It’s Reformation Sunday. On this very day—October 31st, the Eve of All Saints—504 years ago, Martin Luther put the last touches on 95 theses he had prepared for discussion and debate, popped them into an envelope (I imagine), licked the flap closed, and posted them to the archbishop of Mainz. He may also have tacked them up to the Wittenberg church door as a notice of invitation to a public lecture and discussion. I guess he got the discussion he was looking for, since here we are, 500 years later, still talking about his work.
The 95 Theses were a radical questioning of the church’s practice of the day, of raising money by selling “indulgences”—certificates of reduced time of punishment for sinners in purgatory. These were enormously popular in Luther’s time, both with the masses and church elite. Ordinary people liked them because they offered a kind of short-cut to salvation; it felt easy to just walk up to a table and pay a few coins to get your sins pardoned. The church elite liked them because they were an incredibly effective fundraiser for big building projects like St. Peter’s basilica in Rome. But the practice also had its critics, Luther among them. The actual title he gave his theses was “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.” Why did he dispute the power and efficacy of these church-issued certificates? He says it all in the first two theses:
“1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’, he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
2. This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of pennance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.”
The Christian life is about a conversion of the heart to love. It’s about freely and joyfully walking in the way of Jesus. And it ought never to be reduced to a fearful observance of external forms and customs. Just as the scribe said, agreeing with Jesus, the essence of God’s wish for humanity is to love God with all one’s heart, sould, mind, and strength, and to love one’s neighbour as oneself. And he added, “this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices,” which Jesus approved. Indulgences were the burnt offerings and sacrifices of Luther’s day, and in the 95 theses he called for a deeper commitment to love and mercy. As he declared in theses 42 to 45:
42. Christians are to be taught that the pope does not intend that the buying of indulgences should in any way be compared with works of mercy.
43. Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than he who buys indulgences.
44. Because love grows by works of love, man thereby becomes better. Man does not, however, become better by means of indulgences but is merely freed from penalties.
45. Christians are to be taught that he who sees a needy man and passes him by, yet gives his money for indulgences, does not buy papal indulgences but God's wrath.
All these words seem to me to come down to Luther crying out to recall the church to what is most essential and basic for her life, as Jesus spoke to the Jews of his time, or as Moses spoke to the Israelites on the cusp of their entry into the Promised Land: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5) In the 95 Theses Luther cries out: “Hear, O Church: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone (and not kings or rulers or popes). You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and might (and not waste your time or money on worthless indulgences).
Here’s something significant about these calls to return to what is most important. They all feature doors.
First of all, the whole book of Deuteronomy is Moses’ address to Israel as they stand in a doorway of sorts, between the time of their wilderness wanderings and their entry into the Promised Land. They’re on the cusp, in a moment of critical transition, and he wants them to recall and remember what is most important. So he says, “Hear, O Israel… Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart… write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” This is a custom that observant Jews keep to this day. “Love the Lord your God,” they write on a piece of parchment called a mezuzah, and put it in a little box which they affix to the doorposts of their house. So every time they enter and leave they can see and be reminded of what is most important… to love God and neighbour.
When Jesus spoke with the scribe in today’s gospel reading, the setting was the temple courtyard where he had come on pilgrimage. Over the course of several days he sat and taught, perhaps under a portico in the Court of the Gentiles, or in the gate between that area and the Court of Israel. It’s another place of coming and going, a place between, a place in transition. Here, as people bustle around on the business of the temple, the business of buying and selling animals for sacrifice, he reminds people of what they already knew from Moses: that the greatest commandment of all is to love God and neighbour. “In other words, love is more important than piety, ritual, tradition, or penance. Love is more important than religion.” (Debie Thomas)
And we should remember that when Jesus spoke of love, he wasn’t talking about happy, warm feelings. For Jesus, as for all the prophets before him and the saints and martyrs after, “the call to love is a call to vulnerability, sacrifice, and suffering. It’s a call to bear a cross and lay down our lives. Biblical love is not an emotion we feel, it’s a [door we walk through and a] path we travel.” (Debie Thomas)
The Book of Hebrews says that in his death Jesus “entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.” (Hebrews 9:12) Once again, a door, one that leads from death to life, from slavery to freedom, and from fear to love.
On Reformation Day the church again returns to the door of Wittenberg’s church to hear Luther’s call to repentance. He asks us to leave the world of indulgences, which represent hollow transaction, empty show, shallow practice, and hypocritical piety. He invites us to walk through the door into God’s world of covenant love, committed and costly compassion, fiery freedom, and genuine joy.
This call is more important than ever for the church to heed, in an age when religion as we have practiced it is increasingly questioned. When church as we have done it no longer works. When the way forward is unclear, scary, and exciting, all at the same time. This is the time to remember Luther’s call, an echo of our Lord Jesus’ invitation to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength; and to love our neighbour as ourselves. Whatever else we are about as a church, we must be about this or it is for nothing.
And of course it’s a call to each one of us as individuals. In our own comings and goings, through doorways of our homes and doorways of the world, how will we remember this call? What could be our mezuzah, our touchstone, our reminder? Maybe a cross by your door. Maybe an engraving of Luther’s rose. Maybe a symbol of your own that reminds you to be a person of compassion. (Mine is a giraffe.) … etc. ex cordia
O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.