Oct. 11, 2016 Lutheran/Roman Catholic Study Series: "Luther and the Beginning of the Reformation"

Lutheran/Roman Catholic Study Series: “Luther and the Beginning of the Reformation”

October 11, 2016

St. Mark’s Roman Catholic Church, Sea Girt, NJ

I’d like to begin with a prayer for the Church written by Martin Luther.  It refers to the catholic church.  That’s catholic with a small c, meaning universal, referring to the whole Body of Christ, with denominational boundaries erased:

Gracious Father, we pray for your holy catholic church.   Fill it with all truth and peace.  Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in anything it is amiss, reform it; where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in need, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord.  Amen

…. The thought that he might grow up and become the catalyst for the Reformation, the split of the Western Church, would have been horrifying to the child born on November 10, 1483.  He was baptized the next day, the feast of St. Martin of Tours, so the baby boy was christened Martin.  His last name was Luther.  His father planned to brag someday about, “My son, the lawyer.”  He couldn’t have guessed the reality would be, “My son, the reformer.”

            Martin grew up to be a scholar.  He was also a man of faith.  As the story goes, he had successfully sailed through his Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts studies and was one month into law school when he was caught in a thunderstorm so severe that he feared for his life.  As lightening electrified the air and bolts struck nearby he cried out, “Help me, St. Anne, and I’ll become a monk!”  (Out of all the possibilities, why did he call out to St. Anne?  Historians’ best guess is that he would have been familiar with her, on regular speaking terms, because she was the patron saint of miners, and Martin’s father, Hans Luther, owned a copper mine.)  Martin survived the storm, withdrew from law school, and much to his father’s chagrin entered the monastery at age 23.  The fact that it was an Augustinian monastery resulted in Lutheran theology being very Augustinian.  (One example is the understanding of sin as being “turned in on oneself”: curvatus in se.)

            The prevailing belief in early 16th century Europe was: the more good works and the more penance you did, the greater your chances of slipping into heaven rather than sliding down to hell.  Living the celibate life, denying oneself the physical and emotional pleasures of marriage, was seen as one of the best good works, one of the most powerful acts of penance.  Add onto celibacy the rigors and sacrifices of monastic life, like regular fasting, extended and frequent periods of prayer, even self-mortification in the form of hair shirts or self-flagellation (whipping oneself), and the ante was upped even further.  The bottom line was that if you became a priest, a nun, a religious of any kind, your prospects for heaven were greatly improved.  You would climb several rungs up the ladder.

            Martin Luther was definitely a Type A personality: he was a perfectionist, a driven-to-excel-in-everything kind of guy.  He was also haunted by feelings of spiritual inadequacy and by doubts he’d ever really be good enough to merit being saved.  If everybody else fasted 2 days a week, Martin might fast 3 or 4.  If everyone else prayed 2 hours, Martin would double that.  He made such frequent and extended use of the Sacrament of Penance (“Confession”) that his father confessor, Johann Von Staupitz, would detour down another corridor and give Martin the slip if he saw him headed his way.  Luther confessed such tiny shortcomings at such great length on such a regular basis that it is reported Staupitz impatiently told him to stay away till he could confess something noteworthy, like killing his mother!

            All kidding aside, Staupitz was a man of deep faith and great wisdom.  Since he was the Superior of Luther’s monastery, he ordered the worried young monk under his care to study for a doctorate in Scripture.  Staupitz told Martin that he was at a loss about how to convince him that God loved him.   Staupitz was counting on the Holy Spirit to speak to Martin’s heart through the Word of God.  His hope was well-founded; that’s exactly what happened. 

Particularly in his study of the Psalms and of Paul’s letters to the Romans and the Galatians, Luther became joyfully convinced, spiritually convicted that we are justified by grace through faith apart from the works of the law.  In other words: we cannot earn our salvation.  We could never be good enough to merit heaven.  Salvation, forgiveness of sins, abundant life now, everlasting life in the world to come, are free gifts of God, not rewards for the worthy.  No one is worthy -- because, in Paul’s words, “we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”  (Romans 3:23)  No one deserves God’s love.  But God lavishes it upon us anyway.   This is what Martin wrote about the revelation that came to him through his study and prayer about Romans 1:17, “The one who is righteous will live by faith”:

At last, meditating day and night and by the mercy of God… I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that through which the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith…  Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through gates that had been flung open.  An entirely new side of the Scriptures opened itself to me…  and I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the loathing with which before I had hated the term, ‘the righteousness of God.’  Thus, that verse in Paul was for me truly the gate of paradise.1

This is why the sale of indulgences drove Martin Luther crazy.  Forgiveness of our sins was “bought” by the saving death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.   We were ransomed by His blood.  We can neither add to nor subtract from that priceless gift.  It is there to be claimed in faith.  Unfortunately, though, that was not the perspective of the ecclesial businessmen/powers-that-be in Rome.  St. Peter’s was falling down around the pope’s ears and had to be condemned.  A new building had to be raised.  (It still stands.  Maybe you yourself have visited it in the heart of Vatican City.    The “new” St. Peter’s is now almost 500 years old.)

            Construction was expensive then as it is now.  How was the church to raise the money to raise the new basilica?  Sell indulgences, a supposed way of shortening the amount of time that sinners would suffer in purgatory: not exactly a get-out-of-jail-free card, but similar.  The English translation of the German jingle that accompanied the sale of indulgences went like this:

Every time a coin in the coffer rings,

a soul from purgatory springs!\

Luther vehemently challenged the belief that monetary payments could sway God or purchase forgiveness.  

            Luther was an academic, a doctor of theology who taught at the University of Wittenberg.  He came up with 95 points to debate, which included but weren’t confined to the sale of indulgences.  They involved direct criticism of what Luther viewed as the pope’s abuse of power.  They affirmed that the true treasure of the Church is the Gospel itself, the Good News of God’s gracious forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ.  The story goes that on October 31, 1517 Luther posted those “95 Theses,” an invitation to debate, on the college bulletin board: the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg.    Pre-Gutenberg, word of that debate would never have come to our 21st century ears.    But with the help of the local printing press (located in the basement of the Augustinian monastery!) copies of those 95 Theses, written in Latin and soon translated into German, and news of the upstart monk, Dr. Martin Luther, galloped throughout Europe, and reached Rome pretty quickly.  The powers-that-be were not amused!

            When it comes to salvation history on a global or personal level, God is always surprising us.  Many important things happen when they ought to rather than when we will them to.  There’s a difference between chronos, watch or clock time, Greenwich Mean Time, and kairos, God’s time.  In God’s time, (not to be predicted ahead of time) things come together.  Conditions are optimal.  Change occurs.

            If Martin Luther had lived earlier and taught the same things he probably would have been martyred like Jan Hus, the Bohemian preacher who was burned at the stake in 1415, a little over a hundred years before Luther posted his 95 Theses.  Hus condemned church abuses and clergy misconduct, which probably got him in the hottest water.  He also preached in the language of the people rather than in Latin, and communed his congregation with both species, Bread and Wine, rather than withholding the cup from the common people, “radical” and therefore dangerous practices which Luther adopted in the next century, and which eventually came to pass in the Roman Catholic Church with Vatican II, over 425 years later.

            Hus was a follower of John Wycliffe, who had translated parts of the Bible into English in the 14th century, so lay people could find out for themselves what God’s Word directed them to do, rather than being dependent on church authorities whom he felt misinterpreted the Word and misled the people.  Wycliffe preached vehemently against church abuses and especially condemned the hierarchy.  He died of a stroke before he could be executed, but almost 30 years after his death the church caught up with him.  He was posthumously branded a heretic at the Council of Constance in 1415 (the same Council that condemned Jan Hus), at which point Wycliffe’s body was exhumed from sacred ground, burned, and the cremains thrown into the river.  The order also went forth that all his written works should be burned.

            An actual contemporary of Luther was William Tyndale, the first person to translate the New Testament into English, a project that doesn’t seem seditious to us but was expressly forbidden at that time.   Tyndale had 16,000 copies printed on the Continent and smuggled into England.  When King Henry VIII found out, he put out an APB for Tyndale, who went into hiding.  Ultimately a “friend” betrayed his location. Tyndale was arrested and imprisoned, tried and convicted of heresy and treason, strangled and then burned at the stake in 1536.  It is said that his last words were, “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes.”  3 years later King Henry VIII ironically and fortunately reversed his position, deciding that it was politically expedient for the new Church of England for the common people to be able to read Scripture.  The King’s minions actually used Tyndale’s translation to create the Great Bible, on which subsequent English Bibles, including the King James Version, were based.

            The power and primacy of the Word of God, the authority of Scripture, the emphasis on salvation by grace, through faith, apart from the works of the law is a common heritage of the churches of the Reformation.  The reclaiming of the ancient languages in which Scripture was written, the ability of scholars to translate Hebrew Scripture directly from Hebrew and Christian Scripture directly from the koiné, New Testament Greek, led to more precise translations than were possible previously.  The translation of Scripture into the “vernacular,” whatever the common tongue of the people was, put Scripture into the hands of everyday Christians for the first time.  Wycliffe, Hus, Luther, Tyndale, all taught that the Holy Spirit enables individual believers to understand God’s Word without having it mediated (and sometimes misrepresented) by clergy.  This made for a sea change in the life of the Church: the reformers all taught that Scripture trumped tradition.  The significance, the clout of tradition (manmade laws and practices) is always dependent on their grounding in God’s Law and Gospel as revealed in the Bible.  This was an additional reason for Luther to reject the practice of the sale of indulgences.  Their stated purpose was to relieve suffering in purgatory, whose existence Luther came to deny, having found no basis in Scripture for it.

When he was tried for heresy at the Diet of Worms in 1521, Luther said to Charles V, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (which I vividly recall my history teacher saying was “none of the above”):

“[M]y conscience is captive to the Word of God.  I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against my conscience is neither right nor safe.  Here I stand.  I cannot do otherwise.  God help me.  Amen”

Here I Stand is the name of one of the premier and most popular biographies of Luther from the 20th century. Its author was a Methodist professor of church history who taught at Yale, Roland Bainton.  Here I Stand is a great, manageably sized, conversationally written work that paints a holistic picture of the social, political, religious, cultural and art world in which Luther lived, protested, dodged danger and sought to reform the Church.  The book is visually and liberally peppered with woodcuts by Albrecht Durer, a contemporary of Luther whose artwork sheds additional light on the Reformation.   A more recent, also excellent and accessible biography is Luther the Reformer: The Story of the Man and His Career, by James Kittelson .  I recommend both to anyone interested in learning more about Luther and the Reformation that both renewed the western Church and created a lasting schism in it.

The Church in every age is imperfect because, though divinely inspired and led by Christ, its Head, it is a community of human beings and therefore of sinners.  One of Luther’s emphases in teaching, preaching, writing is that we are all saints and sinners at the same time: simul iustus et peccator.  Having made us, God understands this, and can use even our shortcomings, vices, prejudices for God’s purposes. 

It should be clear to anyone viewing the lay-of-the-land of the Reformation that all motives were not pure.  Germans rejected the sale of indulgences not only because they theologically railed against the notion that God’s forgiveness can be bought, but because they knew darn well the money raised was traveling to Italy to pay for a Roman church.  By the early 16th century a spirit of nationalism had arisen in Europe.  People didn’t see themselves primarily as subjects of the Holy Roman Empire but as citizens of a country: Germany, France, Spain, England, Italy, etc.   They didn’t appreciate a foreign hand reaching into their pocket for money.

Martin Luther did not set out to found a new religion.  He did not intend to break away from Rome.  He wanted his naming of abuses to be a catalyst for reform within the existing Church.   Many Lutherans do not accept the label of Protestant.  They prefer instead to be referred to as a reforming church within the church catholic (small c), a reforming movement always in need of reform itself.  The title “Lutheran” was initially a slam of those crazy people who followed the monk Luther.  Luther wanted the new movement to be termed “evangelical,” not in the current connotation of the Christian right or referring to a fundamentalist theology, but literally meaning “proclaimers of the Gospel,” the evangelium (as in evangelist, a writer of the Gospel).  The denomination to which I now belong and in which I am ordained bears both names: the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

To understate the case, the Roman Church of Luther’s time did not want to be reformed.  Many beliefs were held as sacred and many practices were seen as incontrovertible.  “Pay, pray and obey” was the expectation of anyone who wasn’t clergy.  Nobody was being asked to think.  Thinking would only threaten the status quo, get the thinker into trouble and undermine the institutions called into question.  The laity were told what to believe and what to do; they were to accept teachings in full and carry them out unquestioningly.

As we’ve heard, Luther was certainly not the first reformer and he was also not the last.   His posting of the 95 Theses, though, was certainly on a par with “the shot heard ‘round the world” at Lexington and Concord.  Because of his pivotal role in the initiation of the Reformation, Martin Luther made it into Time Magazine’s Top 10 People of the Millennium in the year 2000, 454 years after his death.  (One of his contemporaries, Michelangelo, painter extraordinaire of the Sistine Chapel in the new St. Peter’s that indulgences helped to pay for, also made the top 10.)

When Luther refused to recant (take back) the views that the Pope considered to be heretical, he was excommunicated and put under a papal ban.  That didn’t just mean he wasn’t welcome to receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion anymore.  It meant he had become an outlaw, literally standing outside the law; he was now someone whom anyone could kill with impunity.  A local ruler named the Elector Frederick arranged to have Luther “kidnapped” and hidden away in safety for a year at the Wartburg Castle.  (During that time he grew long hair and a beard and took on the alias of Junker Georg, Knight George!)  He translated the New Testament into German, thereby giving the people direct access to the Gospel, “the true treasure of the Church.” 

In 1522 word reached Luther about violence that had erupted in the city of Wittenberg.  Taking his reforms in a direction he never intended, some people were smashing stained glass, taking hatchets to organs, physically attacking places and people.  At the risk of his own life (and desperate to escape his year-long seclusion) Luther returned to public life to decry the violence and lead what had become a fledgling church.

God led where Luther had not planned to go.  He, of course, had left the monastery when he was excommunicated from the Church of Rome.  He encouraged friends and followers to embrace the state of marriage, teaching that marriage and parenthood are holy vocations, legitimate ways to serve God and to live out the priesthood of the faithful to which all the baptized belong.  However, he himself did not intend to marry!   Luther’s friends implored and downright pressured him, pointing out that his view lost all credibility if he didn’t practice what he preached.  He finally caved J, and in 1525 married a former nun, Katherina von Bora; together they had 6 children and raised 11 orphans.  She was a woman of intelligence and faith, gifted with boundless energy, considerable patience and a knack for brewing beer.  She was Luther’s soulmate whom he affectionately referred to as “Katie, my rib.” 

Finding himself in the surprising and in many ways unenviable position of organizing a new faith movement, Luther sent out emissaries to surrounding towns and cities to find out what clergy and the people knew about Christianity.  The reports that came back about widespread religious illiteracy were depressing.  Luther, ever the teacher as well as the theologian, wrote a Small Catechism to assist the male head of household to teach wife, children and servants, and a Large Catechism to assist the clergy.  Topics covered were what he considered the sine qua non of the faith: if you’re going to call yourself a Christian you know to know these things: the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and basics about the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion.  Morning and evening prayers were also included.  Going on 500 years later Luther’s Small Catechism still serves as the basic text for most Lutheran Confirmation classes. 

Luther’s theological emphasis on the following points has been influential in shaping much of Protestantism:

·         Justification by grace through faith, apart from the works of the law

·         The priesthood of all the faithful and not just the clergy

·         The ultimate authority of Scripture (over against tradition)

·         The importance of Scripture and liturgy in the language of the people

·         Our human identity as saints and sinners at the same time

·         Holy Baptism as our sacramental initiation into the community and Holy Communion as the sacramental meal of the baptized; both Word and Sacrament as the life-giving means of grace in our lives.

·         The necessity of holding both Law and Gospel in holy tension, allowing the Law to curb our behavior and convict us of our sin, rejoicing in the Gospel that affords us hope of the forgiveness of sins.

Among the churches formed during and after the Reformation, those who are most liturgy-loving and liturgically similar to the practices of Roman Catholicism are the Lutheran and Anglican/Episcopal communions.  The liturgy of the Word followed by liturgy of the Eucharist would be familiar to any Roman Catholic worshiping in a Lutheran or Episcopal setting.  Although 2 sacraments are identified rather than 7, the 5 rituals included in the other Roman Catholic sacraments are practiced in Lutheran churches:

·         Penance (although corporate confession and absolution of sins is the norm, individual confession and absolution is available and apt to be used in a counseling situation)

·         Confirmation: that is, affirmation of baptism, usually with adolescents, sometimes with adults.

·         Marriage

·         Ordination

·         Anointing of the Sick

Luther’s litmus test for a sacrament was that it be commanded by Christ and accompanied by a divine promise.

            Visually the sanctuaries of the churches formed during and after the Reformation may be different from Roman Catholic sanctuaries in the following ways.  In some traditions the pulpit will be more prominent than the altar.  The Bible may even be displayed on the altar.  This emphasis on the Word explains the fact that many Protestant churches have what some might consider lengthy sermons; also, some have quarterly or monthly rather than weekly Communion.  In speaking to older Lutherans I have learned that they were taught the Sacrament is so special it must be reserved for special occasions.  It is impossible to overvalue the priceless Gift of our Lord’s Body and Blood, yet this reasoning seems to have done so, in a way.  Luther was emphatic that Jesus meant what He said when He commanded, “Take and eat.  Take and drink.”  Luther referred to Holy Communion as “healing for the sick, life for the dying, comfort for the bereaved, food for the hungry.”  There is no such thing as “too much” of this Good Thing! 

Another reason some Reformation churches place less of an emphasis on a prominent altar and on celebration of the Lord’s Supper is that they see it as a memorial meal rather than a sacrament.  Lutherans, however, believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the meal; in other words, we believe Jesus Christ becomes sacramentally present during Eucharist in the consecrated elements of bread and wine.  Luther spoke of consubstantiation rather than transubstantiation.  He said Jesus’ Body and Blood are present “in, with and under” the elements of bread and wine, vs. the Roman Catholic teaching that bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ.  It was out of Luther’s debate with Ulrich Zwingli, another reformer who did not believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament, that we get the phrase “Hocus pocus.”  To emphasize his point, Luther’s finger jabbed the table as he spoke the Latin words for “This is my body”: Hoc est meus corpus.  Zwingli, making fun of him, responded,“Hocus pocus!”

            Roman Catholic visitors to Lutheran sanctuaries will probably notice the absence of statues of saints, including the Virgin Mary.  (This is although Lutherans also honor the Mother of our Lord as the Theotokos, the God-bearer, the first one through whom the Word took on flesh.  Luther’s Commentary on the Magnificat is one of the most beautiful pieces of his writing.)  The cult of saints had become quite elaborate and sometimes gone overboard through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance.  Luther and the other reformers had concerns on a couple of different levels: one was the practical consideration that not enough work was getting done!  This was because many saints’ days, holy days, became holidays from work. 

The theological concern was that the faithful were praying to saints rather than to God.  Especially in the medieval Western worldview, Jesus was portrayed as such a scary Judge that people sought out more approachable and compassionate intercessors.  Luther strongly reminded the people that Jesus Christ is the intercessor par excellence, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, the “great high priest” of whom we hear in the Letter to the Hebrews, the One who calls Himself “the good shepherd” in St. John’s Gospel and who is called the “great shepherd of the sheep” in the 2nd Letter of Peter.  An Episcopal prof who also happened to be a Jungian analyst once gave me this valuable spiritual advice.  We may choose to ask the great ones of faith to pray with us (rather than for us), much as we would ask a friend to accompany us in prayer.  The issue with which I was dealing at that time was fertility.  She wisely suggested Hannah, the joyful mother of Samuel in Hebrew Scripture, and Elizabeth, the rejoicing mother of John the Baptist in Christian Scripture, as possible prayer buddies.

In some Lutheran churches, such as my own, you will find a crucifix, a cross with a corpus, the representation of Christ’s body, nailed to it.  Many of the churches of the Reformation, however, will display the empty cross as a way to proclaim the resurrection.  Sometimes the figure on the cross will be the exalted Christ, bearing the wounds of crucifixion but wearing His crown and His priestly robes….

We will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in another year: October 31, 2017.  This study series uses materials from the joint Lutheran/Roman Catholic study “From Conflict to Communion.”  Hopefully the anniversary will also give the Holy Spirit many other openings to bridge the divide between the Church of Rome and the churches of the Reformation,  and so to strengthen and gladden the Body of Christ and its witness to the world.  We pray an additional prayer that all the People of the Book: Jews, Christians and Muslims, may so live out our faith that God’s kingdom may come and God’s children be blessed. 

I’d like to end with a reflection of Luther:

This life, therefore, is not righteousness but growth in righteousness,

not health but healing,

not being but becoming,

not rest but exercise.

We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it,

the process is not yet finished, but it is going on,

this is not the end, but it is the road.

All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.


            1Quoted in James L. Kittelson’s Luther the Reformer: The Story of the Man and His Career (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), p. 134.

Pastor Mary Virginia Farnham