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
Bishop Jessica Crist
Bishop of the Montana Synod of the ELCA