Though a lifelong Lutheran, I attended a Roman Catholic high school just outside of Boston. I can neither confirm nor deny, but there are rumors that a certain student at Xaverian Brothers High School taped a copy of Luther’s 95 Theses to the chapel door one Reformation Day. Again, can neither confirm nor deny!
We’re coming up on a significant historical anniversary. On October 31, 1517, an Augustinian Monk named Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. Luther’s theses challenged the sale of indulgences. But what Luther saw as an academic exercise became a heated confrontation that ended with his excommunication, war in Europe, and the enduring fracture of Western Christianity.
As we come upon the 500th anniversary, Lutherans are not speaking of “celebration” as they did in past centuries. Instead, Lutherans and Roman Catholics together are “commemorating” this historic milestone. After over 50 years of dialogue, Lutherans and Roman Catholics have come to agreement on the principle issues of the Reformation. In 1999, the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church signed a joint declaration on the key doctrinal dispute of the 16th century.
Last year, Pope Francis and his Lutheran counterpart (an elected president, currently a Nigerian archbishop), held a joint worship service in a Swedish Lutheran cathedral. Locally, events are planned with the Lutheran Bishop of New England and the Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield. On October 29, Father Tim Murphy from St. Mary’s-Hampden is graciously joining us for our Reformation Sunday service at CTK-Epiphany.
Increasingly Christians are coming closer and closer together.
A few years ago now, for one of our “Faith on Tap” gatherings, we discussed the relationship between different Christian denominations. At one point I gave everyone a quiz. Ten doctrinal statements had to be matched with the appropriate tradition in a “denomination bank” (connect the line between “Lutheran” and the Lutheran statement, etc). But I had some fun with it and made it intentionally deceiving. For example, the Lutheran statement was about the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which sounds super Catholic. And the Roman Catholic statement was all about grace, something Lutherans can’t stop talking about. Everyone failed miserably. My point was that we hold 99% of our beliefs in common across denominations. Most of the time, we simply choose to emphasize different theological points.
Historians agree that Martin Luther was one of the most influential figures of the past millennia. He reshaped Christianity, unified the German language, influenced art, music, and politics. Unfortunately, his misguided writings on the Jewish people also led to anti-semitism in parts of Europe—a terrible and deeply regrettable legacy.
Lutherans are proud of the many positive contributions Luther and his Reformation made. But for all Christians, the division of the Church is never something to celebrate. Too often followers of Jesus have failed to heed his prayer that his disciples “all be one.” Just last week we had a little glimpse of this as your local Wilbraham and Hampden clergy gathered for lunch, as we have monthly year after year. What a gift it is when Christians come together as one, to be a positive force for good in our world. And it all starts, not with the Pope or Church councils, but with each and every one of us.
First published in The Wilbraham-Hampden Times, October 2017.