Reflection: October 29

Published on Oct 31st, 2017 by Rev. David Boyd | 0

Reformed and Reforming

         One of my major projects, while I was a student at VST, was a course based on the Reformation set in the city of Strasbourg, Alsace-Lorraine. It was an elective for me so I didn’t need the credits, and we were encouraged to be creative. So, along with 4 others, we researched particular characters and then in the foyer to the big building, we created an ad lib play. It was about a ½ hour long and I played a city councilor who wanted to encourage the Reformation. There was a Catholic bishop, a reform church minister, a woman leaving the convent, and another female reformer. We dressed up in costume and did this play; it was a total blast and we did very well. At VST then we didn’t get grades; we got an “approved” and sometimes a “very good” if things went really well. We all got “very goods.” Gerald Hobbs was the professor and he did some of his post-graduate work at Strasbourg so for him to give a “very good…”

         Ours was a fictitious dispute based on real events. I’ve been in small disputes before, but never anything with such dire consequences if you fall into the wrong hands because of your beliefs; yes, I engaged in some protests when I was in Palestine 4 years ago, but those always felt safe… although, maybe that was just self-delusion on my part.

         Two thousand years ago, Jesus regularly, so it seems, engaged in disputes. This was far more culturally typical of that day as rabbis from different factions engaged in regular disputations. There would be questions and counter-questions and sometimes they became violent, but not usually. Matthew’s vision of the latest and last dispute that Jesus held when he was in Jerusalem did have dire consequences for him; a few days later, Jesus was crucified. In today’s reading, there are really two disputes, the first about love and the second about the Messiah; I’m only going to deal with the one about love.

         It is fitting that we read about this question of love on Reformation Sunday. Jesus was not the first who put the two commandments together, the one about loving God totally—known to the Jews as the Shema—and the one about loving neighbour as oneself; Rabbis for generations had taught these two laws. Jesus simply and eloquently emphasized that what distinguishes the KinDom of God is the mark of loving… total loving… totally giving of one’s self… totally committed to justice, healing and peace. If Jesus added anything to the teaching about love, it was the totality of the commitment to love and the idea that we embody God’s love in how we live.

Jesus’ vision of love was a representation of God’s love for creation, for us! God’s love is not conditional; it is not indifferent. It is total and life-giving and vital.

That’s really what Martin Luther wanted to return to, a totality of love, but also the immediacy of love. There was no intermediary between God’s love and human beings. This grace, this total love, and acceptance, was God’s gift… freely given! And so, Luther entered into disputes with the Roman Catholic leaders of the day to reform the Church.

Let me read the 1st few paragraphs of the article in the Canada Lutheran. “October 31st, 2017, marks the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Lutheran Reformation. On All Saints evening (all hallowed eve or Hallowe’en) in 1517, Martin Luther, an obscure Augustinian monk living in a remote town in the NE part of the Holy Roman Empire, posted 95 theses, or statements, for discussion.

He was responding to Johann Tetzel’s promises that if people bought a letter of indulgence from him, they could avoid purgatory. Purgatory was the place where Christian went for purification, prior to entering heaven.

Tetzel, a Dominican monk, was the ultimate salesperson, and he had a catchy advertising jingle: ‘As soon as the coin in the treasure chest rings, the soul from purgatory springs.’ A letter of indulgence was, in effect, a ‘get out of purgatory free’ card. Even better, one could also buy them for family members.

It was a win-win deal—the church could raise the money needed to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and the people would avoid purgatory.

Luther reacted to this commercialization of God’s grace, however, claiming it a flagrant abuse by the church. It was making money off the fears of their people. Thus, the Reformation began primarily as a pastoral care matter arising from economic and spiritual abuse.

When Pope Leo X first saw a copy of Luther’s theses, he supposedly made two comments. Probably neither is authentic, but both are in keeping with his known initial response to Luther.

The first was, ‘Luther is a drunken German. He will feel differently when he is sober.’ The second was, ‘Friar Martin is a brilliant chap. The whole row [dispute] is due to envy of the other monks.’”[1]

It is interesting and challenging to read the major Reformers of the 16th century, the likes of Zwingli, Calvin, Luther; their writings are anti-Semitic and their tolerances quite narrow. We need to read these theologians critically, but with care in remembering these people lived 500 years ago; we read these theologians in the context of the times in which they lived. The Observer of the United Church had a good article on Luther and certainly, Luther was a flawed character. But what he believed was that we are simultaneously broken people AND people of grace and forgiveness; we are broken and whole at the same time… very pastoral and very much ahead of his time.

Today, 500 years after Luther, some are suggesting that we are in the throes of another Reformation; Phyllis Tickle, a historian, has based some of her research on those who’ve gone before, but she has popularized the notion that there has been a Reformation every 500 years starting with Jesus. 500 years after Jesus, there was the big Gregorian reform in the Western Roman Catholic Church. 500 years after that—these are approximate dates—at the end of the 1st millennium, there was the great split between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. 500 years after that we have Luther. And 500 years further on brings us to today.

Tickle’s hunch is that we are in the midst of a Reformation based on Spirit. We are uncertain what the reformation is about, but many believe it is about the Spirit. That is why spiritual practices are so important and the Spirit is one way to connect with folk of other faiths. The Spirit is leading us also to emphasize our humanity and the common connectors of being part of creation. It is like the Spirit is brooding over the waters of a re-creation. The challenge is that we don’t know where this reformation will lead us, and that can be quite debilitating. We know that what we have commonly accepted as our tradition is changing, and our challenge is to adapt and be nimble enough to respond to these changes.

Well, good on Luther for standing up to the political and spiritual might of the Roman Church. He and other Reformers cracked open a Church that needed renewal and a refocus on love and grace, hope and forgiveness, love… did I mention love? For that’s what it is all about… a total love and commitment to this world and to each other, that is also a commitment to God and God’s re-creative and wondrous love.


[1] Canada Lutheran, September 2017, article by the Rev. Dr. Gordon Jensen.

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