Joint Declaration, Rev. Kinsey
We are now one week away from the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation! And, seeing Pastor Emily is preaching next week, I want to get in my ‘Luther moment’ while I can! It’s not every day you get to celebrate a 500th anniversary, you know!
It’s difficult to put ourselves in the world of 1517. In many ways it was a totally different time: it was the time of Leonardo da Vinci and Copernicus, Mercantilism and the Inquisition, but it was before science and technology gave us cars and airplanes, telephones and then cell phones, robotics and computers in everything; before Facebook and Twitter and apps; before speculative stock markets; before LGBTQ; before vaccines and the splitting of the atom; it was before plastic bags and Leggo’s; and before t-shirts and jeans.
But that’s not to say some things weren’t the same 500 years ago: like Power and corruption in high places; the love of family and friends; hard work; and beer and wine!
Next week there will be celebrations of the Reformation, here at Unity and around the world, in most, if not all, Lutheran and Roman Catholic congregations.
It was on the eve of All Saints, October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed 95 theses, or debating points, on the Wittenberg Castle Church door, in his humble German berg. It was the beginning of a contentious relationship between Lutherans and Catholics. And not all that long ago – within my lifetime – what Lutherans celebrated every Reformation Day, was their goodness and moral superiority. But no longer! Now we celebrate the anniversary of the Reformation each year with a renewed sense of coming together, with our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers.
At the leadership levels of our two churches, we have been in dialog for decades, and in 1999 – they must have been worried that the apocalypse was coming in 2000! – we signed a document together called, “The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.” It deals with Luther’s teachings on justification by grace alone, faith alone, and scripture alone, emphasizing our agreements, and acknowledging where each was wrong, all these centuries later. And so it also does away with 16th century condemnations, that Lutherans and Catholics made against each other.
On the parish level, members now go between Lutheran and Catholic congregations without much worry, and in the world, we work together and get along without controversy.
But the world we live in today, would not be what it is, without the Reformation! Luther played perhaps the most central role in it – though he was far from its only actor! Others like Wycliffe and Hus argued for similar reforms of the Roman Catholic Church a century earlier in their home countries of England and Slovakia. They made headway, but didn’t themselves, embody the spark that caused the break from the old, and the resulting new reality with its Protestant churches, with its opportunity for individuals to find ‘freedom’ in the gospels, instead of ‘captivity to the Church,’ to use a phrase from one of Luther’s works.
Also aiding Luther, was the greatest invention of the time, the printing press! When Luther wrote the 95 Theses, he posted them on the Wittenberg Castle Church door as a matter of course. It was done routinely by scholars of the day, as an invitation to debate among academics. But Luther’s 95 Theses were taken, without his permission, and published far and wide, thanks to the printing press! And it resonated with people in the pews across the Roman Catholic Church.
In it, Luther questioned the practice of selling indulgences in the church, because these written guarantees weren’t worth the paper they were written on, according to Luther. No one, including the Pope, could forgive the sins of a dead relative in Purgatory. So why is the Pope authorizing these indulgences, argued Luther, which are clearly a corruption of faith and scripture? And in Theses #86, Luther wrote: “Why doesn’t the pope – whose wealth is today greater than the wealth of the richest [among us] – build this … basilica of St. Peter(,) with his own money(!) rather than with the money of poor believers?''
Luther himself, felt trapped by how the Church had taught him to fear God’s punishment for his humanness. This was his passion, and the reason he became a monk instead of the lawyer his father wanted him to be – to his dad’s great disappointment. So Luther worked the Churches program harder than anyone, to work his way out of this condemnation. But the harder he tried, the less convinced he felt. He could not raise himself up to God’s level, no matter how seriously he took it.
But a change finally came in 1519. Sometimes called, The Tower Experience, because he was studying Paul’s letter to the Romans in the Wittenberg Castle tower. And after much reflection on Paul’s letters, it came to him suddenly – which he later wrote about:
At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written [Romans 1:17], “[The one] who through faith is righteous shall live.’” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives(,) by a gift of God, namely by faith. … Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There(,) a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me.
Immediately after this Luther wrote his most important works: On Christian Liberty, The Bondage of the Will, and Freedom of a Christian. He also got deeper in trouble with the Church! And soon he was condemned as a heretic and under sentence of death. So his friends smuggled him out of Wittenberg to the Wartburg Castle, where, hidden for 11 months, and using his time well, he translating first the New Testament, then the Hebrew Scriptures, into his native tongue of German, which spread his fame further.
Once Luther discovered his way out of the trap that he felt caught in – by a Church that had lost its way, a Church that had trapped the conscience of all believers in corruptions of the faith, from which they had ‘no way out’ – he, could not go back. “Here I stand,” he famously said. Where else can I go? Luther had opened up the scriptures to ordinary believers, and turned us on to the love and Grace of God, which alone can connect us to the kingdom and realm of God, even now, and by faith, forever, in the power of cross and resurrection.
In our gospel reading today, the religious authorities of Jesus time, tried to trap him, with a highly polarizing question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But the Son of God could not be fooled. “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And Jesus pointed out that it was the emperor’s picture, a false god. "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's."
We are only entrapped by the image of those we follow or allow, to rule our lives. Whose image lives in you? Who do you worship in your life?
Luther said that we are all entrapped by the Bondage of the Human Will, and the inevitable cycles of corruption of human institutions and their participants. But we are freed in Christ! That’s why Luther was so big on baptism! We put on Christ in baptism, so that we know we are made in God’s image, and so we know the One who we follow, by faith.
As Luther said, we find our way out of the trap, and are saved, solely by God’s Grace through faith.
And half a Millennia later, that’s still something to celebrate!