I write a monthly article for my congregation’s newsletter. I just wrote my October article today, focusing on the upcoming 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation. As I wrote it, I thought, “This might work well as a blog entry too.” So here’s an adapted version of it. For those of you who are in my congregation, enjoy a sneak peak of next month’s “Pastor’s Letter.”
Five hundred years ago, an Augustinian monk in Wittenberg, Germany was fed up. He’d had enough. This monk, whose name was Martin Luther, was fed up with the corruption he saw in the church. Five hundred years ago, on All Hallow’s Eve, Luther decided to do something about it. He wrote up 95 Theses, and posted them for all interested people to read. These Theses brought up issues related to faith, the church, the clergy. Luther wanted to talk with people about these issues. He hoped that this conversation might lead to some reforms in the church. (He may or may not have nailed the 95 Theses to a church door. That might be a legend, but either way, he definitely wrote them, and they definitely made a stir!) On October 31, 1517, five hundred years ago, Martin Luther changed the course of history, for the church and for the whole western world.
The changes that happened to the church were not the changes Luther envisioned. He thought the church could be reformed from inside. He thought that he would shake up the Vatican, and that the church would continue, still one Roman Catholic Church, but better. But what happened was the shattering of the church. Luther and his followers left Mother Rome, and much to Luther’s chagrin, the new churches began to call themselves “Lutheran.” Before long, the Reformation spread throughout Europe, and other churches began to spring up: Calvinist, Anabaptist, Anglican, and more – the ancestors of today’s Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Mennonites, Methodists, and so on. From one perspective, the Reformation was the beginning of the shattering of the western church, from one into many disparate churches.
In recent decades, this movement has reversed. Some churches have come together. Our own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, itself the merger of three Lutheran church bodies, is now “full communion partners” with the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Church in America, the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church, the Moravian Church, and the United Methodist Church. The ELCA website describes full communion this way: “This does not mean the two denominations merge; rather, in reaching agreements, denominations also respect differences. These denominations worship together, may exchange clergy and also share a commitment to evangelism, witness and service in the world. Each entity agrees that even with differences, there is nothing that is church-dividing.” Various sorts of conversations are occurring between the ELCA and other church bodies as well, such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Orthodox Church, and even the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Church of today is very different from the Rome of Luther’s day – while some theological differences remain, most of Luther’s complaints have since been adopted by Rome. It is possible that within the lifetime of some members of Prince of Peace, Lutherans and Catholics will share communion around a common table for the first time in centuries.
I tell you this not just as a history lesson, but to share with you the hope that many in the ELCA have in this 500th anniversary of the Reformation: the hope that after centuries of conflict, distrust, and just plain nastiness (some of which came from Lutherans), the time is coming when our Lord brings us together into a common, mutual witness to the lordship of Christ; a common, mutual proclamation of God’s love for the whole world. Perhaps this is the reform necessary for all the churches of the 21st century. May the whole church throughout the world discern and embrace God’s vision.