October 31, 1517. The eve of All Saint’s Day. An Augustinian monk and university professor named Martin Luther walks to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany, and posts a list of debate points, or theses, on the door. 95 theses, in all, on the use, the merits, of indulgences, and the way the church “dispensed” grace to people. An invitation for scholars to gather for a debate on those theses, that’s all it was.
No debate took place, but the world was forever after changed anyway.
October 31, 1517, 500 years ago this year, is now recognized as the beginning of what became known as The Reformation. From that single act came all the churches we know today as Protestant, to one degree or another, not least of which is the Lutheran church, named after that monk in Wittenberg.
Luther did not seek to split the church, start new denominations, or anything like that. He sought to reform the church he knew and loved, the church he grew up in, the church he had committed his life to. He wanted only to return the church to what he believed was a correct view of the gospel, a correct view of how people are saved, of how we receive the gift of grace. He believed in the people, in their ability to read and understand the Word of God in Scripture. He believed the people should be participants in the church, in their lives of faith. He believed in the church as servant of the people.
Very simply, what Luther came to realize, through his deep study of Scripture, was that salvation is a gift from God, made available to all people through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are justified, that is, made right with God, declared righteous, forgiven, made new, not by anything we might do, but simply by the grace of God, an undeserved, unearned, gift from God, through Jesus Christ. Salvation is God’s work, not ours. From this initial work of God, done solely by God for us out of divine love, we are then freed from the power of sin and death, and freed for a life of service to God and our neighbor. Having received the free gift of grace, we are now freed to become messengers and bearers of the grace to the world.
So this year, 2017, is a big year for us. We are the descendants of the Reformation, and we are the continuing of the Reformation. We follow in Luther’s steps, as we proclaim the free gift of grace, as we proclaim the free gift of divine love, as we proclaim the victory of God, as we proclaim the good news of Jesus to all people. And we follow in Luther’s steps as we seek to make our daily lives a living out of that same grace and love.
We are heirs to Luther’s Reformation, because, like Luther, we know that the church is always being reformed, is always being made new. Luther fought to bring the Word of God to the people in ways they could easily understand. He translated the Bible into German, their own language, so they could read for themselves. He spoke in ways they would understand, using images and ideas they were familiar and comfortable with.
Our calling today is to speak God’s Word to our neighbors in ways they will understand, using words and images they are familiar with. It is the same timeless message of God’s love, but now spoken in news ways to new peoples. To be heirs of the Reformation today is to know that we must always speak God’s Word anew, to proclaim again and again, in new and various ways, the old, old story.
Luther brought the gospel back to light for the people he served. He spoke the Word, lived the Word, in meaningful and relevant ways. This is our task, as well, to speak a living Word, a vital and meaningful Word to the people we meet today. We are called to bring the timeless truth of God to new people, using new mediums, new words, new images.
To grow, the church must stay active, stay relevant, stay fresh. We must meet the people where they are, speak to them in ways they will connect with, join with them in their reality, and walk with them on their path. We must be the church in 2017, for the people of 2017. As God is the Living God, so the church must be the living church, the reforming church, the means by which this day, this time, is made one with God’s gift of grace. See you in church!