Sunday, October 31, 2010

Reformation Sunday

In Protestant circles, today is known as Reformation Sunday, for it was on this very day nearly five hundred years ago—on October 31, 1517—that a monk named Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany to protest the sale of indulgences. Luther didn’t mean to start a new Church. He was simply trying to reform the one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church that he loved. But as things turned out, this day marked the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

Reformation Sunday is not on our liturgical calendar as Episcopalians, but the special affection I feel for Lutherans compels me at least to tip the hat in their direction today. Luther wrote “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” a paraphrase of Psalm 46, sometime between 1527 and 1529. Some have called it “The Battle Hymn of the Reformation.” We sang it this weekend in my parish to give thanks not only that God is indeed a mighty fortress, a bulwark never failing, but also to honor the life, witness and ministry of God's faithful servant, Martin.

While it took almost five hundred years, even the Vatican has now admitted that on the main thing Luther was right: we are saved by grace alone, period. Good works flow out from the free gift of grace, not the other way around. We cannot earn or buy the salvation that Christ offers us as a free gift.

The movement that Luther began in continental Europe took hold in a variety of ways in Great Britain. Some resisted change entirely—wanting to stay as close to Rome as possible. Some wanted to follow the Germans, both Luther and his fellow reformer, Philip Melanchthon. Eventually there emerged still others who thought that Luther had not gone far enough, so they looked toward Geneva and the work of John Calvin. Eventually the Calvinist faction in Britain came to be known as the Puritans (because they wanted to purify the Church) and it was some from this group that set sail for a new world, to places like Plymouth Plantation and beyond.

The ferment of those varied and diverse responses in England gave birth to a “middle way” that came to be known as Anglicanism, and the particular shape of that “middle way” continues to influence those of us who are Episcopalians to this very day. We are a denomination that strives to be both catholic and reformed. I usually tell people who come to us from other denominations that we lean toward Rome in our worship practices and that we lean toward the Reformers in our understanding of Scripture, authority, and theology. Mostly that is true, even if the whole truth is messier than that.

But overall, for nearly five centuries now, we have tried to hold that middle ground. In some ways, the challenges our denomination has faced over the past decade are directly related to the ways the Reformation unfolded in England: we don't insist on conformity in doctrine or worship. We are comfortable (more or less) that this "middle way" we seek encourages theological and liturgical pluralism. On our good days, we are able to cherish and celebrate and give thanks that we are bound together in Christ in spite of our disagreements. And other it makes us all a little crazy with each other. (Either way, we are called to love one another.)

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