This year, 2017, is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Maybe you’ve heard? I feel like the whole past year has been a steady stream of “All Reformation All the Time!” Martin Luther this, Martin Luther that. And now, today, we’re marking the actual anniversary of that rebellious monk nailing his concerns about the church to the door. We’re dressed in red and have already sung the fight song (I mean, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”).
I don’t mean to make light of the Reformation. I am HERE, a woman in this pulpit, because of it! When Martin Luther and the other reformers opened up their Bibles and really read, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32), it genuinely changed the world! Luther and other reformers translated the Bible into the common language of the people, and everyone since the 16th century has been encouraged to read it for ourselves. Because of the Reformation, clergy are allowed to get married! Because of Luther’s interest in education, in providing for the common welfare (he instigated the first ever community chest), and in honoring all vocations as ministries, the world has been shaped in significant ways from that day to this. We’ve come a long way, Baby, and I am grateful!
But of course, not everything about the Reformation was glorious. There was plenty of blood shed in both Roman Catholic and Protestant churches back then, and there is still a split in God’s family to this day. That it not a cause for rejoicing. Of course, Martin Luther did not intend to split in the Christian church. What he wanted was to change and reform the one that had cradled him from birth and throughout his whole life.
When Luther wrote his 95 Theses, he was asking for public debate about some things that were wrong in the church. He wrote in deliberately inflammatory and provocative ways, trying to get a reaction. Most of his complaints centered around the church’s sale of indulgences. The premise was that a person could purchase an indulgence either for one’s own soul or for the soul of dear, departed loved one. Doing so would reduce the amount of time spent suffering in purgatory.
In reality, the sale of indulgences funded the building of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. As time went on, people who were unable to pay for indulgences were permitted other ways of buying God’s favor. For example, the church allowed some people to fight in the Crusades, “freeing” Jerusalem while slaughtering and pillaging thousands in lieu of payment for indulgences. In reality, indulgences boosted the religious hierarchy and crippled the rest of the population already ravaged by poverty and the plague.
Martin Luther saw how this system was contrary to the Gospel, and he protested in order to create reform in the church. His words and actions were divisive and provocative. In fact, to go against the Pope was treasonous and punishable by death. It surprises me that we praise Luther for his audacity, since Lutherans today are typically characterized as a passive, quiet bunch, not as rabble-rousers. And it makes me wonder why, rather than praising a similar desire to draw attention to an unjust and exploitative situation, many Lutherans are uncomfortable with NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. Are they not, like Luther, simply objecting to oppressive authorities? Why do we cheer Luther’s statement of “Here I stand. I can do no other,” while accusing similar Protest-ants of being disrespectful and misguided for peacefully attempting to reform the culture in which we live?
You may think that a topic like this shouldn’t be discussed in church. You might consider it a political issue that does not apply to our Gospel. But we can’t separate the polis (which simply means the people) from the Word of God. To do so is simply cut off our neighbors, our siblings in Christ, who are calling out for us to hear the ways they are subject to injustice and oppression all around us. We have been told to love our neighbor, and in that love is deep listening and hearing. Luther himself writes,
“We conclude that Christian individuals do not live in themselves, but in Christ and in their neighbor, or else they are not a Christian. They live in Christ through faith and in the neighbor through love. Through faith they are caught up beyond themselves into God; likewise through love they fall down beneath themselves into the neighbor—remaining nevertheless always in God and God’s love.”
This is his way of interpreting what he read in the letter to the Ephesians, “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. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
This is precisely what most interested Luther—much more than academic debate about his 95 Theses or any other topic: how do we live as people who have been liberated by faith in Christ? Now that we know we cannot pay for grace, that we cannot earn God’s favor, but that it is gifted to us freely by God, how do we spend our hours and our days? What Luther wrote about most frequently and most passionately was this FREEDOM. In fact, my favorite of his writings is a short little essay called The Freedom of a Christian, where Luther makes the case that liberation in Christ is both a freedom from and a freedom for.
Freedom from is liberation from all spiritual bondage. We are set free from being trapped in ourselves, consumed by ourselves, from the belief or terror that we can and must save ourselves, that our self is the center of the universe. Freedom from is liberation from despair and soul-crushing self-judgment. We are liberated from the incessant and impossible task of needing to be good enough. Freedom from liberates us from estrangement from God and God’s creation. As our presiding bishop of the ELCA Elizabeth Eaton wrote in a recent article, “Life in Christ is not an inward-dwelling experience. We are free to get over ourselves.”
What we are freed for is loving and serving others. There’s no new agenda of activities or new set of religious laws. We are freed for dwelling in the word of God—which doesn’t just mean reading the Bible a lot, though that is highly recommended too. The Word of God is Jesus, the living Word. And we are freed for dwelling in relationship with Jesus, who cares deeply for us, and works in us and through us for the good of all. Luther put it this way: “Faith is a divine work in us which changes us and makes us to be born anew of God. It kills the old Adam and makes us altogether different people, in heart and spirit and mind and powers; and it brings with it the Holy Spirit. O, it is a living, busy, active mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good works incessantly.… And this is the work which the Holy Spirit performs in faith. Because of it, without compulsion, a person is ready to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, out of love and praise to God who has shown them this grace.”
The freedom we have as Christians is scandalous because it is based on unconditional grace. It is a gift we cannot earn or deserve. There is nothing we can do that will make God love us more. And there is nothing we can do that will make God love us less.
Now what are we going to do with all that freedom?
~Pastor Susan Schneider