This month, Oct. 31, marks the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation – its beginnings pegged to the posting of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses criticizing practices of the Roman Catholic Church of his day. The anniversary has been observed over the past year with a variety of events, publications and reflections (including our Lenten series earlier this year).
Martin Luther’s points were valid and he hoped they would help reform the church. The institutional church, however, resisted to the point of excommunicating Luther, who had to go into hiding to avoid a death sentence. The movement for change could not be stopped, however, and Luther’s hoped-for reforms became a reality. Basically, those reforms were to bring the saving, freeing, grace-delivering power of the gospel back to the hearts and lives of the common people. Translating the Bible into common German was one of the powerful ways this was accomplished.
What difference does all this make to us today? Why does it matter? Here are some thoughts …
Learning from history: Reformation history shows us how far afield even the church itself can get when it clings too tightly to power and control and self-righteousness. We think we’re doing the right thing by holding fast to doctrines and practices and understandings that seem to have served well for generations. But God’s Word itself shows that God is often about “doing a new thing” to keep His children alive in the Spirit and reach the lost sheep of the day. Reformation teaches us to keep an open heart to the movement of the Spirit.
Remembering what is of central importance: Martin Luther’s issues with the Roman Church centered around the understanding expressed in Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” Remembering that all have sinned and are in need of a Savior keeps us honest, non-judgmental and free of performance pressure and guilt.
Keeping the focus on God’s Mission rather than our own comfort and ease: Reformation reminds us that God’s Holy Spirit will not be stopped in God’s mission of winning souls and bringing about healing, reconciliation and peace to God’s children. The question we need to continually ask ourselves is, will be on board? If so, we may find ourselves in need of changing sometimes. Change often requires losing or letting go of something that has brought security, comfort and meaning in the past. That is hard and scary but often necessary. Going with the flow of the Spirit’s power, however, turns out to be life giving, bringing a new sense of peace and meaning.
All that said, it seems a little ironic that our own Reformation Sunday celebration this year will be a return to some ancient liturgical practices. Here’s the thing about that. Even though Reformation led to great diversity in the church, in more recent years, it is leading back to unity, as different denominations are called to reflect together on the central beliefs that unite us. When we practice the same liturgical words and actions that our brothers and sisters have observed for centuries, it reminds us of our unity in Christ. And that is also something to be celebrated!