Today at worship, we remember the posting of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses on October 31, 1517. More important than that, we celebrate with thanksgiving that the Holy Spirit worked through Luther and other reformers to bring a renewal to Christ’s church – one still playing out today. Even during that difficult time of misunderstanding, false (and some valid) accusations and critiques against Luther and Protestants, regrettable divisions, and outright war, the Roman Catholic Church did reform itself in many areas through what they call their own Catholic Reformation. This was partly a direct response to true abuses identified by Protestant Reformers. Never expected when Luther hammered his 95 Theses on that church door in 1517, the entire church grew in its faith understanding as it argued about and searched for God anew. Even some alternative faith expressions have been born (such as the Anabaptist traditions, pietistic faiths and more). Although plenty of missteps have been made by human believers, this movement of the Spirit has enriched Christ’s church, and it indicates God is still speaking to us – still transforming us by grace through faith in his Word, Jesus Christ.
True, all remained imperfect in our fallen world. Mutual condemnations continued primarily until the aftermath of WWI and later WWII. Yet through the horrors of war and genocide, many Christian began to ask why we should hate one another. It could not please God. Within this spirit of repentance, the Holy Spirit worked to help heal and address divisions. Using ecumenists such a Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Brother Roger of Taize’, along with many others (some remembered and some not), and partly through the leadership of Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council, another renewal of the Church began – not unrelated to Luther’s own actions in 1517 and later. In fact, many of his historic arguments were revisited with a new openness of heart. Resulting changes have proven so profound that the Roman Catholic Pope John XXIII and other Roman Catholics, along with Christians of other faith traditions are included in the Evangelical Lutheran Worship’s calendar of commemorations. The World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, full communion agreements between denominations, and ecumenical dialogues remain signs that we hope and actively seek to move that process forward.
Ecumenical discussions continue despite any mistakes arguably made at times and the reality that some Christians still reject any such talks and cooperation. One result has been the recent agreement of what it means to be justified through faith. Although some historic differences might remain in practice, Catholic and Lutheran reforms over the last century have resulted in denominations remarkably similar even amidst their differences. The current Pope Benedict often speaks well of Luther even if he doesn’t fully agree with everything Luther said or did. He agrees with Luther’s “burning question”, as Benedict puts it: “what is God’s position towards me, where do I stand before God?” As a Roman Catholic publication recently noted, this remains the central question of life today, even though many people don’t realize it. He also applauds Luther’s Christ-centered spirituality. Last echoing Vatican II, Pope Benedict remarks, “It was the error of the Reformation period that for the most part we could only see what divided us and we failed to grasp existentially what we have in common in terms of the great deposit of sacred Scripture and the early Christian creeds. For me, the great ecumenical step forward of recent decades is that we have become aware of all this common ground, that we acknowledge it as we pray and sing together, as we make our joint commitment to the Christian ethos in our dealings with the world, as we bear common witness to the God of Jesus Christ in this world as our inalienable, shared foundation.” (See Brumley, M. The Pope, Martin Luther, and our time. The Catholic World Report. Posted September 25, 2011 at catholicworldreport.com)
It is truly remarkable that the Roman Catholic, Lutheran and recently Methodist denominations have agreed on a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification over the last 10 or so years. This remains yet another sign that the Spirit is still at work, that God will make all things work for the good as scripture promises, and that Jesus’ prayer that we be one need not remain a dream forever.
As we remember Martin Luther and the Reformation and perhaps seek to celebrate all things Lutheran, let us also look kindly upon all of our brothers and sisters in Christ. I believe we must seek to actively and intentionally listen for God’s guidance together, living in Christ’s love and the hope of what is yet to come through the Spirit’s work in our midst.
To read this historic document, Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, visit the link below:
© 2012 The Rev. Louis Florio. All contents not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.