Message for Reformation Sunday, Year A (10/29/2023)
The Reformation wasn’t just an academic theological debate, but a struggle for the very soul of sixteenth-century Christianity. And, it had not only spiritual, but also social and political and economic implications. Since the church was at the center of the western world, the stakes were sky high.
The sale of plenary indulgences, or printed guarantees of salvation, for instance, served to consolidate the church’s wealth, funding the construction of Saint Peter’s Basilica. But, Martin Luther refused to accept that “God’s grace was for sale in Rome.” Neither could he stand by as impoverished people squandered what little they had on a false promise. One of his famous 95 Theses reads: “Christians should be taught that he who has but limited income should keep the money necessary for his family’s needs and under no circumstances invest in indulgences.”
Luther had become convinced that salvation was only by God’s free offer of grace received through faith, and that faith in a gracious God led the faithful to true repentance, that is, to “love… in imitation of Christ, which no one [could] spend money to evade.”
That conviction was dangerous because it undercut the church’s control over salvation, together with the corresponding political and economic benefits. This stubborn German monk was a “destructive force, undermining the foundations of faith,” the emperor was quick to conclude when Luther refused to recant his position at the Diet of Worms in 1521. He was to be placed under “ban and double ban.” That sounds a little like “double secret probation,” doesn’t it?
Of course, that ban changed Luther’s life, making him a permanent target for religious and political hit men alike. It was in the wake of the emperor’s condemnation that Luther was forced into hiding at Wartburg Castle for nearly a year. He kept up his correspondences; nevertheless, he must have felt quite lonely in that cold little study. Imagine the stress of fearing both for your life and for your life’s work. There was no guarantee in 1521 that Luther’s movement would survive a reactionary onslaught by the church; there was no guarantee that the risk Luther had taken would make a lasting difference. And, even as the message of grace gained traction– even as the Reformation took root across Europe and eventually throughout the world– Luther lived with a target on his back.
How are we to understand the grace of God in light of such persistent adversity? It’s tempting to imagine that grace is a matter of measurable blessings, the absence of trouble. But, that’s certainly not how Luther understood it. He clung to the love of God even in the thick of his trials.
Psalm 46, our Psalm for today, provided Luther with the biblical source material for his famous hymn, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God: “God is our refuge and strength,” the psalmist sings, “a very present help in trouble.” In a spirit of reformation, hear the following reflection from Kate Bowler as it resonates with Luther’s own conviction over five hundred years later:
[Excerpt from Good Enough, pp.173-5]
 Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil, 149.
 Ibid. 77.
 Ibid. 190.
 Ibid. 203.
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“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”; text: Martin Luther, 1483-1546; tr. Lutheran Book of Worship; music: Martin Luther, 1483-1546; text © 1978 Lutheran Book of Worship, admin. Augsburg Fortress. All rights reserved. Used by permission under OneLicense # A-706920.
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“Loaves Were Broken, Words Were Spoken”; Text © 2006 GIA Publications, Inc., giamusic.com. All rights reserved. Music © 1987 GIA Publications, Inc., giamusic.com. All rights reserved.
“Rise, Shine, You People!” text: Ronald A. Klug, b. 1939, alt.; music: Dale Wood, 1934-2003; text and music © 1974 Augsburg Publishing House. All rights reserved. Used by permission under OneLicense # A-706920.