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Remembering the Reformation – Ministry Spot

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Both Martin Luther and Martin Luther King Jr. were, in the words of the earthy Reformer, simultaneously saints and sinners. When I was a California school teacher in the early 1990s, I was shocked to discover that my public school students had never heard of Luther or the Protestant Reformation. They had heard of MLK, the pastor who had led the non-violent civil rights movement, because we had a new national holiday in his honour, a day off from school! After doing my best to inform my class of the ongoing relevance of five-hundred-year-old events (had there been no Reformation, you girls might not be sitting here in school today), I quit teaching, became a seminary student, joined a Presbyterian church, and was introduced to yet another new holiday—Reformation Day. Instead of celebrating Halloween with lollies that rot your teeth, immodest trick-or-treat costumes, and the simultaneous celebration and trivialization of the demonic, many churches in California were offering families an alternative. Evangelical churches called it Harvest Fest—corn mazes, pumpkin pies, bobbing for apples, and biblical costumes (borrow your dad’s bathrobe and improvise a bit). But Reformed churches, such as the one I had just joined, called it Reformation Day. After all, it was on 31 October, All Hallow’s Eve, that Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenberg Church door.

A few days before my first Reformation Day, Mary Frame, the woman in charge of the festivities at our church, recruited me to play the part of Martin Luther. This involved donning an old black choir robe and memorizing Luther’s life story so I could provide the kiddos with a 20-minute monologue dramatizing the gospel as told by a somewhat mentally ill monk. Thus began my love affair with Luther. In the years since I have delivered this monologue at least twelve times, handing out gummy worms to children who sat quietly and listened to my description of the Diet of Worms, indulgences, and the true treasure of the church. I can tell you that seven and eight-year-olds totally get the Reformation. And since many non-Christian parents are not terribly picky about where their children obtain candy on Halloween, we regularly had dozens of un-churched children at this annual party. There are some children (now adults) in certain undisclosed towns of North America who if shown a photo of me would say, “I don’t know who he is, but for some reason, I want to say, Martin Luther.” I’m not necessarily recommending that you begin a Reformation Party at your church (it might not strike the right cultural notes in your neighbourhood), but I do urge you to find ways to evangelize and disciple the children in your community.

All this to say that each year when cramming for my role in the skit, I re-read the 95 Theses, and stumbled upon new treasures. I remember my wonder when I initially discovered that Luther still believed in the authority of the Pope when he posted his famous list. But even more wonderful was discovering that in contrast to the faux treasure of indulgences, Luther’s 62nd of the 95 says: “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.” The true treasure! And yet Luther goes on in point 63 to say that the gospel, the true treasure, stinks. It is odious. It is foul-smelling to us because we naturally hate anything that questions our greatness. The entire list of 95 is an attack on our pride. That is why Luther begins by saying that according to Jesus the entire Christian life is to be a life of repentance. The new life that we need, the change that we say we want, cannot come about by making a cash donation or remembering the church in our will. It will come about by God’s will, by God’s grace alone.

Even though I’ve set aside my choir robe costume and am no longer appearing as Luther, I’m still re-reading and learning new things in the 95 Theses. For example, I knew Luther came out hard against using indulgences as a substitute for repentance. As a lifelong Protestant, I’ve been well-catechized to suspect anything that appears to be meritorious or ritualistic. What I noticed this year, however, was what Luther says in #3. After telling us that lifelong repentance has nothing to do with a clergy-administered sacrament of penance, Luther exposes another false view of repentance, a view that struck uncomfortably close to home. He says that the repentance Jesus calls us to in Matthew 4:17 “does not mean solely inner repentance.” Those of us who grew up heavily influenced by easy-believism, whose default settings are nearly Gnostic, honestly believe that our entire Christian life is sequestered to the internal cockles of our very private heart. When we read the Bible, we read it silently (unlike Augustine who read it out loud). When we pray, we pray silently—no need to find a private prayer closet as Jesus advised, because no one around us will even guess that we are praying. After all, our pastor told us we could pray while multi-tasking. Worst of all, we think we can repent silently, invisibly, safely in our inner spirit alone. Luther says we can’t. He goes on to say that true repentance involves nothing less than “hatred of self” (Luther is almost always psychologically incorrect). What he’s getting at is the fact that repentance involves the whole person. One form of holistic repentance is outlined in #43: “Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than he who buys indulgences.” I wonder if those of us who consider ourselves heirs of the Reformation ever practice what Luther is preaching here. Do we spur one another on to generous giving to the poor as an alternative to works-righteousness? Or do we come up with inventive excuses (like, giving to the poor actually hurts them), and pretend that the effective alternative to works-righteousness is silent, action-less belief?

Eventually, Luther came to see the gospel even more clearly than he did on that fateful All Hallow’s Eve. But what he says in #62 still shakes the earth. The glory and grace of God as proclaimed in the gospel are the true treasure of the church—not the power of her leaders, not the money in the church’s coffers, and not her beautiful buildings (in case you’ve forgotten, the manipulative fund-raising technique that Luther was protesting was all about raising money for the St. Peter’s church building program). Luther was eventually accused of demolishing half the church, but despite Luther’s many sins, God used him to begin a blessedly different kind of church building program, a building composed of the living stones of St. Peter’s first epistle (2:5), stones given new life by the gospel. Of course, sometimes we do need to buy or build church facilities. But we do so to facilitate what Jesus, the true builder of the church, is doing among us: raising up a welcoming structure against which even the gates of hell will not prevail. This is why the only true holiday is the Lord’s Day, the first day of the week, the day on which Jesus rose from the dead having conquered sin, death, and hell.

Here at our safe distance from American shores, where foolish people are spending over $10 billion on Halloween this year, we should admit that we too are tempted to trivialize and celebrate evil. So, we would do well to sing out loud those well-known lyrics of Luther: “the prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo! his doom is sure; one little word shall fell him. That Word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them abideth!

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