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By Faith Alone

Reformation Sunday C-16

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago


On this day plus one, October 31st, 1517, Martin Luther (1483–1546) posted Ninety-five Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg and began what we now call the Protestant Reformation.

Luther’s insight or turning point is famously referred to as Luther’s ‘Tower Experience,’ because it came to him while he was in the restroom. It was a break through in his understanding of Romans 1:17 “…the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’” “By faith alone” became one of the five rallying cries of the Reformation along with “by Scripture alone”, “by grace alone,” “through Christ alone,” and “glory to God alone.”

300 years after Luther’s passing, Ralph Waldo Emerson said of him, “Martin Luther, the reformer, is one of the most extraordinary persons in history and has left a deeper impression on his presence in the modern world than any other except [Christopher] Columbus.” Like Columbus’ voyage of discovery accomplished a just a few year earlier, the Reformation begun by Luther came with the good and the bad. Peasants emboldened by Luther’s words to regard themselves as equals to their overlords were violently put back in their place with Luther’s blessing. European wars of religion stretched on for 125 years.

Luther and his associates stood up against the religious conventions of the day, arguing on behalf of those suffering under religious, social, and economic oppression.  The 95 Theses attacked papal abuses and the sale of indulgences by church officials, among other things.

Diana Butler-Bass says they were protesters more than reformers—they “…accused the church of their day of being too rich, too political, in thrall to kings and princes, having sold its soul to the powerful.  The original Protestants preached, taught, and argued for freedom—spiritual, economic, and political—and for God’s justice to be embodied in the church and the world.”

“The heart of Protestantism is the courage to challenge injustice and to give voice to those who have no voice.  Protestantism opened access for all people to experience God’s grace and God’s bounty, not only spiritually but actually.  The early Protestants believed that they were not only creating a new church, but they were creating a new world, one that would resemble more fully God’s desire for humanity.  The original Protestant impulse was to resist powers of worldly dominion and domination in favor of the power of God’s spirit to transform human hearts and society.  Protestants were not content with the status quo.  They felt a deep discomfort within.  They knew things were not right.  And they set out to change the world.” (Diana Butler-Bass, A Great Awakening, 10/28/2011)

The Holy Spirit that has moved us so mightily continues to call us to protest and reform. As we begin a year of recognition of all that has been accomplished in the past five hundred years, we stand ready to celebrate what has been achieved in the last fifty to heal some of the divisions among Christians.

Ecumenical discussions between churches begun under the leadership of Pope John the 23rd, called the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960’s began a prolonged period of warming relations and a widespread era of liturgical renewal that is ongoing. The 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, celebrated right here in our sanctuary (and in many other sanctuaries around the world), found agreement between Lutherans and Catholics on the central issue that lead to division between our two churches in the first place: justification by faith alone.

This summer, the ELCA National Assembly in New Orleans adopted Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry, and Eucharist, listing 32 consensus statements, where Catholics and Lutherans find essential agreement. To give you an example, the first statement of agreement is about the Church’s Foundation in God’s Saving Work

(1) Catholics and Lutherans agree that the church on earth has been assembled by the triune God, who grants to its members their sharing in the triune divine life as God’s own people, as the body of the risen Christ, and as the temple of the Holy Spirit, while they are also called to give witness to these gifts so that others may come to share in them.

The fifth statement is about The Word, Scripture and Means of Grace.

(5) Lutherans and Catholics agree that the church on earth lives from and is ruled by the Word of God, which it encounters in Christ, in the living word of the gospel, and in the inspired and canonical Scriptures.

The 30th is agreement about Eucharistic Presence.

(30) Lutherans and Catholics agree that in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus Christ himself is present: He is present truly, substantially, as a person, and he is present in his entirety, as Son of God and a human being.

Despite these agreements, of course, substantial differences remain. Our Church is always reforming, always coming back to the Word of God, always being reformed to focus on Christ. A church that is always reforming is also always repenting, daily. The first of the 95 Theses Luther put up for debate October 31, 1517, reads: When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent,” He willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.  (LW 31:83).

No one stands higher or closer to God, neither is anyone no lower or beneath us. This principle of daily reformation opens a path to reconciliation and healing that is so needed in our country today to promote listening and mutual respect in our civic and religious life. It is how and why we now can stand and pray “O Comforter of priceless worth, send peace and unity on earth; support us in our final strife and lead us out of death to life.” (ELW # 517)

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