My twitter and RSS feed gave me links to reflections on the significance of “Reformation Sunday.” One was from Crusty Old Dean; the other from Stanley Hauerwas (a sermon preached on Reformation Sunday, 1995). Both offer insights into this odd event. It’s not commemorated in the Episcopal Church—we’ve pretty much done away with the “Protestant” in our traditional name “The Protestant Episcopal Church.” But our communion partners the Lutherans observe it and rightly so.
Of course, Stanley is right. Reformation Day (or Sunday) celebrates the disunity of the Church. It commemorates Martin Luther’s break with Rome. Over the last almost 500 years, Reformation Day has meant many things—German Nationalism, the triumph of Martin Luther, the victory of the individual over the institution. Like almost every other historical event, it has been invested with all sort of meaning, world-historical significance. But that’s more than a single day, a single event, can bear.
When Luther posted his 95 Theses, he sought debate on matters that he thought were of eternal significance—the significance of the rite of penance. That his theses ended in a major schism within Western Christianity was unimaginable to him in 1517. That he might be excommunicated for his questions and for the ideas that he developed in response to his questions was also inconceivable.
Yes, it’s a tragedy that Luther’s courageous witness ended in schism. It’s a tragedy that the Roman Catholic Church couldn’t find a way to embrace the profound theological insights that Luther developed (as has been documented recently, Luther’s ideas were hardly unique in the early 16th century and there was significant support for much of what he wrote as late as the 1540s). It’s a tragedy that after 500 years we remain divided in so many ways.
On the other hand, Luther’s insistence on the correctness of his theological insight in the face of Papal and Imperial opposition did something else. It provided inspiration to all those who in the last 500 years have sought to follow their vision of God and of Jesus Christ even when the authorities of Church and State have claimed their vision was wrong. It has given voice and power to the voiceless and powerless. It has provided a stance of prophetic opposition to the complacency and power of church and state. It reminds us daily that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not confined to the trappings of papal or imperial power, of state or church, or of institutional self-satisfaction.
For us Anglicans, by the way, who try to avoid the label of “Protestant” whenever possible, Luther and Reformation Day remind us of an uncomfortable historical reality. Without Luther, without his brazen defiance of papal authority, without his appeal to and protection by Frederick the Wise of Saxony, there might not have been an English Reformation. Had he not gone before, had he not shown a way, Henry VIII might not have had the courage to resist Clement VII.
Luther, the Protestant Reformation, remind us of the important role of critique. They remind us that it’s too easy to let the gospel be coopted by power; it’s too easy to compromise to make sure the institution survives. When we remember Reformation Day, when we sing “Ein feste Burg” we are not celebrating the victory of the Protestant Reformation over the forces of evil, we are calling for reformation of ourselves and of our churches; we are calling for transformation: ecclesia semper reformanda!
Oh, and by the way, 2017 is the 500th anniversary of Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses. Start planning your party now!