Oct. 29, 2017
Today, we’re celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. The famous date is actually October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses against Church practices of his day. It’s not entirely clear whether he nailed those 95 theses to the door of Wittenburg Castle or the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenburg; or whether he never nailed them to anything but simply sent them to his archbishop in Mainz and published them to others.
In any event, Luther was protesting the selling of indulgences, which theologically were said to shorten a sinner’s time in purgatory and practically raised a lot of money for the institutional Church. The deeper issues were about sin, redemption, and religious authority. For Luther and the later Protestant reformers, we are justified by faith in God’s grace alone, not by good works. Scripture, rather than Church tradition, is the source of divine revelation. And all baptized people have direct access to God’s grace because they’re part of the priesthood of all believers.
Luther’s protest focused a movement that had been building for years before and would continue for years after. What we call the Reformation had been coming since 1378, when the Western Church was torn by schism and three would-be popes claimed the title. The movement picked up steam in 1414, when Jan Hus was burned at the stake for condemning the sales of indulgences and for arguing the papacy was a human institution – and then, a year later, when John Wycliffe was declared a heretic for translating the Scriptures into English and for criticizing the clergy’s pomp and privilege. And the movement would grow beyond Luther’s 95 theses to include the work of others, especially John Calvin, from whom would come the Reformed tradition, including what we know as the Presbyterian Church. Like Jan Huss and John Wycliffe, Luther and Calvin believed in the power of grace alone to bridge the gap between sinful humanity and the righteous God who loves us; and they believed that people must be able to hear and read God’s Word, and offer the gift of worship, in their own languages. The reformers also took the movement in different and competing directions. There’s an old joke that “divisiveness was Protestantism’s greatest gift to Christianity,”1 and sadly there’s truth to that. Certainly, without the Reformation, the religious shopping mall we know as denominations simply wouldn’t exist.
The Reformation opened a couple of other huge doors to the future, too. One was the question of authority. Where do we look for truth, in church matters and in everything else? If three politically motivated bishops can each claim to be the true pope; and if reforming priests can start pointing out the Church’s corruption; and if printing presses can mass-produce new ideas; and if scientists can observe that the earth actually revolves around the sun, not the other way around; and if different churches can read the same Biblical texts and find different meanings in them – if there is no longer a consensus about who holds the truth, then to whom should we listen? Where does authority lie?2
The answer came from the other door to the future opened wide by the Reformation: the power of individualism. Luther came to see that, just as salvation didn’t come from following Jewish Law, it doesn’t come from following the rules of Church tradition, either. Salvation comes from recognizing that I “have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), and only faith in Jesus Christ heals my sinfulness and lets me share in God’s righteousness. Well, if that’s true – if my salvation depends on my faith in Jesus Christ – and if books can now be produced with machines rather than parchment and pen, then I need a Bible in my home; and my children need to learn to read so they can get right with God, too. And if Luther was right about the priesthood of all believers, then I don’t need a priest or a church hierarchy to do the work of reconciling me with God. I can do that myself. And if there are multiple ways of worshiping God, then I have the power to choose which one is right for me. With the Reformation, it became the individual’s faith that mattered … and, ultimately, the individual who chose which path of truth to take.3
So, you may be wondering, why are a bunch of Episcopalians celebrating all this? If you know your Anglican history, you know that we are a tradition of the Reformation, too; but we took a different path that led to a different place. For us, the break with Rome came first, followed by the theological reflection – and bloodshed – of reform. It’s important that the name of our vehicle of reformation is the Church of England, rather than the “Henry-ites” or the “Cranmer-ites.” We’re named for a nation, not an individual, because for us the break with Rome was about power and sovereignty first, theology second. But reformation did happen in England, too: worship in the people’s language, administration of both bread and wine to the congregation, and an ongoing argument about just how reformed our worship should be. The vestments we’re wearing today illustrate what Anglican clergy would have been wearing in the mid-1500s – and over the years, there were great arguments about how “popish” our vesture and liturgical practice should be. The more Protestant among us thought even a white surplice was too much, arguing for no vesture at all and no ornamentation at the altar. It wasn’t until the Oxford Movement in the 1800s that stoles and chasubles, vesture from the early and medieval Church, began to make a return.
We Episcopalians and other Anglicans around the world see ourselves as “catholic and reformed.” We are part of Christ’s universal Church, in succession with centuries of tradition that’s come before us, proclaiming the ancient creeds, centered in sacramental practice. And at the same time, we’re reformed – reliant on God’s grace alone, knowing God as revealed in Scripture, and living out the priesthood of all believers. Our Book of Common Prayer unites these paths, focusing us on the sacraments, calling us back to the Creeds, giving us Scripture for daily and weekly hearing, and empowering lay people as the primary ministers of the Church. The catechism tells us the orders of ministry are lay people, bishops, priests, and deacons (BCP 855); and the order of the orders matters.
So, there you have it: catholic and reformed, finding our authority in Scripture, and tradition, and reason; reveling in the mystery that “both/and” can be true. That’s the Anglican via media, the middle way – a good, if messy, path to walk.
So, what do we do with all this history, as we celebrate the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s protest movement? Here are two primary take-aways from the Reformation for me. The first is our call to the holiness of humility as broken individuals and as a broken Church, both in need of God’s grace. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,” said the Son of God, “for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29). Follow my way, says God’s Incarnate Word – made flesh in a dirty stable, living among the poor and oppressed, dying the worst death imaginable. The way of the cross is the only way Jesus calls his Church to take, in Luther’s day and in our own. The Church needs humility perhaps more than anything else, especially in an age when people have embraced the gospel of the individual to such a degree that there is no common narrative, just the truth of my own story. But the real truth is, people need a bigger story, even if they don’t realize it; and the Church has that story to offer, if it can do so with clarity and humility rather than entitlement and judgment. Good News from a humble heart is the very best news there is.
Here’s the other take-away I see for us in the Reformation. If humility is our call when we look in the mirror, and when we look at our Church, and when we look at our society, then the other side of Jesus’ call is to acknowledge where power and glory truly lie. Power and glory abide with the God who stoops down in an act of divine humility to share power and glory with even such as us. To those who have faith in Jesus and who aspire to the faith of Jesus (Romans 3:26), that divine glory is in sight, if we can get ourselves out of the way long enough to look for it.
In fact, in just a few minutes, we’ll hear from a mighty apostle of that deep truth, one who certainly could have reveled in his own talent. Johann Sebastian Bach is arguably the greatest composer in Western history; at one point in his life, he was cranking out a cantata a week of the kind of quality we’re about to hear.4 But Bach also attended the same school Martin Luther attended as a boy; Bach served in and composed for Lutheran churches all his life; and he had all of Martin Luther’s writings on his library shelves. So, it’s no great surprise that, at the end of his magnificent manuscripts, Bach did not simply sign his name or his initials. He also wrote the initials S.D.G., which stand for – “to God alone be the glory.”5
It is perfect, I think, that we celebrate the Protestant Reformation, and our own ongoing need for reform, by hearing Luther’s words set to Bach’s music. Together, they bring us the complementary truths of the holiness of human humility and the glory of God’s grace. To bring those truths together, let me leave you with Luther’s words; you’ll have Bach’s tune in your head soon enough:
Did we in our own strength confide,
Our striving would be losing,
Were not the right man on our side,
The man of God’s own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is he.
Lord Sabaoth his name,
From age to age the same.
And he must win the battle.
1. Tickle, Phyllis. The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008. 46.
2. Tickle, 45-48, 55-56.
3. Tickle, 45-46, 50-51.
4. “Johann Sebastian Bach.” Available at: http://www.reformationsa.org/index.php/history/90-johann-sebastian-bach. Accessed Oct. 28, 2017.
5. Swett, Jonathan. “Johann Sebastian Bach.” Available at: https://lutheranreformation.org/history/johann-sebastian-bach/. Accessed Oct. 28, 2017.