time, we'll miss our chance.