So today we celebrate the 499th anniversary of the Reformation, when a German priest, monk, scholar wanted to have a conversation about the power of the pope, indulgences in regards to purgatory, among other ninety-five topics of discussion; and instead it led to an upheaval in the Roman Catholic Church that has never been seen since. But of course the big deal is next year: the 500th. Plans are already underway for our own ELCA and Lutheran churches across the world as to how best commemorate the historic occasion.
Should we make it all about Lutheran pride? And if that’s the plan, what exactly does that look like? Should we take the next year to read over Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, at least for those of us who no longer have memorized the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Sacraments, and all the “What does this mean?” answers? Should it be about potlucks with casseroles and coffee hours (as if no other church does that, of course)? Should it be about worship aerobics with switching between standing up and sitting down every couple of minutes? What exactly makes us “Lutheran” anyway? What makes us different from everyone else? And does that really matter anymore? Should it be about trying to distinguish ourselves from the rest of the flock? Should it be about trying to figure out ways to convince Christian consumers why they should join us and not another church?
What’s the purpose of not only St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Baroda, Michigan, but the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, or all the Lutheran churches across the world? What’s the point of the church in general in 2016, and come 2017 when Protestant congregations take time to look back on the previous 500 years’ worth of their history? Is the church about saving souls? Is it about baptizing as many people as possible? Is it getting as many people to come to worship and hopefully join as members? Is it about the orphans and the widows? Is it about outreach to as many people as possible? One thing is for certain, in the past five centuries the answers from us human beings keep on changing.
Another thing is also for certain, that as Lutheran churches prepare for the 500th anniversary next year, the Lutherans in Europe are already in discussions with Pope Francis of all people, to be involved in the celebration. The head of the very church that so many people split from half a millennia ago has been asked to be part of the biggest party Lutherans have ever thrown in their potluck, casserole-loving history. We are about to give even further credence to whom is quite possibly the most beloved Pope in history, as if he needs any help in increasing his popularity. And yet we don’t seem to care. We Lutherans are evidently coming to the conclusion to unite with other churches, because we are under the impression that’s what our Lord wants. We have the audacity to think that more ministry can be done when we join with other faith expressions and share our resources together for a common good of humanity. Somehow, someway, we are tired of the splits, of the divisions, of the discord in the church. Evidently it is more than time to stop!
For so many of the 500 years we have celebrated the Reformation on the last Sunday in October, because it was supposedly on All Hallow’s Eve that Martin Luther posted the Ninety-Five Theses for discussion among the Wittenberg community in Germany. And often with each Reformation Sunday, we have used this Gospel lesson from John. Now at no point in the last five hundred years, or any time before that for that matter, did any translation of the passage read anything but, “the Son will make you free indeed.” At no point has it read, “the Lutheran church will make you free,” or the church in general, or religion as a whole. Only Jesus Christ has set us free from sin and death: no other person, no institution whatsoever. Only Christ could pull that off, and He most certainly did. And I hate to tell you this, but it wasn’t limited to the Lutherans. This love of God knows absolutely zero bounds when it comes to religious affiliation. That’s not always easy for us to accept, because, after all, religion tends to bring out a bit of pride that doesn’t look so good on us Christians. So that’s why we still need the Savior to set us free from our embarrassingly proud selves.
So as we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the biggest party that Lutherans will ever throw, we will not proclaim the Lutheran church. We will not try to convince people to switch sides and join us by the masses. That’s not what the church is about. We will proclaim this Jesus Christ, crucified and Risen from the dead, because He is the One Who has set us all free. The Lutherans didn’t do that. Martin Luther didn’t pull that off. Only Christ could, and He most certainly did. We are not here to show off our heritage. We are here to point to the Christ Whose love shatters all the divisions we Christians have come up with in the last two thousand years. That is more than worth celebrating at an epic proportion, and it will only be a glimpse of what is still yet to come: when the whole world will be gathered around a feast with no more war, no more violence, no more hatred, but only love in all its fullness with Christ as the host for all. And for that hope that continues to unite us now and forevermore, we give thanks to God indeed! Amen.
St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
Rev. Nan Dehnke, Pastor
Office: Mon - Thu: 9 a.m. - Noon