Observing The Reformation

In thinking about the Reformation – as one does at this time – I think it can be easy to have a sense of triumphalism that Lutherans are right in their teachings and of course by implication … and it is easy, if we think in binary terms, to then say that non Lutherans are wrong! There’s no doubt that the events of 1517 with nails, parchment and a door set about a chain of events that resulted in something Martin Luther didn’t foresee – that the desire to correct or restore – can lead to severing, breaking away or apart – old and new – and claims and counter claims about truth and error, right and wrong. It has always been thus with people that change or correction only goes so far before someone says ‘No’, takes a stand, draws a line, and separates or is ‘kicked out’.

Why I think Lutherans should be quite sober about the Reformation is that organisationally there were differences from the very beginning as the Lutheran teachings reached different places with different political landscapes and while, in theory, the same teachings can exist in different structures, I suspect they didn’t factor in that structures also can shape and influence practices and this can impact teachings. It would be an illusion to say that the 16th Lu-therans all agreed on the teachings of the Reformation! We have a Book of Concord (1580) – note the name ‘concord’ and what the word means! – whereby the Lutherans came to agreement and common understanding and therefore to consistent and agreed teachings on numerous issues.

So things should be right now? If only! The history of the Lutheran churches around the world is a history of teaching and counter teaching with everyone claiming ‘Scripture alone’, ‘grace alone’, ‘faith alone’. Now on the eve of the 500th anniversary of the posting of the 95 Theses we can’t help but see increasing fragmentation among those who call themselves Lutherans. (I’m not being harsh here – I hope – just pointing out reality – and it is a reality that is found in all other denominations and the increasingly so called ‘non denominational’ groups.) There are two British Lutheran churches on this island. There are 3, maybe 5, maybe more, Lutheran church bodies in the US. Most countries where there are Lutherans have two Lutheran church bodies. An exception might be Australia where the Lutheran Church of Australia has existed since 1966 with the joining of two church bodies and while there have been breakaway congregations from time to time – do they constitute a different church? Well, it depends on who is answering!

So if Lutherans themselves don’t agree on things (eg. the reading of Scripture, the ministry, the church and its structures, to name some of the obvious things) then what are we on about with the Reformation? I hope we are on about a different set of nails!

‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’ said the Apostle Paul. Martin Luther’s theology has been called the ‘theology of the cross’. What we need is a who – who we need is a rescuer, a Saviour, to brings us from death to life, from under sin’s condemnation to under God’s grace, from cut off from love and others to being in God’s presence and loved. These actions by God are received by faith. We may experience aspects of God’s actions but we may not, in fact the cross points us to tough times in this world spiritually which is why faith and trust in God are, at times, all we have. Not that we are holding onto God but that he says he’s holding onto us and those words cling to us as we cling to them. That is why Jesus is central to everything.

Thus I believe that the Reformation is a good moment to both refocus on Jesus – to hear how impor-tant it is to keep the Gospel clear among all the human words that can get in the way – and also to look around us at anyone who also is looking at and talking about Jesus and acknowledge that we are related! Where we go from there … well, that’s a whole other story!
Though with a scornful wonder men see her sore oppressed, by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed: Yet saints their watch are keeping, their cry goes up, “How long?” and soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song! (Samuel J Stone, 1868 – v.3 The church’s one foundation 644LSB)  — GS