By the time you read this the 500th anniversary of the beginnings of the Reformation may well have faded from your memory.
For a week or so in late October and early November, suddenly we were made aware of our history. Most Protestant churches paused to remember what a mild mannered Augustinian German monk did on 31 October 1517. He nailed, some argue pasted, his defiant ‘95 Theses’ to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg.
He brazenly charged the church with corruption. He fiercely objected to the practice of the faithful throwing a coin or two in a coffer to buy their way out of purgatory or worse. He probably had no idea of the seismic effects his protest would have on the European church and politics.
The Wittenberg door had long served as the community bulletin board for anything and everything. It is likely that next to Luther’s shopping list of protest there might well have been a flyer about a missing cat or a leaflet about next week’s jumble sale.
Luther’s action opened the door to the birth of thousands of Protestant churches around the world. We in the Uniting Church are part of this global movement.
Why does any of this matter?
Certainly the Reformation and what followed did have some very serious negative consequences. The Sixteenth Century was not an age of tolerance and goodwill to all Christians. Much to our shame, Christians went to war with other Christians who had different theological opinions. Blood was shed in the name of the Christian religion.
Luther himself at times fell for the temptation of demonising anyone who thought differently from him. He had a reputation for being grouchy, obstinate and an unabashedsensualist. Yet this overweight German friar was a man of passion.
In a way, Luther’s theology, as Alec Ryrie puts it, “was not a doctrine, it was a love affair. Luther’s passion had a reckless extravagance that set it apart, and which echoed down Protestant history. It was an intense, intoxicating passion, sparked by his life, which was upended by a glimpse of God’s incomprehensible, beautiful love for him.”
Luther discovered through prayer and the study of Scripture that God loved him wildly, almost irresponsibly and beyond all reason. In short, Luther discovered grace. For him, it was impossible to overstate God’s grace.
“He wanted a radically simplified Christian life, but he wanted it because the flood of God’s grace had swept everything else away,” wrote Alec.
So Luther’s breakthrough had a dazzling, corrosive simplicity to it. The power of two principles, ‘faith alone’ and ‘scripture alone’ lay in the word ‘alone’. There was nothing and no one else other than God incarnate in Jesus
Christ worth attending to.
In some ways, the impact of Luther was like that of Marx and Darwin. A revolution was begun in thinking, imagining and living. Luther’s personal stand led to the growth of a mass movement, where at its best grace abounds and affects everything.
Luther reminds us so comfortingly that scripture alone, grace alone, faith alone, and Christ alone are the four foundations of Protestantism and of our practicing reformation in the 21st Century.
May we “remain open to constant reform under God’s word” (Basis of Union) and never lose sight of the extravagant grace that inspired it.
Rev Steve Francis, Moderator