A sermon preached by Canon Gary Philbrick at St Mary’s, Fordingbridge, on Bible Sunday, October 29th, 2017.
O gracious and most merciful Father, you have given us the rich and precious jewel of your holy Word; assist us with your Spirit, that it may be written in our hearts to our everlasting comfort, to re-form us according to your own image and increase in us all heavenly virtues; for Jesus Christ’s sake. AMEN.
(A prayer of Edward VI, who died in 1553 (adapted))
500 hundred years ago on Tuesday, October 31st, 1517, an event took place which was to have an effect on Western European Church and society which is still being felt today. It didn’t seem terribly momentous at the time, but looking back it was the trigger for what we now call The Protestant Reformation.
On that day, an academic theologian at the University of Wittenberg in Saxony, in Eastern Germany, nailed a poster on the door of the main Church inviting other academics to a discussion, a seminar. His name is Martin Luther. And what he is said to have nailed to the door that day became known as his ‘Ninety-five Theses’.
On the same day, the 31st October, 1517, Luther also wrote to his bishop, Albrecht von Brandenburg, protesting the sale of indulgences – monies paid on behalf of the dead to shorten their time in Purgatory. He enclosed in his letter a copy of his “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences”, the document he’d earlier nailed on the door of the Church. At this stage, it appears that Luther had no intention of confronting the church, but saw his disputation as a scholarly objection to church practices, and the tone of the writing is accordingly ‘searching, rather than doctrinaire’. Nevertheless there was an undercurrent of challenge, of protest, in several of the theses, particularly in Thesis 86, which asks: ‘Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?’
Luther objected to a saying attributed to Johann Tetzel, a notable pedlar of indulgences, that ‘As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs’. Luther insisted that, since forgiveness was God’s alone to grant, those who claimed that indulgences absolved buyers from all punishments and granted them salvation were in error. Christians, he said, must not slacken in following Christ on account of such false assurances.
In the letter to the Archbishop he wrote, ‘The first and only duty of the bishops…is to see that the people learn the Gospel and the love of Christ. For on no occasion has Christ ordered that indulgences should be preached, but he forcefully commanded the Gospel to be preached.
Now, let’s pause for a moment, and look at one or two background events.
Until the Reformation, there was in the West just ‘The Church’. Not the Roman Catholic Church, clearly none of the post-Reformation denominations such as Baptist, Methodist, Church of England, Lutheran, etc. Just ‘The Church’. And the Church was, in effect, defined as all of those Christians who were led by the Bishop of Rome, the Pope.
Admittedly, since the earliest days of the Church, there had been divisions, especially between Eastern and Western Christians, between the Greek-speaking and Latin-speaking parts of the Church, and, as the centuries went on, those divisions became greater until the Great Schism in 1054, when the divide between Eastern and Western Christianity was formalised by mutual excommunication, and there was virtually no communication between the two until the 20th century.
So, in the West, the Church was led by the Pope. But for a few hundred years before 1517, there were those who saw that Western Christianity needed to be reformed. A significant number of scholars and others, as they researched the Early Church, and especially as the invention of printing in its modern form in the previous century meant that it became so much easier to get back to the early sources – a significant number of people began to question some of the practices of the Church, its wealth and trappings, the lifestyles of some Bishops and monks, and all sorts of other things.
And one of the chief of those questions was indulgences – that practice of donations of money being made on behalf of those who had died, so that their deceased loved ones could be released early from purgatory.
Now, there’s a lot that could be said about all of this, and there has been a rediscovery in the past 50 years or so of how vibrant the life of the Church was before the Reformation in lots of places, and the whole history of the Reformation, and of the founding of the Church of England, is a lot more complicated than is often described – saying that the Church of England was founded by Henry VIII because he wanted a divorce is far too simplistic – there’s a lot that could be said, but I’m not going to say it now!
On the 31st of October, 1517, Martin Luther posted his ‘Ninety-five Theses’ on the door of the Church in Wittenberg, and the Reformation began.
Writing twenty-eight years later in 1545, Luther summarizes his Reformation pilgrimage in the Preface to his Latin Writings. There he writes of the glorious discovery of the Gospel:
‘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, ‘He 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’.
Note the relief when he says ‘At last’, and his soul searching, ‘meditating day and night’, and the absolute joy he experienced from a sin-cleansed conscience: ‘I felt that I was altogether born again’.
The Protestant Reformation, of which the Church of England and the whole Anglican Communion is a very distinctive part, has had a major impact on many different parts of our lives – from the idea of freedom of conscience, to an emphasis on the human rights of the individual versus authority, to the rise of the nation-state, the industrial revolution, the evangelisation of the world, and the decline of the control of the Roman Catholic Church over individual and state.
But at its heart was Luther’s realisation that a new relationship with God was possible, that ‘If anyone is in Christ there is a new creation’ [v. II Cor 5:17], and that this new relationship with God in Christ, and by the power of the Holy Spirit is unmediated, it is directly with God, that although others may help us on our journey of faith, or support us on the way, Jesus Christ is the only Mediator we need – not a priest, or a Bishop, or indulgences, or relics, or anything else.
Luther returned over and over again to the Letter to the Romans, and to the verses from Chapter 1, ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith… For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith’ [Rom 1:16-17].
Some parts of Roman Catholic theology in the sixteenth century gave the impression that it was by good works that we earned God’s favour – but building Churches, and giving alms, and going on pilgrimages – all good things in themselves, but not a way to earn God’s favour. And still now, for many of us, what has become known as the ‘Protestant work ethic’ drives us on, and somehow we see God as a demanding parent, who always has such high expectations of us that we can never meet them, but whom we continue to try to please by working harder and harder.
At its very best, Protestant theology, as all good theology, teaches us that we are made by God, known by God, and loved by God as we are, and that we are justified not by what we do, but by what we are in his sight – beloved sinners, made righteous by the blood of Christ shed on the Cross and confirmed in the Resurrection on the third day.
Luther recognised that the fruits of this righteousness are good works, and that if we just bask in God’s love and do nothing about it, our faith is not worth the candle. But it is the priority of God’s love which is important – made by God, known by God, and loved by God as we are.
Protestant theology has struggled over the centuries – sometimes becoming over-judgemental, sometimes condemning those whose life-styles don’t match up to their particular interpretation of the Bible, sometimes giving the idea that only intellectuals can enter the Kingdom of God, sometimes belittling other Christians who don’t worship in a particular way, or read their Bibles in a particular way, and especially by having a tendency to split over doctrinal issues, so that people are always going off and founding their own Churches for one reason or another. Like the mediaeval theology which preceded it, Protestant theology has sometimes erred.
But at its heart, and why we celebrate 500 years later what Luther and his contemporaries did in shaping the Church in the West, and throughout the world, the Protestant Reformation opened a new way for Christians to be with God – justified by faith, not by works; relying on grace, not on the Law, and with an evangelical zeal, a Gospel zeal, to share their faith with others and to make the world a better place by the way they live, and the changes they bring about through lives of worship and service dedicated to God.
As we heard earlier at the end of our Epistle Reading from Colossians 3, ‘Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly… And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him’ [Col 3:14-17]. AMEN.