Sunday, October 29, 2017

A 500-year celebration

Interrupting the train of thought we've been on for a moment ... today is Reformation Sunday, 2017 -- so effectively the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses to the chapel door in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517, the event that traditionally marks the launch of the Protestant Reformation. Of course, the actual history is much more subtle and complex than that, as histories usually are. But anniversaries are important. I had the privilege today of telling a small group of people some stories about Luther and the launch of the Reformation. How fun to be able to lay out a few of those stories about one of history's most fascinating people!

The Reformation grew out of Luther's Spirit-driven insight that "the righteousness of God" in scripture refers not to God's own holiness that gives him the right to judge and punish us, but rather it refers to the righteousness God gives us because of Jesus' death on the cross. Some theologians have taken issue with that definition in recent years, but the fact is that this insight drove Luther for a lifetime to redefine and proclaim the good news of Jesus in a way it hadn't been done for centuries.

And coming full circle back to our ecclesiological train of thought on this blog recently, that proclamation has implications for the church.

So what does it mean to be a group of people who are defined by God giving us the free gift of righteousness based not on our own merit but based on the death and resurrection of Jesus? Luther saw lots of implications. For example, he said that sacraments are all about Jesus, based on his commands, not based on some system we create. So he reduced the Roman Catholic system of seven sacraments down to two (baptism and communion).

For another example, he said worship should be relatively simple, not a work that we perform to earn merit before God, but rather a way to give thanks and praise to God because of what he's done for us in Jesus. And in turn, the direction of worship is not our giving to God, but rather God proclaiming his word, his gracious, merciful word to us. So Luther moved the center of worship to the proclaiming of the good news of Jesus. (This is slippery and we still often lose sight of it.)

In one of his most cutting-edge moves, Luther talked about the church being not a massive institution, but ideally a voluntary group of people committed to following Jesus together with their lives. Martin recognized the need for more institutionalized forms of worship, certainly, but for sincere believers he foresaw smaller groups of people meeting in homes, worshiping simply together and being salt and light in the world through their actions and their giving and their proclaiming of Jesus.

There's a lot more. Luther's influence is nearly impossible to overstate. In 1999, anticipating the turn of the millennium, Life magazine published a list of the 100 most influential people of the last 1,000 years. Martin Luther ranked #2 on their list. His influence extends into government, literature, education, linguistics, legal affairs, home and family life, economics, and so much more, in addition to theology and ecclesiology.

By the way, #1 on Life's list was Thomas Edison. So think about how many times in a day you rely on artificial light or listen to recorded sounds -- then realize that Martin Luther runs a close second (at least according to that ranking) in how he has influenced your daily life. It's a powerful testimony to a man who struggled with depression, saw himself as rude and uncultured, spent the majority of his life under a sentence of death and excommunication, and often wondered if he was having any kind of a positive impact.

Don't give up hope. God isn't finished with us yet! The 500th anniversary of the Reformation is a great time to remember that, and to give thanks to God for the way he has worked in history. What might he be up to right now? It's a fun question to ponder.

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