+ A reflection on the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses +
Reformation Sunday 2017
I’ve always loved Reformation Day.
Growing up in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the last Sunday in October always meant dressing up in red, singing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” and remembering the genesis of our denomination when a German monk named Martin Luther (supposedly) nailed the 95 Theses on the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.
The celebration was always a highlight of my personal liturgical calendar and I assumed it was a highlight for every Lutheran congregation – its unofficial significance far surpassing its official liturgical classification as a “lesser festival or commemoration.”
But when I started seminary in Chicago, I discovered that many Lutheran congregations in the city barely recognized Reformation Sunday.
Some only nominally mentioned it with no singing of Luther’s most famous hymn and not a scrap of red paraments in sight.
I wondered why in the unofficial capital city of the ELCA, this banner day of Lutheranism had seemingly been relegated to a liturgical footnote.
As I learned more about the history and practice of Reformation Day, I began to see the understandable hesitancy in its commemoration.
For nearly the entire history of Lutheranism, Reformation Sunday has been a symbol of division among the church catholic. Lutherans have utilized the day to celebrate their triumph over the “papists” and look to their glorious past. For centuries, the “hordes of devils” filling the land in Luther’s hymn were consigned to be the Roman Catholics.
It quickly became clear to me why this celebration was quickly going out of vogue.
For more than fifty years, Lutherans in the United States have been engaged in ecumenical conversations with other Christian denominations.
To date, the ELCA has six full communion partnerships formed with other Protestant denominations in this country.
Since 1965, international Lutherans and Roman Catholics have been in ongoing dialogue leading to the 1999 “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” – a monumental milestone that established a common understanding on a major tenant of Luther’s criticisms of the medieval Church.
Just last year, the ELCA and the Roman Catholics released a statement on our areas of agreement on the Eucharist and a vision for future celebration together at the Lord’s Supper.
And in a historic symbol of hope, Roman Catholic Pope Francis I and Lutheran World Federation President Bishop Munib Younan led a joint worship service commemorating the Reformation on October 31, 2016 in Lund, Sweden.
Similar joint commemorations have occurred across the world leading up to the 500th anniversary.
So in this era of what my seminary professor calls “ecu-mania,” what place does Reformation Day have?
How can we as Lutherans possibly be triumphalist about our heritage and also work with our Roman Catholic siblings for increased understanding?
And how can we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the 95 Theses without demonizing 1 billion Roman Catholic Christians?
If Reformation Day is nothing more than a celebration of the triumph of Luther and his descendants, a reiteration of our past, it has no place in the Church today. If, however, it is a celebration of the ongoing reforming Spirit of God that continues to inspire us to work for reformation, it remains extremely relevant and timely for all Christians today.
Five hundred years ago this week, Martin Luther proposed debate on a series of areas where he saw needed reform in the Church.
He saw how the oppressive actions of the religious and political system of the day tormented those under its influence.
While these actions eventually resulted in splintering the Western Church, that was not Luther’s intent.
Regardless, he felt the need to speak up for those who were suffering under tyranny despite the eventual consequences.
And he wasn’t alone in the work. It wasn’t just Luther and Melanchthon and the other thinkers that made the Reformation succeed, but a network of activists and supporters spread throughout northern Europe.
This is the tradition that we must celebrate and emulate because it continues to be an important example in our modern context.
In Luther’s day the church and the state were largely intertwined. By protesting the tyranny of the church Luther found himself branded an enemy of the state.
Today, the United States Constitution requires an official separation of these entities, though they often seem to be unduly linked.
But both institutions are in desperate need of reform.
In the richest country in the world it is absolutely inexcusable to have people who cannot pay for housing or healthcare.
The dehumanizing evils of systemic and personal racism cannot be allowed in a just society.
Violence and threats of war must be challenged to live in the reality of peace.
Division threatens the civil and personal discourse that is necessary to act for change as a political force. And in a self-proclaimed “Christian nation,” the life-destroying abominations of queerphobia and transphobia must be decried as antithetical to the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.
Christians must act to change these realities.
Within my own denomination, the need for continued reform is clear.
We so often care more for buildings and programs than we do in sharing our wealth and resources with our neighbors in need.
Despite the truly global nature of our tradition, many in the ELCA still falsely equate northern European or upper Midwestern cultural traits with the substance of Lutheranism. Far too many people of color face constant “othering” in ELCA pews and institutions.
We must constantly confront the violent acts done by our members (such as Dylann Roof). We must continue to repudiate the hateful anti-Semetic writings of Martin Luther himself that have been used to justify violence against the Jewish people from the Middle Ages to the Third Reich and through to this day.
We must continue to unify our witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ that we share with our Christians siblings as we work to demonstrate and enact its continued relevance in a changing world.
And while we may pride ourselves in more than 40 years of ordaining women and our relatively progressive position in ordaining LGBTQ+ clergy, we must recognize the continued struggles that these communities face in finding a welcome and equal place in our congregations and work to end these inequalities.
Lutherans must act to reform our church.
These failings (by no means an exhaustive list) show that we cannot rest on our laurels but must continue to change the world.
And there are fantastic groups and individuals that have committed themselves to changing these injustices in both the ecclesial and public spheres.
But we cannot let the most significant anniversary of the Reformation in our lifetimes pass us by without recommitting ourselves to its ideals.
And in his enduring theology of the priesthood of all believers, Martin Luther reminds us that this reformation is not the work of a few, but of every Christian.
Because we all have access to God’s love, we all have the opportunity to demonstrate that love in the world. Each of us are called to stand against the tyrants of this world and work for the liberation of all.
Because we know the freedom and love of God, Luther tells us, we have been freed to respond to that love by showing love for our neighbor and caring for their wellbeing.
Luther continues to remind us that the joy and responsibility of a Christian is to partner with God in constantly reforming the world around us to better emulate God’s vision of what the world could be.
Perhaps the most helpful approach to commemorating this quincentennial anniversary is to live into the phrase “Semper Reformanda” (Always Reforming).
If we are simply celebrating an event that occurred half a millennia ago, we are celebrating something that is dead. But we are not a Church that celebrates what is dead, but instead we rejoice in the gift of new life we find in Christ.
If we recognize the ongoing need for reformation, each Reformation Day can breathe new life in us as the Spirit reminds us of what has been done while it inspires us to continue this work in the world today.
So after the closing bars of “A Mighty Fortress” fade away (yes I still do love that hymn), maybe pick up the phone and demand your Members of Congress work until every person has equal access to healthcare.
After you wash down that last bratwurst with some delicious beer, maybe ask your pastor and council president why your congregation doesn’t have a gender-neutral restroom or isn’t Reconciling in Christ.
After you finish singing “We’ve Come This Far by Faith,” maybe have a conversation and truly listen to someone who doesn’t look like you, worship in the same way, or believe the same things.
After the last celebratory empanada, maybe take to the streets and call for nuclear disarmament.
The Reformation is not a static act – and the heirs of the Reformation cannot be static.
We must be active agents for reformation we look toward the next 500 years.