One of the great gifts of the Reformation is the lifting up of the concept of justification my faith through grace. The late medieval church had an emphasis on finding ways to make atonement for sins. What started as a way to soothe anxious consciences devolved into what appeared to be a crass "selling of salvation" through the sale of indulgences. Enraged by the blatant exploitation of poor people by clever indulgence sellers, Martin Luther also questioned any practices, however virtuous, that were done to appease God.
Having spent decades trying to please God through confession, self/deprivation, and countless acts of ecclesiastical piety, including a pilgrimage to Rome, Luther finally turned to scripture, wherein he discovered justification by grace through faith. It was a discovery that turned his life upside down, and, as a result, turned the European church upside down. It was this discovery that led Luther to propose the 95 Theses, as a way to discuss how the church had everything all wrong when it came to indulgences and other attempts to appease God's wrath.
Luther's efforts were met with anger and denunciation by the church hierarchy, and by enthusiasm by many others. Clearly one of the issues was that the indulgences were a robust revenue stream for the building of St. Peter's in Rome. People had strong feelings about that, depending on which side of the Holy Roman Empire they were on. But the issues went deeper than simply if this was a fair way to raise money. The deeper issue was whether we could do anything to influence God to look more favorably upon us. The traditional answer was"Yes, of course we can."
Luther's answer, from his reading of scripture, was, "No, we cannot." To Luther and his followers, this was good news. Because we don't need to. We are not justified, forgiven, made whole by anything we do, but by God's amazing grace. This is good news. This is freedom. But it also had negative consequences.
And thus was born the Lutheran aversion to "works righteousness," the notion that doing good works might be interpreted as trying to bribe Him, rather than trusting in God's grace. Lutheran quietism is a result of a fear of good works .
Over the centuries, Catholics and Lutherans argued about justification, about faith and works. Catholics critiqued Lutherans for going overboard against works; Lutherans critiqued Catholics for having more faith in their works than on God. It was only after Vatican 2, when Lutheran and Catholic theologians began to talk together seriously, did our two churches make real efforts to come to an understanding of this doctrine that had separated the church for four and a half centuries. Those talks culminated in 1999, when representatives of the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, ending a five century stumbling block.
Catholics and Lutherans publicly agree that justification is by faith. And Lutherans and Catholics publicly agree that we engage in good works, not to save our souls, but out of gratitude for what God has already done through Jesus Christ.
Jessica Crist, Bishop
We are closing in on the 500th anniversary of the monk Martin Luther nailing (or maybe not nailing) the 95 Theses on the Wittenberg Church door, a symbolic act that is the starting point for the Reformation. This anniversary has gotten a lot of attention from quarters that normally do not pay a lot of attention to religion, and some that do. Germany is concluding a 10 year count-down to the 31st of October, 2017. The Lutheran World Federation began the year with an ecumenical service including Pope Francis, and continued the observation at the Assembly in Namibia. National magazines and newspapers have done features on the Reformation, and numerous documentaries, articles and reflections have been done on Martin Luther.
Martin Luther was, indeed, a fascinating character. Countless biographies have been written about him—as hero, as villain, from a psychological perspective, from a spiritual perspective. It is fascinating to visit the Luther Museum in Wittenberg and see a history of how Reformation anniversaries were noted over the years, and how Luther was portrayed over the years.
But interesting as all of that is, Martin Luther himself is not the reason the Reformation matters. The Reformation matters because it changed history. It changed the geopolitical contours of Europe. And it changed the religious landscape of Europe, and eventually the rest of the world. Christianity’s split into the Eastern (Orthodox) Church and the Western (Roman Catholic) Church was of similar significance centuries before. The Reformation’s split of the Western Church into Protestant and Catholic, coming as it did when the medieval western world was meeting modernity, helped shape modernity.
The Reformation matters to us as Christians because it was a reform movement within the church, taking seriously matters of salvation. The Reformation matters because it challenged the church to rethink its practices and priorities, because it would not settle for easy answers, because it gave people the opportunity to look at their faith with fresh eyes and new understanding. The Reformation matters because it still challenges our institutions and our priorities, and it still will not settle for easy answers.
Regardless of what Martin Luther intended with his 95 Theses, the Reformation exploded into something much more than an academic discussion of theological points. Accusations were hurled. Riots erupted. Wars broke out. Mutual condemnations poisoned the air. It was not a movement without bloodshed, without cost.
Now, 500 years later, we are finding ways to talk about the Reformation as Protestant and Catholic Christians. In Montana, we will do this during our Convocation in Lewistown on October 27, and at our joint service at the Helena Cathedral on October 30 at 7 pm.
Different people find different aspects of the Reformation most meaningful, and commemorate the anniversary in different ways. As I read your church newsletters I am learning about the education classes, the sermons and the joint community worship services that you are planning. And for those of you who have not yet started planning, you don’t need to worry about an October 31 deadline. We plan to keep living out the Reformation after that, as well! We have resources on our website that you can use.
In the next few weeks I will be sharing my reflections on some of the highlights of the Reformation. Because the Reformation does matter.
Jessica Crist, Bishop
This past weekend someone spray-painted a swastika on the sign for St. James Episcopal Church in Bozeman. This is not the first time that someone has combined vandalism with hate speech. Some years ago an African American church in Great Falls was vandalized with racist slogans, and the Montana Synod office was also targeted. We did not let that incident go unchallenged, and we will not let this one, either. More widely publicized was a Billings attack on a Jewish family, by throwing a brick through a window with a menorah in it. The Billings response, orchestrated by then-MAC Director Margie MacDonald, was for the whole city to put menorahs in their windows, as an act of solidarity.
Painting a swastika on a church sign is vandalism. It is intended to provoke. It is hate speech. People of good will repudiate such an act and all that it implies. It shows disrespect to St. James Episcopal Church. And it shows contempt for the Jewish community, for whom the swastika was a death sentence. While historically (pre-Nazi) the swastika had different significance, there is no room for the swastika in a post-holocaust world.
When white supremacists threatened the town of Whitefish, city councils from around the state indicated their solidarity with Whitefish in their desire to be a safe and decent community, where diversity could flourish without threat.
A group of faith leaders in Montana have signed the following statement condemning the vandalism in Bozeman:
We, the undersigned faith community leaders, condemn the painting of a swastika on the sign of St. James Episcopal Church in Bozeman on September 9.
The swastika has become known as a symbol of hate, used by the Nazis to symbolize their commitment to white supremacy and the elimination of Jews and others they considered undesirable.
As leaders of Christian churches we believe that God has created all people in God’s own image. There is no room for white supremacy or racism of any kind.
Whether the swastika was painted as a statement or as a joke, it is inappropriate, and we repudiate it. As American citizens we value the First Amendment, and the freedom of expression. It is what gives us and everybody else the freedom to practice our religion.
As Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes: “Goodness is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate.” As faith leaders we stand with those who choose goodness over evil, love over hate.
Jessica Crist, Bishop
This past weekend I sent an email to the ELCA Bishops with the subject line: “Climate change is real.” With Texas experiencing unprecedented hurricane damage, and Montana experiencing an unprecedented fire season, climate change is real.
In May, the Lutheran World Federation met and passed a resolution on climate change. Among the 11 points in the resolution (which you can find at www.lutheranworld.org) were:
7. Strengthening the theological work concerning climate change.
9. Advocating for environmental care and protection.
10. Urging member churches to incorporate goals and advocate with governments.
11. “The Assembly affirms the fact that the global ecological crisis, including climate change, is human-induced. It is a spiritual matter. As people of faith, we are called to live in right relationship with creation and not exhaust it.”
While many people consider climate change to be a political matter, our churches have declared it to be a spiritual matter. So how might we respond spiritually? When asked what people can do to respond to the ravages of Hurricane Harvey, Bishop Mike Rinehart says: “Pray. Give. Serve.” (see related article.) The same can be said about responding to the drought and the fires that are devastating the arid. “Pray. Give. Serve.”
Praying is something that people of faith can do that is different from what government agencies, private charities and the National Guard do. Praying is our number one response. We pray for the safety of those affected by the fires and the floods. We pray for the people who are working for others’ safety, for first responders. We pray for hurricanes to go back out to sea; we pray for rain to put out the fires and nourish the thirsty land.
We pray for justice for those displaced. We pray for wisdom and compassion for those who make decisions about relief. We pray for transformation so that we may find new ways to live in harmony with creation that ameliorate rather than exacerbate climate change. We pray for our neighbors. We pray for our families. We pray for those we love. And we pray for those who wish us ill. Climate change does not just affect the United States. It affects the entire globe. Drought, floods, and other natural disasters affect every part of the globe, and we include all in our prayers.
Giving is second nature to people of faith. We give to our congregations, we give to disaster relief, we give as we are prompted. Once again, I encourage you to give to Lutheran Disaster Response or to the Montana Synod Disaster Fund. What we hear is that what is most needed is money, not goods. Even as Houston begins the cleanup stage, Hurricane Irma—an even stronger storm—is pounding the Caribbean. The oldest ELCA congregation is on the island of St. Thomas, in the Caribbean Synod.
Serving is what God’s work. Our hands. Sunday is all about. Whether it is serving meals to the hungry, cleaning up a park, or reading to the blind, we serve our neighbors.
In response to the assembly resolution, the Lutheran World Federation has invited its member churches to observe a Season of Creation, from September 1 through October 4. The tradition of a season of creation comes from the Orthodox. Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios began the tradition in 1989, declaring a day of prayer for creation. Many faith groups have followed.
There are resources for celebrating and praying for creation at www.elca.org, at www.creationjustice.org, and at www.lutheranworld.org.
“By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance, O God or our salvation; you are the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas.
By your strength you established the mountains; you are girded with might.
You silence the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, the tumult of the peoples.
Those who live at earth’s farthest bounds are awed by your signs; you make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy.” (Psalm 65: 5-8)
Taking climate change seriously as people of faith ultimately involves repentance, changing our own habits and lifestyles, and advocating for change in local, state and national laws.
Jessica Crist, Bishop
Bishop Jessica Crist
Bishop of the Montana Synod of the ELCA