Reformation Sunday (a week late) Romans 3:19-31

Reformation Day was October 31st, but November 1st was All Saints Day.  Every year I have this dilemma.  Do we honor Martin Luther and remember the posting of his 95 theses or proposals for theological change?—which he did on the front door of All Saints Cathedral?—on All Saints Day--October 31st, 1517; an act that ultimately led to the Reformation of the church—and the beginning of Protestantism—(that’s actually one sentence can you believe it and there’s still no period!); OR do we remember and honor our loved ones who have passed on at an All Saints Day service?

Every year I selfishly opt for All Saints Day.  I do this even though I am a Protestant; I do this, even though All Saints Day is a holy day in the Roman Catholic Church and not so much in the Protestant church.   I say selfishly. That is because despite its Roman Catholic moorings, All Saints Day Services feed my soul—and I hope yours as well.  And, I have this firm conviction that we OUGHT to set aside one day at least, each year, to remember our deceased loved ones, and honor them together as a church family; and in a place we consider holy.   

But I know, I know.  Reformation Day is important, too.  It’s especially so for Protestants, like us.  So, shame on us!  In fact, this week, I read how Pope Francis, the pope of the Roman Catholic Church and Lutheran Bishop Younan, co-led a reformation commemoration service in Sweden last Sunday.  So while we were engaging in practices Roman Catholic, Pope Francis was engaging in practices Protestant.  My goodness!  What’s next!?  Will the Cubs win the World Series?    

Which is why belatedly, I have decided to devote today to Reformation Sunday, a week late. I’m making up for what we didn’t do last week.  And I am using last week’s lectionary for Reformation Sunday, which is the Romans passage I read a little earlier.  I thought today, we could consider how the Reformation came to pass, the great divide in western religion that happened as a consequence of the Reformation, and then speculate some about how Protestants and Roman Catholics might one day reconcile. 

So the Reformation.  In order to understand it, you have to first understand some of the conditions that led up to it, and then you have to understand the psychology behind it—specifically the psychology of one particular man.  That someone I ‘ve already mentioned once today—I’m talking about Martin Luther.

So first—Roman Catholicism in the early 1500’s.  The Roman Catholic church at that time was corrupt in the way that in our day, TV evangelists are sometimes corrupt.  The Roman Catholic church at that time was all about amassing money.  Pope Leo X was pope immediately before and during the early part of the reformation.  I have included a picture of him in your bulletin—had to do it.  This is a man who lived well, note his fine attire—and who obviously ATE well.  And, do you see the two young men standing behind him?  They were Pope Leo the10th’s “nephews.”  And if you believe that, I have a great used car I’d like to sell you.

The church, especially in Rome, was up to its Cathedral spires in gold candelabras, brocade robes; highly polished marble floors, paintings, statues, you get the idea.  When he was elected Pope, that was in 1511, Leo the 10th’’s words were, “Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it!”  Which sounds a little like Marie Antoinette’s “Let them eat cake.”  Apparently, like her, Pope Leo didn’t care even one silver place setting for the poor who were supposedly in his care.  His focus was on updating St. Peter’s Cathedral and decorating his Vatican quarters.   Updating and decorating took money of course.  The most efficient way to raise that money was to sell indulgences.

What’s an indulgence?  Well, say your loved one dies.  The church claimed that your loved one would have to spend time in purgatory—a place between Heaven and Hell.  Your loved one would stay there until he could work off his sins.  However, you could shorten his time in purgatory.  All you had to do was make a donation to the church—buying an indulgence, or I guess if your loved one had a lot of sins, buying a whole lot of indulgences. The way I understand it, you bought an indulgence from a priest, in exchange for a coin.  You put that coin in a church coffer—and glory be, your loved one’s soul would be set free to fly on to heaven.  —The rhyme that came about in those times was: —As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs. Yuk, right?

Now, on to Martin Luther.

I’m going to skip over his birth, his upbringing, his coming to faith.  Enough to say that he became a monk in the Roman Catholic tradition.  He served in Wittenburg Monastery in Germany.  

The man was driven—so much so that some people might conclude that he was obsessive compulsive--but let’s not go there.  He was, at least, though, a monk with a capital MMMMM.  He observed to the letter all the rules of the monastery; he followed all the rules for Christian living laid out in scripture.  So for instance, Martin prayed late into the night every night, sometimes falling asleep on his knees.  That’s because in scripture , in 1st Thessalonians, he had read, “Pray without ceasing.” He took on the vilest of monastery tasks, too—cleaning floors and toilets. He did that in order to practice humility.  That’s because in the book of James and also the book of Proverbs, Martin had read, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

Praying late into the night made Martin tired and irritable during the day, as we might imagine.  He realized with horror that he was angry with God for making him pray for such long periods.  And anger, especially anger at God is a sin.  And, he realized with still more horror that in taking on the floor and toilet cleaning at the monastery, he had actually become proud of his humility. And, pride is a sin. In other words, no matter what he did, he could not, not sin. 

As tormented a soul as Martin Luther was at that time, though, he was a brilliant academic.  So eventually, he was made a professor in Wittenburg, Germany. 

            In 1516 Martin was studying Paul’s epistle to the Romans, the book I read from today.  The passage Martin read was this: "… the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, the one who is righteous will live by faith.” 

Whoa!  That was huge for Luther!  What that meant to him was this: You can’t buy God’s love with an indulgence; it can’t be mediated by a priest, or by the pope; you can’t earn it through good works, like praying all night or scrubbing toilets.  God’s love is God’s free gift to us. All you need is faith.

You see where this is headed yet?

Martin’s discovery was so overwhelmingly comforting to his tortured soul, that he began speaking, teaching and writing about it. He eventually included it along with a lot of other insights that were in opposition to church teachings and practices, in a document referred to as Martin Luther’s 95 Theses.   As I said earlier, he tacked those to the door of All Saints Cathedral on All Saints Day, 1517.  Eventually the propositions circulated throughout the Roman Empire. Even Pope Leo the Tenth read them. (Suck in breath).

The Pope was not happy, to put it mildly. Martin Luther went into hiding fearing for his life.  It goes without saying, he had to turn in his monk’s habit. He was excommunicated.

In some circles, though, Martin Luther was regarded as a religious hero.  He soon had a following, fellow protesters—protesters of Roman Catholicism.  These protesters started a movement—Roman Catholicism reformed—or Protestantism. And that is what we are remembering and honoring today, The Reformation.

Now so far I’ve painted Roman Catholics as the bad guys and Martin Luther and his followers as the good guys.  But that is not totally accurate. Protestants committed some heinous crimes in the name of their new reformed faith.  They looted magnificent cathedrals, destroyed priceless works of art, shattered stained glass windows.  They burned to the ground monasteries and abbeys.  They murdered priests, monks, nuns.  

So, there’s plenty of blame and bad feelings to go around.  And that blame and those bad feelings have persisted, lo these past 499 years!  Can you believe it?  499 years!  So, When Pope Francis and Lutheran Bishop Younan served communion together, shoulder to shoulder, white papal vestment to black clergy robe, they were engaging in something for the ages.  Something monumental.   I mean really, “The Roman Catholic Church does not recognize Protestantism, does it?  The Roman Catholic Church does not allow Christians to receive Roman Catholic’s brand of communion does it?”   Of course not. No. Absolutely not.  Well, maybe? 

During his sermon last week, Pope Francis, talked some about interfaith marriages between Roman Catholics and Protestants.  He, said this:

“We experience the pain of those who share their whole lives but cannot share God’s redeeming presence at the Eucharistic table.” He continued, “We long for this wound in the body of Christ to be healed. This is the goal of our ecumenical endeavors, which we wish to advance, also by renewing our commitment to theological dialogue.”

Four hundred and ninety-nine years we’ve endured this division between Roman Catholics and Protestants.  As Pope Francis suggests, the way to heal this glaring wound, is by doing something as seemingly tame as sharing a meal together; by engaging in civil dialogue. And maybe if Roman Catholics and Protestants can do that, without delivering false accusations, leveling insults, or spilling blood, maybe we can show other countries, and indeed factions within countries, like Republicans and Democrats, a way to reconcile. 

At any rate, in the religious realm, it’s time to move forward, united as Christians, don’t you think?

Amen