502 years ago, Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 theses or arguments to the castle church door, that is according to a famous legend. Whether Luther nailed his famous writings to the door or not, he certainly changed theologies and the church!
500 years after the start of the Reformation, we now have over 40 different “types” of Lutherans with most affiliating with the ELCA, The LCMS or the Wisconsin Lutheran Synod. What does this say about the church, specifically the Lutheran Church?
Well for one thing, we as Lutheran Christians are free to choose how we worship, how we understand theology or how we “do church”. Jesus tells us in our Gospel lesson for today that the “Truth will make you free”. So, what exactly is truth? Which Lutheran Denomination has an inside track on the correct theology?
While in his early thirties, Luther began to have doubts about the theological basis for much of the daily practices of the Catholic Church. In other words, he wondered if all of the things done by Catholic leaders could be justified. To organize his thinking, Luther composed a list of statements and questions that became known as the “95 Theses”.
We remember the pain and struggle that Luther had with the Catholic theology that was being acted out through the sales of indulgences that could be purchased for the forgiveness of sins. For some it was an easy way out – dole out a few dollars and you could reduce your time or a loved one’s time in purgatory – the more money, the quicker you could get to heaven. People believed that these indulgences freed them from the suffering they would endure in purgatory.
Or maybe you want to get aunt Martha out of purgatory a bit earlier than past sins would have allowed; after all she always made a mean apple pie. The famous slogan was, “when coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs”.
But what if you didn’t have money to “buy” your way out of purgatory? Most of the people in Luther’s time didn’t have the freedom to choose between buying food or buying indulgences. What did that say about God? Could God be bought? Was God only on the side of the rich and powerful?
This theology, according to Luther needed to be reformed. In fact, a bulk of the 95 theses were arguments against the sale of indulgences. Luther argued that the church itself was getting in the way of living in to the kingdom of God.
The aim and intent of the first Christian Reformers was to invite Christians into a new vision of the possibility of genuine relationship with God that was not regulated by church officials, of the promise of forgiveness predicated not upon what we have done but upon what Christ has done, and the guarantee of access to God’s grace and promise of eternal life that was not mediated by church regulation or bureaucracy. The aim and intent of the Reformers, was to invite Christians to freedom.
Are there indulgences that we are slaves to in the 21st century? What do we purchase that we believe will give us a better life; will give us control of our destiny. How do we make our choices?
I love how the word indulgence has a double meaning. According to the dictionary, the historical meaning of indulgence was a grant by the Pope of remission of the temporal punishment in purgatory still due for sins after absolution. It also means the state of satisfaction, gratification.
For most of us, we have the freedom to make many choices – we have enough means to not have to choose between buying food or paying a medical bill. Most of us have choices on how we spend our time, use our talents or donate our treasures. But, does our freedom of choice cause us to be slaves to sin?
Let’s look at sin as an addiction. Are we addicted to wealth and success; are we addicted to putting ourselves first; are we addicted to being independent; are we addicted to judging others and see them as not being as worthy as ourselves?
We have physical and emotional addictions that can cause shattered relationships and move us further away from the kingdom of God. In other words, we are slaves to sin!
But there is good news for us! The Apostle Paul tells us in our Romans reading that since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God – it is a part of our life, no matter how much we try to be perfect, we will always fall short. God knows this and give us grace when we don’t deserve it. Our faith can set us free from the eternal punishments of sin and death.
This was the good news that Luther was looking for! There is nothing we can do, nothing we can purchase for that grace – it is simply a gift because of the love God has through us. The love that came in the form of a human man being crucified on the cross.
We have the truth; the truth in Christ Jesus. We have a road map for behavior – called the Bible. We have history that we can replay to see how those saints who went before us lived out their discipleship. We have the Holy Spirit nudging us; guiding us to make gospel centered choices.
We have Jesus who modeled what life in the Kingdom is all about: where the hungry are fed, the sick are healed, prisoners are released, the poor hear good news, enemies are loved, humans live in unity with all of creation and all creation worships the creator, God.
Theologian Phyllis Tickle believes that the church is again going through another reformation. She had this to say: For western Christianity, the Protestant, or Great Reformation was about five hundred years ago. Five hundred before that you hit the Great Schism, when the church divided between east and west. Five hundred years earlier you have Pope Gregory the Great, who helped bring the church out of the dark ages.
During these 500-year episodes the church has what Anglican Bishop Mark Dyer calls a giant rummage sale—it takes a look at its old stuff and decides to sell what it no longer needs. We are going through this kind of giant sale today.
What does our church need to sell today? What rituals are no longer relevant; what rules need to be changed? We have a great opportunity to enable the church to move into the 21st century with a radical vision of what it means to be a Christian disciple.
It can be hard getting rid of those things you have stored in the attic. They can be family heirlooms or we view them as more valuable than they really are. Have you ever taken something to be appraised, certain that it’s worth was great only to find that it is no longer valued or worse, relevant to today’s world?
Reformation means change. Change can be hard; it can produce loss and grief. It can create anxiety and fear of the unknown.
But God gives us the freedom to