This coming Tuesday, October 31st, the eve of All Saints Day, we will mark the 500th anniversary of a turning point moment in the History of Christianity in the Western World. On that day in 1517, a little-known Augustinian Friar and professor of theology at in the relatively obscure college town of Wittenberg, Germany, by the name of Martin Luther, nailed 95 objections or theses to the door of the collegiate chapel. These theses were points of contention that Luther had with the prevailing theology of the Roman Catholic Church. To be more precise, they were pointed objections to a caricature of Catholic theology that was being popularized among the poorly educated folk in Germany. At the heart of these objections was the popular practice of making indulgences available for an ‘offering’ and thus obtaining the remission of temporal punishment for the souls in purgatory, enabling them to experience heavenly bliss. In the all too crass popularization of these indulgences, the tenuously thin line between ‘offering’ and ‘selling’ was all too often crossed. For the pious Luther, a man who had spent his life to this date wrestling with the Word of God, this practice was the very antithesis of the great conversion that had been percolating in his life.
In the recently published biography of Luther by Eric Metaxas, the author tells the story of a good and pious man who sought to do God’s will but felt his life to be an utter failure in God’s eyes. Endlessly confessing his sins, he continued to doubt that anything he did for the Lord was ever good enough. He fasted, prayed endlessly, confessed his sins with greater frequency and yet, he was forever tormented by the spiritual and psychological angst rooted in the self-perception of his worthlessness.
Luther lived at a time when few Christians were familiar with the Word of God in the Scriptures. Prior to the invention of movable type, copies of the Bible were rare and more often than not, carefully guarded in monasteries. Even the clergy were poorly educated in the Word of God and rarely preached to the people at Mass, a ritual that itself was done in a language totally incomprehensible by the common folk.
Luther as a university professor and specialist in Scripture, found himself more and more pondering the meaning of God’s Word that was now becoming more accessible through the invention of the printing press. It was his pondering and wrestling with the Word that eventually led to the tectonic revolution of insight in his life, catapulting him to this moment of defiance at the doors of the University chapel.
As we have heard in the conclusion of our first reading from the Book of Exodus, the Lord reminds his hearers that he is ‘compassionate.’ Compassion is the irrevocable hallmark of God’s nature. Luther in his pivotal conversion moment, came to realize that no matter how many prayers, fastings, indulgences one might earn in life, they can never be a substitute for the utter gratuity of God’s unfailing and amazing grace, or unearned love, that is accessible by faith alone. Hence, this notion of ‘faith alone’ – ‘sola fide,’ became the rallying cry for the revolution that would come to be known as the Reformation.
Viewing this moment from the perspective of the post-Conciliar, 21st century, we thank God that the division in the Body of Christ occasioned by the Reformation is more and more experiencing moments of healing and greater understanding. Some years ago, we rejoiced in a joint declaration by both the Lutheran Church and the Roman Catholic Church, affirming a common understanding and appreciation for the priority of faith and God’s amazing grace in the process of salvation, with good works as a manifestation of what it means to be God’s redeemed people in Christ. Rather than viewing ‘faith’ and ‘good works’ as a matter of ‘either/or,’ it is now understood as another example of the Christian, ‘both/and.’
In our Gospel reading today from St. Matthew, the Lord sets before us the Great Commandment, to love God above all things and to love our neighbor as ourselves. One great writer opined that in this one phrase we have the essence of God’s holy word, the rest is merely commentary.
As we remember this turning point moment in the Christian Church, may it be an opportunity for us all to humbly acknowledge the brokenness that has so often characterized the human face of the Church. Yet, out of that brokenness and with humility, may we come to an ever more deeper awareness of the Lordship of Christ and our own role as servants of the word.