A sermon preached at the Congregational Church of Middlebury, Vermont on October 29, 2017
Five hundred years ago this week, Martin Luther is purported to have reached his limit in his frustration over abusive practices in the Roman church, nailing his 95 Theses—his 95 points of contention—to the church door in Wittenberg, prompting the public debate that would eventually lead to his break from the Roman church and the birth of Protestant Christianity. The Reformation was a game changer in the church, remaking the face of global Christianity. But the Reformation was not only a force in the church; it represented a cultural revolution. It transformed art and music by spurring the development of secular traditions of aesthetic expression. It transformed German national identity and literacy by contributing to the maturation of German language. It led to a revolution in science by helping to usher Europe into the modern period of knowledge acquisition. It led to a revolution in politics by directly contributing to the emergence of democratic principles and ideas like freedom of conscience and human rights.
The Reformation was a revolutionary force, not just for religion but for many other aspects of human culture and society. And this morning I want to suggest that recapturing the spirit of the Reformation just may be a catalyst for the cultural revolution we so desperately need in our moment. In this mire of injustice, incivility, and mutual suspicion in which we find ourselves, faced with the dual temptations of aggressive tribalism or cynical paralysis, we need a reformation of the American character. The church can help lead that reformation. But to do so, we must mobilize around a couple of enduring truths, convictions we inherit from that great revolution of five hundred years ago.
On October 31, 1517, a German monk named Martin Luther publicly protested what he considered to be profound abuses in the Roman Church by posting a list of his objections to the church door in Wittenberg. Nailing matters like these on the church door was a customary way of initiating debate in that time and place. Despite the common practice, though, those 95 Theses were no ordinary bulletin board material. Luther was calling into question deeply rooted practices in the medieval church—the paying of indulgences to buy loved ones out of purgatory, the assumption that the pope’s mediation was necessary for Christians to experience the grace of Christ, and the emphasis on deeds performed as a way of earning one’s way into God’s mercy. Dissatisfaction in the church over these practices and others had simmered for centuries in the medieval church, but in the 16th century Luther’s 95 Theses became a flashpoint for reform, igniting revolutionary changes in the Christian Church all across Europe—turning the Church upside down.
From that revolution was born Lutheran Churches, Calvinist Churches, Anglican Churches, and eventually Methodists, Mennonites, Baptists, and others. From that revolution also emerged a Roman Catholic Church that was significantly different than the one from which Luther broke. Reformation Sunday—this year on October 29—annually celebrates the richness of Christian pluralism and the beginning of Christianity’s entrance into modernity. Reformation Sunday also reminds us of some of the fundamental theological convictions for which our Protestant ancestors labored so mightily. In an age in which most American Protestants struggle to define Protestant identity as anything beyond being generically “American,” it seems good to reserve a day each year to think intentionally about our Reformation inheritance. And it’s especially appropriate this year, as we commemorate the five hundredth anniversary of the 95 Theses. Here, then, are seven examples of the theological legacy of the Reformers.