Feast of St Epimachus of Alexandria
AFTER 500 years, it’s worth reflecting on whether it was such a good idea, or not—this whole Reformation, that is. Or, to use the language of today’s Gospel reading: was the Reformation “wise—will Wisdom be justified by her deeds?” (Mt. 11.12-19).
To some extent, you could say it was necessary—the abuses were simply out of control. It was bound to happen one way, or another, whether by a German Friar, an English King, or a Swiss Lawyer. Luther’s nailing of the 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg didn’t pop up out of nowhere. And what’s come from it could never have been imagined at the time.
So, to ask whether it was wise, we’d first have to know what the Reformation was. And while the nailing of the 95 theses was certainly iconic—whether it actually happened that way, or not—it wasn’t the reformation.
The 95 theses make the case that any sort of salvation from the sale of indulgences is too easy. This writing is a far cry from Luther’s “solas” – by grace alone through faith alone. In the end, it was a strongly Roman Catholic document that Luther wrote. You might say: “Luther wasn’t quite Lutheran, yet.”
In any case, the event did do something. Though written in Latin for a debate amongst the other professors, and intended for that alone, the theses were quickly translated by others into German, mass-produced, and given as a sort of propaganda to the common folk—we’d say it went viral.
Some of the notes in the theses struck a chord. There was already frustration brewing over the fact that they had one of the wealthiest popes ever. Yet, it wasn’t his money that was building St. Peter’s, but that of the poor and destitute.
Then there’s the idea that it’s just too easy. Luther’s monastic life was no cake-walk, but with indulgences, every time a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs. Or so Tetzel’s jingle went.
Luther’s challenge to what he called “indulgence-hawkers” was also a challenge to the pope. And that’s what caught the eye of those who loved control. “[Luther] played the flute, but they would not dance” (Mt 11.17).
We certainly don’t have time to work our way through the whole history of Luther’s reformation. But the structure is fairly simple, and important. Luther’s writings against the abuses of the pope spread quickly. Early in 1521 he was excommunicated. Later that year he was brought before the Emperor at the Diet of Worms, where he gave his famous, “Here I stand” speech, and was promptly condemned. While in hiding at the Wartburg Castle, he translated the New Testament into German. A couple years later he translated the Old Testament, as well as the liturgy, into German. In 1524 he went back to teaching at Wittenberg; the next year he married a nun, Katie, which ruffled not just a few papal feathers. And in the ensuing years, Luther’s attention turned from Rome to the various abuses that crept up in his name, or were inspired by his work. He defended the evangelical confession that we’re saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ Jesus alone; and yet, just as ardently, defended the catholic, sacramental practice of Baptismal regeneration (even for infants), Private Confession, and the Holy Eucharist—one of his most famous writings being, That the Words, “This is My Body,” Still Stand Firm Against the Fanatics (1527). He wrote hymns like “A Mighty Fortress,” as well as the Catechisms, along with numerous letters, commentaries, and polemical works. Finally, he died February 18th, 1546, at the age of 62.
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Certainly, it was one of those explosive times in history—politically, socially, morally, religiously, and technologically. Everything seemed to be changing all at once; and Luther happened to be a personality that fit the times.
Because of that, it’s hard to identify what, exactly, the Reformation is. We can say far more easily what the Lutheran Church is—a gathering of sinners made holy by the word and sacraments of Christ, subject to the Word of God, submitting to the Confessions of 1580. And we can identify some of the effects of the Reformation—having both Scripture and the liturgy in English, weekly communion, congregations not bound to the whims of the pope, and peace to the troubled conscience. But still, when we ask whether the Reformation was wise, what do we mean?
For some of us, when we look at the terribly broken fellowship of Christians, the bloody wars, the bitter words, and the inability to commune at the same altar, we’re tempted to imagine a world without Luther and his 95 theses.
What if he didn’t nail them to the Church door 500 years ago? What if Pope Leo X read them, repented, and brought the indulgence controversy to an end? What if Luther wasn’t so bombastic? What if Rome could admit she was wrong?
Today we only dream of a unified church. Here and there we catch glimpses of joy and fellowship, even across denominational lines (the Eighth Day Institute being just that sort of fresh air). But it hardly seems possible to glue this fractured, humpty-dumpty of a church back together again, let alone restore her to her former beauty.
Maybe that’s just the problem: who’s to say the Church is splintered in the first place—who says she’s broken? Sure, you look around, and it’s clearly a mess—not just the fact that you’ve got Baptists and Pentecostals and Methodists and Lutherans and Catholics and Orthodox and loads who’d rather identify as “non-denom,” but also because not a single one of these bodies is without the selfish disease of sin. We’re all infected, even us Missouri Synod Lutherans.
But was it any different before Luther nailed the theses to the Church door? Even though the Church appeared to be unified—you didn’t have a different denomination around every corner—was it really? And 500 years before the Reformation, when the Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholics split, was the church any more unified before than after?
“From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” (Mt 11:12)
If we think of the Reformation as a break off movement, designed to establish itself as the true kingdom of God, to really be His Church, then all we’re doing is playing the flute for those who won’t dance.
And if we think of the Reformation as the one thing that broke the camel’s back, letting the genie out of the bottle, and that which has brought such untold disunity to what was an otherwise beautiful whole, then we’re simply singing a dirge, and no one’s mourning.
The kingdom of heaven comes neither by fasting nor feasting, neither by reunification under one communion, nor by purifying ourselves so as to establish, finally, a true, visible Church on earth.
For the kingdom of heaven doesn’t come by our works, one way or the other. And if anything, that was Luther’s greatest preaching. The kingdom of heaven comes in Christ. It’s gift, not merit; faith, not works; cross, not glory.
Luther could neither destroy the Church nor save it. He could bring no more disunity than unity. For neither are his to give or to do; the Church belongs to Christ. She is His body, His pure, spotless bride; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against her.
So what are we celebrating today? What is the Reformation? Certainly nothing distinctively Lutheran—heaven forbid we distinguish ourselves from the Church of God in Christ! No, the Reformation isn’t about a man nailing 95 theses to a Church door; it’s about a Man being nailed to a cross. Anything beyond or above or other than that misses what it’s all about.
The cross of Jesus is the kingdom of God, and the violent always take it by force. The Church will always suffer, appearing fragmented and broken, no matter what she does—whether she fasts with John or drinks with Jesus, shares communion with the Pope, or splits under any number of different names—for the world will either say she has a demon, or is a drunkard and a glutton. Nevertheless, Wisdom is justified by her deeds.
So, will the Church remain the Church? Will sinners repent of their sins and cling to their Savior’s word of forgiveness? Will idols be smashed and the proud humbled and the lowly and forsaken raised up? Will forgiveness for all be proclaimed in the name of Christ, and will we gather to receive that forgiveness wherever Christ promises to give it?
If so—if Christ still gathers sinners to Himself to receive from Him every good gift—then the Reformation, whatever it is, can be said to be wise. For Wisdom is justified by her deeds; and the deeds of the Lord is the justification of man, by His grace as a gift, received by faith, pouring fourth in deeds of love toward one another.
This, dear saints, we have abundantly here, for here we have Christ. So on this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, do not fear. Do not fear the disunity you see or the violence always being done to Christ’s Church. For it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom. And you will be justified in Him.
And take they our life,
goods, fame, child, or wife,
though these all be gone,
the vict’ry has been won.
The kingdom ours remaineth.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This homily was delivered on October 29, 2017 on the occasion of The Festival of the Reformation at Trinity Lutheran Church in Wichita, KS.
Fr. Geoffrey R. Boyle is Pastor of Grace and Trinity Lutheran Churches in Wichita, KS. He's the father of five and currently a PhD Candidate at the University of Toronto, studying Old Testament Biblical Theology.