About 2 o’clock on the afternoon on the eve of All Saints Day 1517, a young monk hammered a stack of papers to the north door the Castle Church in the little university town of Wittenberg, Germany. He was voicing the convictions and concerns of many when he nailed up his 95 theses on the door which served as the community bulletin board. His protests struck a nerve – people liked it, the Church did not — and like a smokin’ hot Youtube clip it went viral. Within weeks an obscure monk in a small town was a household name across the region. His name was Martin Luther. The seeds of the Protestant Reformation were sown.
October 31 is Halloween, a holiday growing in its observance, probably because we’re not allowed to make a big deal of Easter and Christmas. Walmart doesn’t decorate with a Reformation Day theme and you probably won’t find stacks of Hallmark “Happy Reformation Day” cards. But there’s something refreshing about the contrast. Halloween for some features witches, ghosts, zombies, ghouls and the Dark Side. Reformation Day celebrates a return to Jesus and saving faith in him alone. We can use a refreshing protest like that today, don’t you think?
One thing Luther protested was the sale of indulgences. Sinners were told they could buy from the Church an indulgence which would knock off some of the time they would have to spend suffering in Purgatory. Sort of like a hockey player paying the refs for less time in the penalty box. Luther said, “Wait. What? NO!” He believed it was only faith in the goodness of Jesus that could save. Romans 1:17. The Protest movement’s mantra was salvation is through FAITH alone, in CHRIST alone, according to the SCRIPTURES alone.
As we approach an election, it’s worth thinking about Luther. The status quo is like a barge in a river, hard to turn around due to its powerful momentum, and because of the current. It can drive and control the direction of things – in a Church, your own life, or a nation. It takes smart folk to see what needs to be protested, and requires wisdom in knowing how to do it. Any idiot can complain about things. Any self-proclaimed renegade can stir up trouble. But leading a life-giving re-formation of something, now that’s a different story.
When the going got tough for Luther, he stuck to his guns. In 1520 Pope Leo ordered Luther to take it all back and say “it ain’t so.” He refused and got himself kicked out of the Church. In 1521 the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V declared Luther an outlaw, which sent him into hiding in a castle, sort of like Osama Bin Laden on the lam, except it was, well, in a castle, and they didn’t have drones back then. You thought it was rough being cooped up by Sandy for a few days? It was a big bummer for Luther to live in secret on a kind of house arrest. But it was during that time in hiding that Luther translated the Bible into German so that countless more people could read the scriptures for themselves. When we are faithful, doing the best we can with whatever our circumstances, God is always at work in our troubles, bringing good out of a bad situation.
A couple of thoughts for you on this Reformation Day anniversary.
- Don’t be afraid to protest. You don’t have to stand in front of a tank or strap dynamite to your chest and get in front of a news camera to do that. But going along is not the only other alternative. Luther spoke articulately about what he saw as the problem and what could be done about it. People listened. Ideas are important. Know what you think and why. Spread light, not just heat. Be as thoughtful as you are forceful. Check your motives, listen for God’s truth, and speak to power. The best protests are not just against something; they are FOR something much more compelling. Whether on the ballot box or on your soap box, speak up and out for truth, and leave the results up to God.
- Help reform the church. Luther’s actions helped launch a reformation movement. It dislodged the church from the status quo. The church is not a static institution stuck in the past. It’s a living organism with a mission that is always moving forward. Because the culture and world around is constantly changing, and because Jesus is constantly on the move, the church must be ever reforming. So many people today have written off the Church because they see it as outdated and irrelevant. What they are rejecting is a caricature of the Church, an impression they have in their mind. The church needs to be re-formed! We need to reshape our ministry. You can do that. How? Be the kind of Christian who proves the common perception wrong. Devote radically to God. Love people lavishly. Serve others relentlessly. That uncommon trifecta will shake things up. When we truly follow Jesus, we re-form the church.
- Jesus alone is enough. This was at the heart of Luther’s protest. When you feel like you are not good enough, like your sin has forever tainted you, and wish there was a way you could just earn or buy some forgiveness to get yourself spiritually clean again, remember the grace of God is bigger than your sin. You can’t buy an indulgence to shorten your time in Hell. Jesus has already paid in full so you can eliminate it altogether.
- Don’t be scared of the Enemy. Luther was terrified of demons, often lying awake at night with creepy visions, haunted by his sin and fear – all the things Halloween celebrates. How wonderfully ironic that this same day we can remember what Luther remembered in his more lucid moments, which he penned in great hymn “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” Take a good look at the words to that old song. And as you do, think about the election, think about Halloween, and your life – hiding yourself in the fortress castle that is the mighty power of God, a bulwark never failing:
A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.
Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing;
Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing:
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabaoth, His Name, from age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.
And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us:
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.
That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.