Sermon: Commemorating the Reformation

Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
29th of October 2017

On Tuesday it will be exactly five hundred years since an Augustinian monk called Martin Luther, priest and doctor of theology, nailed a list of 95 theses (arguments or propositions) on the door of the cathedral in Wittenberg, Germany. This was the equivalent of a modern academic or theologian writing an article to challenge their colleagues. And so began what we Protestants call the Reformation.

Luther and Katharina

The Uniting Church isn’t a Lutheran Church. One of the ways in which we describe ourselves is as ‘Reformed,’ looking back to the Reformers who followed Luther rather than Luther himself; people like the French John Calvin, who created a ‘presbyterian’ or committee-based church structure in Geneva, and John Knox, who took Calvin’s ideas to Scotland. But the 31st of October is our anniversary too.

Luther was enraged (and he could be a very angry man) at many of the practices of the Church of his time, including the selling of indulgences. Indulgences enabled people to buy from the Pope a reduction on their time in Purgatory after death. There’s a contemporary description of a friar selling indulgences in which he apparently said that: ‘if a Christian had slept with his mother, and placed the sum of money in the Pope’s indulgence chest, the Pope had power in heaven and earth to forgive the sin, and, if he forgave it, God must do so also’ and ‘so soon as the coin rang in the chest, the soul for whom the money was paid, would go straightway to heaven’.[1] In 1517 there was a huge campaign throughout the Church to sell indulgences to Christians because Pope Leo X was raising money to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Many of Luther’s 95 theses addressed this fundraising campaign. Luther denied that the pope had the power to pardon anyone; the pope could only announce that God had pardoned their sins. He also pointed out that the dead were already free of all penalties. His 43rd thesis said that ‘Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than he who buts indulgences’ and thesis 45 said that ‘Christians are to be taught that he who sees a needy man and passes him by, yet gives his money for indulgences, does not buy papal indulgences but God’s wrath’.[2] Yay, Luther!

Luther didn’t intend to break the Church; he simply wanted to reform it. But his proposed reforms were comprehensively rejected by the Church authorities. When Luther refused to recant his teachings he was labelled an outlaw and in 1521 Pope Leo X excommunicated him. Luther then publicly burned the papal bull in Wittenberg, cheered on by university students and townspeople. His patron, Frederick of Saxony, saved Luther from further reprisal and hid him in a castle for two years, where Luther translated the Bible into German. Meanwhile, Christian Europe was torn in two.

It’s interesting to think about what might have happened if Luther hadn’t been excommunicated. Would the Church have remained united? In 1999 the Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity and the Lutheran World Federation signed a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification which stated that the churches now share ‘a common understanding of our justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ,’ so the presenting theological issue of the Reformation no longer divides Catholics and Lutherans. In 2006 the World Methodist Council also adopted the Declaration, and earlier this year the World Communion of Reformed Churches did as well. Since the Uniting Church is a member of both the World Methodist Council and the World Council of Reformed Churches we can be considered to have agreed, too. So we all now agree that ‘by grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works’. But the Reformation was about much more than that.

I didn’t realise how ‘Reformed’ I was until I spent six months living in the World Council of Churches’ international, ecumenical community at the Chateau de Bossey in Switzerland. I was living with Orthodox Christians, and so I learned something about the different ways Reformed and Orthodox Christians understand the church. One of the mottoes of the Reformation was and is Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda (a church reformed and always being reformed). While the Orthodox believe that the Church is a mystical entity given to humanity by God in a state of perfection, Reformed Christians believe that the Church is both the Body of Christ and a faulty human institution that needs to be constantly reformed in order to move closer to God’s intention for it. This is one reason that Reformed churches feel able to ordain women, while Orthodox churches don’t.

At Bossey we also discovered a significant difference between ‘priests’ and ‘pastors’. Orthodox and Catholic students were training to be priests. Lutheran and Reformed students were training to be pastors. As we explained it to each other, priests became a different type of person at ordination, pastors simply took on a different role. In his letter ‘To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate’ in 1520 Luther wrote: ‘It is pure invention that pope, bishops, priests, and monks are called the spiritual estate while princes, lords, artisans and farmers are called the temporal estate. This is indeed a piece of deceit and hypocrisy. Yet no one need be intimidated by it, and for this reason: all Christians are truly of the spiritual estate, and there is no difference among them except that of office … This is because we all have one baptism, one gospel, one faith, and are all Christians alike; for baptism, gospel and faith alone make us spiritual and a Christian people … [W]e are all consecrated priests through baptism.’[3]

I wrote in this month’s newsletter, as I’m sure you all remember, that as recently as 1906, which is extremely recent for church historians, an official statement by Pope Pius X said: ‘The Church is essentially an unequal society, that is, a society comprising two categories of persons, the pastors and the flock, those who occupy a rank in the different degrees of the hierarchy, and the multitude of the faithful’. This is not true in Protestant churches, at least not officially.

Australia has been talking a lot about marriage recently, so it can be helpful to turn to the Reformation to see how Protestant Reformers completely overturned centuries of Christian tradition about marriage. They created ‘the greatest fault-line in Christian attitudes to sex’,[4] a fault-line that still lies between Catholic and Protestant attitudes to things like birth control and remarriage after divorce. Luther declared marriage ‘a hundred times more spiritual than the monastic estate’[5] and married a former nun, Katherina. He argued that the vows of celibacy the church had previously demanded of its clergy were useless, because if a person was not destined to a life of celibacy, such a vow was comparable to a vow to turn women into men or people into sticks and stones; ‘if you would like to take a wise vow, then vow not to bite off your own nose; you can keep that vow’.[6] And so the manse family was created, although it took a while for the change to be accepted and for the women living in pastors’ houses to be recognised as legitimate wives rather than as ‘priests’ whores’.[7] But the lesson that we can learn from this is that Christian understandings of marriage can change, even if it takes a while for the changes to be fully accepted.

If we are saved by grace alone, through faith, why did I talk to the children about Christians needing to put our love into action? There was some concern during the Reformation that Luther’s emphasis on justification by grace alone would lead to people neglecting to do good, and Luther responded by writing ‘The Freedom of a Christian’ and a ‘Treatise on Good Works’ in 1520. In the first he wrote about doing good that: ‘the works themselves do not justify [a Christian] before God, but he does the works out of spontaneous love in obedience to God and considers nothing except the approval of God, whom he would most scrupulously obey in all things … Our faith in Christ does not free us from works but from false opinions concerning works, that is, from the foolish presumption that justification is acquired by works’.[8] In the second Luther wrote that Christians living in faith have no need to be taught what good works to do. Luther wrote: ‘We may see this in an everyday example. When a husband and wife really love one another, have pleasure in each other, and thoroughly believe in their love, who teaches them how they are to behave to another, what they are to do or not to do, say or not to say, what they are to think? Confidence alone teaches them all this, and even more than is necessary. For such a man there is no distinction in works. He does the great and the important as gladly as the small and unimportant and vice versa’.[9]

I think that’s mostly true, and quite beautiful, but we are all faulty human beings, no matter how much we love each other and God. It can be helpful to gather together here to be reminded that living as Christians means showing our love in action.

Many people died in the religious wars that followed Luther’s 95 theses. Catholics and Protestants killed each other, and Protestants killed other Protestants. We who look back to Huldrych Zwingli of Zurich as one forefather of our faith need to remember that the Reformed City and Church of Zurich drowned the people they called Anabaptists, or rebaptizers, Christians who believed in adult baptism. This Tuesday can’t simply be a day of celebration. The cracking of Christendom led to a lot of death.

But, as I stand here I want to say ‘thank you’ to Martin Luther. I think that a lot of what I say and do, and who I am, would absolutely appal him. And some of the things that he said about women absolutely appal me, although various people have told me that they were jokes he was aiming at his wife. But looking at the Orthodox and Catholic churches, which do not ordain women, I can only be glad that Luther nailed his arguments to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral. Or didn’t nail them, because that may be a myth. Either way, I think we’re a better church because of it.

[1] European Reformation Sourcebook, 2.8.

[2] European Reformation Sourcebook, 2.10.

[3] 2.18

[4] Diarmaid MacCulloch, Reformation: Europe’s House Divided (London: Penguin, 2003), p. 609.

[5] James F. White, Protestant Worship: Traditions in Transition (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Know Press, 1989), p. 45.

[6] Martin Luther, ‘The Estate of Marriage’ in Luther’s Works, vol. 45: The Christian in Society, translated by Walter I. Bryant (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1982), p. 22.

[7] Wiesner- Hanks, Christianity and Sexuality in the Early Modern World, p. 73.

[8] European Reformation Sourcebook, 2.20

[9] European Reformation Sourcebook, 2.17

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