This sermon was preached at Knox Presbyterian Church on Sunday Oct. 29, 2017 in commemoration of the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
How many of you have a Bible? And read it?
Really? You don’t need a priest to read it for you and tell you what it says?
Here’s another question: how many of you believe you can have a personal relationship with God...without anyone...like a priest...getting in the middle? It’s just you and God.
Well. I’ve got good news for you today. You’re in the right kind of church for those beliefs. The Presbyterian Church is a kind of Protestant Church and today we’re commemorating the 500th anniversary of the beginning of what’s called “The Protestant Reformation”, which began with the ideas of a monk named Martin Luther.
You see, before 1517, there was only one church - so it was just the “Church” - what we would call today “the Roman Catholic Church”. Catholic means universal - and that’s what the church wanted to be - universal - and “Roman” because it was headquartered in Rome and ruled by the Pope.
Generally, today the pope is seen by some people as having spiritual authority (especially the current pope, who is popular for his social views).
It was different back then. The pope had way more authority. The pope was a huge deal in the lives of ordinary people because he was the one who would lead the way to salvation.
Salvation is another thing people don’t think much about today, but salvation was also a huge deal for people because 1) life was terribly hard (they were just coming out of the Middle Ages) and heaven was the way out and 2) hell was the alternative.
And to get to heaven you needed the pope to lead the way, and you needed the priests, too. The Bible was written only in Latin and only the priests could read it. Almost everybody else was illiterate, and if you could read, you probably only read your language...English or German or whatever...you didn’t read Latin.
So, this means that the church could control the word of God, and the pope controlled the way into heaven. The priests had a large amount of influence over people’s live because they were involved in everything from Baptism at birth to marriage to the Last Rites at death.
In addition to spiritual power, the church had an enormous amount of political power. The Pope ruled over a lot of land in Italy (called the Papal States), just like a prince would, and even headed up armies to go and conquer land from other Christian nations. The church also had a lot of wealth. The pope and the Cardinals lived more like kings than like spiritual leaders. And, like often happens when you have a lot of wealth and power, the church had a lot of corruption inside, which was very well known.
In 1517, the Pope was Pope Leo X and he was intent on rebuilding the church of St. Peter’s and the plans for this rebuilding were very ambitious - and very expensive (it’s what is now known as St. Peter’s Basilica - which is enormous and splendid).
Now, the church had a common way of getting money - a practice of selling “indulgences”. An indulgence was a piece of paper like a certificate that made it possible to get to heaven more quickly. Most people, when they died, probably had some kind of sin they hadn’t properly atoned for - and so it was believed they would go to Purgatory - a kind of way-station - before you went to heaven. So, if you bought an indulgence, it got you time off from Purgatory.
Indulgences were an old tradition - originally, it was a certificate that you might get if you did a good work - granting that your good work got you closer to heaven - but this particular pope decided to have his representatives sell indulgences to raise money for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s, so it began to look like you could just pay money to gain access to heaven directly. In fact, one of the Pope’s representatives, a man named Tetzel said, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs” - basically saying that money will get you out of purgatory.
Now, there is a monk named Martin Luther. He was very, very devout, very smart, and a professor of theology. He was really bothered by people saying that they had bought these indulgences and were therefore freed of their sins. As a monk, he felt very oppressed by the sinfulness of human nature - especially his own sin - and he wrestled very seriously with the idea that you could buy your way out of sin.
Since he was a professor of theology, he wrote out a series of arguments against the selling of indulgences and posted them on the doors of the castle church in Wittenberg where he was living, now called “the 95 theses” (theses means arguments). These theses made their way to the Pope - and were copied and spread around Germany - and a lot of people heard about them and agreed with Martin Luther.
Here we have the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Protest and Reform.
A lot happened historically after Luther posted his theses. He defended them against the Holy Roman Emperor. He hid out in a castle for 10 years to keep from getting killed. He translated the Bible into German, and since the printing press was now invented, regular people were able to get their hands on a Bible in their own language. Then, people fought a lot of wars over power - Protestants, Catholics, Kings, Princes, the Pope, it was all very bloody. Out of this, though we move towards the ideal of the separation of church and state and democracy. Also, off of Luther’s point that everyone can read and interpret the Bible, you get the church split into the many denominations we see today...including ours “Presbyterian” which was founded by John Calvin, who came in the second generation of Reformers, following up on Luther with a whole lot of theology that our church is founded on.
Back to Luther. Spiritually, Luther’s ideas were revolutionary as well. Before Luther, the church taught you were “justified” - that is made right with God and sins forgiven - by God’s grace and through good works (charitable works). Luther believed - based on the writings of the apostle Paul - the the only power to forgive sins lies with God alone. Salvation is something freely given by God through faith alone. You can’t buy it. You can’t earn it. Salvation is given freely by God as God wills.
Also, from Luther we get the idea of Scripture alone - that Scripture should be in the hands of the people, in a language everyone can understand. Bible study is at the heart of the beginning of modern literacy.
And, from Luther, we get the idea of the Priesthood of all Believers: everyone can have a relationship with God, not just the priests.
The history might have happened 500 hundred years ago, but all of this matters to us right now today because affects how we act in the world.
Where’s the good news in all of this history?
If you’ve ever thought, like I have, Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so...you basically have Martin Luther to thank.
Really: it’s the good news of the love of God found in Jesus Christ that Luther fought to proclaim for the ordinary people.
Luther was sure that all people were able to have a relationship with God, not just people ordained to be priests, he was sure that people should be able to be read the good news of the grace of God themselves.
He believed all people should have free access to the good news of the grace of God.
It’s good news that salvation is a free gift from God that we do not need to earn and we can’t buy.
If we have faith that salvation is a free gift from God, then we can let go of the running checklist in our heads of mistakes we’ve made and embrace that free gift. That’s exhausting. We don’t have to serve God because we’re afraid of hell, we serve God because we’re so thankful for God’s grace.
When we’re freed from that burden, our hearts change and gratitude to God grows. When we realize we’re saved freely, our hearts change, and our lives change. We give more freely of ourselves, to our community and our church, because we want other people to experience knowing God’s grace.
Luther was a revolutionary, but the truth is that all Christians are called to be revolutionaries. We are called to spread the radical news that Jesus loves us, that God’s grace is a free gift, and that God wants to have a relationship with us.
In this spirit of Reform, on the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I invite you all to think like Luther about what you are sure of is true, to think about where in your life you would like to reform or see change, and what you are grateful to God for right now.
If you’re feeling bold, I invite you to hang your declarations on the door of grace and change.
The congregation was invited to fill out their own declarations and hang them on our version of Luther's door.