95 at 500

The following is an extract from a sermon I preached this past Sunday at St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Scarborough.  The service made use of some of the liturgical resources prepared conjointly by  the Presbyterian Church in Canada and the Christian Reformed Church to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.  It is not a scholarly treatment, nor does it exhaustively treat the complex and often ambiguous legacy of the Reformation.  Rather, it simply attempts to acquaint people with the person of Martin Luther and some of the early developments associated with the beginning of the Reformation in Germany.

Exactly five hundred years ago, a young Augustinian monk and theology professor from a small and relatively unknown town in Germany sent a letter to his Archbishop.  He hoped to start an academic debate about the theology and practices of the church of his day, so in good professorial fashion he put together a list of theses for disputation.  Of particular concern to the young scholar, who also served as the village priest, was the church’s practice of selling indulgences.  The theological technicalities surrounding indulgences were intricate and complex, but at the popular level they came to function something like a get out of jail free card.  By the early sixteenth century, some decadent leaders within the church had come to recognize that there was great money to be made from preying on the anxieties of the common people.  They realized that the selling of indulgences could be used as a form of fundraising to support their luxurious tastes.  One of the top marketers of the day even penned a little jingle to support the sale of these indulgences.  It went like this: “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs!”  Our young theologian was horrified.  As a result of his immersion in the Scriptures, he was becoming convinced that God’s grace was not a commodity that could be traded or sold, rather it was a gift freely given that could only be received in faith.  So, on All Saints Eve, October 31, 1517, as the popular telling of the story has it, this young monk, who we know by the name of Martin Luther, nailed his list of 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.  The 95 Theses fell like a hammer-blow upon Europe, unleashing a theological firestorm and forever changing the face of the Church and the Western world.

Today, both Catholic and Protestant historians agree that the church of Luther’s day stood in dire need of Reform.  The centuries leading up to the Reformation were rife with ecclesiastical abuses: there were popes who acted like warlords; ecclesiastical posts were sold for profit; supposedly celibate priests fathered countless illegitimate children; many members of the clergy were illiterate and unable to read Scripture, much less prepare a sermon; to mention just a few.  Luther was not the first to call for the Reformation of the Church.  There had been others before him, like John Wycliffe in England and John Huss in what is the present day Czech Republic.  However, each of these “proto-Reformers” were eventually silenced by the Church.  However, between the time of Huss and Wycliffe and the life of Martin Luther there stood a fortuitous technological development—the 16th century equivalent to Twitter—the invention of the moveable type printing press.  Before long, Luther’s 95 Theses were translated from their original Latin into colloquial German and copies were circulated throughout Europe.  The pope responded by issuing a decree which censured 41 of Luther’s 95 theses and demanded that all of Luther’s books be burned.  When Luther refused to recant, he was excommunicated.  He was summoned to appear before the Imperial Diet—the highest representative assembly in the Empire—meeting in the German city of Worms.  When asked to recant of his writings, Luther told the high officials of the Empire that he would gladly recant, if they could show him on the basis of Scripture where he was wrong.  He concluded his address by saying, “I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.  I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me, Amen.”1

While the Diet deliberated about what to do with this rebellious friar, Luther left Worms to return to his home in Wittenberg.  Along the way, he was kidnapped and placed into something like a witness protection program by his political protector, Frederick the Wise, the Elector of Saxony.  This was a wise move on Frederick’s part, for the edict eventually pronounced by the Imperial Diet declared Luther to be a “notorious heretic” and placed a bounty upon his head.  Locked up for his own protection in Wartburg Castle, Luther grew long hair and a beard and went by the name of Knight George.  During his exile, he dedicated himself to translating the New Testament into German, the language of the people.

Luther understood himself to be in a struggle for the soul of the holy catholic church.  His intention was not to start a new church, but rather to reform the church in accordance with the testimony of the apostles and the prophets.  It was the “Protestants,” he insisted, who represented the true catholic church, because they held to the ancient apostolic faith by teaching and believing the one word of God. . . .

  1. “Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms,” trans. Roger A. Hornsby, in Career of the Reformer II, ed. George W. Forell, vol. 32 of Luther’s Works, ed. Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1958), 112-113.  There is debate among historians as to whether Luther actually said the now famous words, “Here I stand.”

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