Lutherans and the Reformation — Then and Now

  • Wed Nov 8th, 2017 11:21am
  • News

By Pastor Pam Hunter

We just went through a major observation of the Lutheran Reformation around the world. Coverage was just everywhere in the news and on the web. It was pretty exciting for those of us Lutheran Christians here in Forks.

However, it was a commemoration rather than a celebration. Reasons for that were made clear in the world wide coverage as well. In the 16th century, Martin Luther refocused Christian faith on a single dependence on God’s grace through Jesus Christ. He and his followers promoted the priesthood of all believers. They encouraged direct prayer to God and discouraged the cult of the saints. As Martin Luther changed the definition and proper use of the sacraments. Martin also begin to change the structure of how we cared for the poor by inventing the idea of the community chest. Those ideas are still central to how Lutherans live out their faith now.

The ideas began as a way to change the church. The unexpected consequence was that waves of change that also affected governments in Europe. The original hope of the Lutheran movement was to be a reform movement within the existing church of that time. The way it turned out, it began a fracturing of the Church that began in Europe and continued to spread across the world for centuries.

Wars erupted around the ideas of the Reformation, whether or not those ideas were from the Lutheran, Calvinist, Zwinglian, or Mennonite perspectives on what was needed to reform the Roman Catholic Church. Wars leave lasting scars on the memories of nations and their people. Though there were also many wonderful things and people to celebrate that were part of the Reformation, it is right that we commemorated the beginnings of our branch of the Christian tree.

When I try to describe the beginnings of the Lutheran Reformation, the portion of that movement of movements that our church is accountable to, I speak about it being a catalytic explosion. We set off a chain reaction of explosions of ideas that changed the understanding of what was meant by church and nation. Depending on your perspective, Martin Luther was in the right place at the right time or the wrong place at the wrong time. The fault lines of previous centuries of unfinished business ran right through where he lived and taught.

A lot has changed since 1517. In this century and the last century, there has been a very different energy in our churches worldwide. Beginning with the World Council of Churches and the Lutheran World Federation, we are becoming a bridge-building church. We have worked for decades to develop formal relationships with different branches of the church, forming what we call full communion relationships with denominational partners. This includes the Episcopal Church, the UCC Church, the Reform Church of America, the Methodist Church, the Moravian Church, and, we have been able to begin to repair the breach with the Roman Catholic Church.

The documents that have been hammered out differ for each of our partners, depending on the history that we bridge together. With the Episcopalians, our varied connection to Apostolic Succession was part of our hard work. With our Reformed cousins, it was mutual admonition, a form of communication to help each church to stay on the right track … you get the picture.

With our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, something more remarkable happened. We recognized that though we hurled condemnations at one another in the 16th century, consigning each other to damnation, those condemnations no longer applied. Both churches had changed so much over the centuries that we had more freedom to speak together in good conscience. Out of that realization, a first step of shared theological acceptance was accomplished. We were able to agree to The Joint Declaration of Justification by Faith at the turn of this century.

There are thousands of Christians around the world in different churches who have been actively working toward the healing of those wounds that resulted from the explosion 500 years ago. There is a commitment to the good that came from that time of change. There is recognition of the good that existed in the parent church as well by the Protestants and the Anglicans, who on their different branches of church tradition, work together to help us all be more like branches of an extended family of faith than branches of a river wandering away from each other.

And, if the gatherings in Germany this past week are any indication, there is some new reforming energy, in some of the Pentecostal movements and the emerging church movement all which claim some connection to the Reformation that may have some power to change us all once again.

What did we learn over the 500 years … not just the Lutherans but all of us children of the Reformation?

We learned that living by Grace through Jesus Christ allowed us to embrace innovation and change. We learned that we can study together and that insights come both in the form of scholarship and of experience. We learned that by adopting the language of the Bible and worship to the country where we found ourselves, through migration or mission, we would continually inspired and able to learn new ways to express our praise in worship. We learned that by loving our neighbor as if they were Christ was always the key to faithful mission. We learned that since all of us are sinners and saints at the same time that it’s easier to find Christ in each other than we thought!

We also learned that it’s easier to dismember the Body of Christ than to put it all back together again. Even deeply held convictions need to be expressed with the thought that what we do to one another now can have an effect for hundreds of years. We learned that the Holy Spirit is interested in working through all of the faithful to reconcile us all to each other and to God, whether we like each other or not. We learned that if we think we have all the answers to scripture, faith, and how the church should work, we are always partially wrong. That God wants all of us to love each other.

What would be our advice to reformers in our times? It would be this, be faithful, truthful, forgiving, merciful, loving and above all, kind.

Pastor Pam Hunter, of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church