500th anniversary of the Reformation

October 24th, 2017

The church door

According to the well-known story, on October 31, 1517, a young monk and professor of moral theology named Martin Luther nailed a list of arguments against corruption in the Catholic Church to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. This list, better known as the Ninety-Five Theses, was distributed far and wide, along with Luther’s fiery sermons that followed, with the aid of a new technology called the printing press. This event and the controversy that followed provided the spark for what one scholar calls “the most significant event in Western Christian history.”

Luther’s grievance with the Catholic Church was based in concerns about the selling of indulgences, which were essentially pardons for sins in exchange for money. However, Luther’s arguments also extended beyond questions of corruption into theological concerns about salvation, grace and the role of the laity in the church.

Even though The United Methodist Church finds its roots in the Anglican tradition and not in the lineage of Luther, each year the last Sunday in October is set aside as Reformation Sunday to commemorate the Reformation and the role it played in shaping the church. The questions and themes that spurred this movement are the same ones we wrestle with in the church today, and the schism that resulted from the Reformation is one whose scars remain with us as well.

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and the Council of Bishops has called upon United Methodists everywhere “to mark this occasion . . . with study, prayer, and joint worship with ecumenical partners.” Bishop Michael Watson, the ecumenical officer of the Council of Bishops, writes, “As a body of believers born out of an ongoing movement for reformation and renewal, we Methodists should not let this moment pass by without marking its significance.”

The priesthood of all believers

When asked about the Reformation’s impact on the church today, the Reverend Amy Butler, senior minister at Riverside Church in New York City, explains, “It was . . . a point where the Church’s story took a radical turn, and everything we are now is . . . the product of that moment in history. And it’s also a mirror by which we reflect where we are now.”

Luther enthusiastically embraced the idea of the priesthood of all believers, which meant that Christians didn’t require an intermediary to commune with God. He believed it was the duty of each individual Christian to enter into a personal relationship with God. In the pursuit of this task, Luther translated the Bible into German, the language of the people, along with worship services that had historically only been conducted in Latin. The Reverend Johannes Block, pastor of Wittenberg’s Evangelical City and Parish Church where Luther preached some 2,000 sermons, says the Reformation led to the idea, “You are responsible for yourself. Everybody is responsible for his faith. It’s a step of democracy. Everybody is equal in the church.” Faith was no longer going to be controlled by gatekeepers; it would be freely available to the masses.

The Reformation also paved the way for the future of the church. It’s arguable that without Luther, the Wesleyan movement wouldn’t have been possible two centuries later. In fact, it was Luther’s own preface to the Book of Romans that sparked Wesley’s spiritual awakening on the night of May 24, 1738. Additionally, when United Methodists claim that every person is called to ministry, whether they’re laity or clergy, they’re echoing Luther’s arguments.

Butler expands on the importance of these changes: “I for example could not lead a church before the Reformation. And it took a long time to get here, but it was a shift like that that opened the church to different ways of understanding the expression of our faith. And that’s very valuable for us as Christians.”

Division and repentance

While often lionized by those in the Protestant community, it must also be acknowledged that the Reformation led to serious — and often violent — conflict within the church. Luther may never have intended to create a schism, but we now live in a world with more than 45,000 Protestant denominations.

In an article for Discipleship Ministries, Dean McIntyre recommends that we use this Reformation Sunday not only to reflect on the positive aspects of the Reformation, but also as “an opportunity to repent of the sins and excesses of the past and to celebrate our common faith, even if we still cannot celebrate a common ritual and sacrament.” This recommendation is echoed in Bishop Watson’s letter to The United Methodist Church in which he calls for churches to “give thanks for the renewing impulses unleashed by the Reformation, repent for the ongoing brokenness and dividedness of Christ’s body, and look forward in hope to the healing and unity of the Church.”

It should also be noted that relationships between Protestants and Catholics have thawed dramatically within recent years. In fact, last year Pope Francis traveled to Sweden to participate in an event with Protestant leaders commemorating the anniversary of the Reformation. However, tensions do still exist, and they reach down even to semantics. “The word was commemorate, not celebrate,” clarifies Michael Root, professor at the Catholic University of America. “The Catholic Church has carefully avoided talking about celebrating the Reformation. There has always been, in any kind of talk of a joint Catholic-Protestant commemoration, notions of repentance. Both sides have things to repent.”

After 500 years

Five hundred years after Luther first put ink to paper and hammer to nail, the church finds itself once again in a time of introspection, questioning and possible turmoil. What does the Reformation have to teach us in a time like this?

“In the best of all possible worlds, and what I think Luther would want, would be talking about what is the Christian good news? What’s the gospel?” offers Root. “That’s what Luther cared about. He cared about getting the Christian message straight.” Butler adds a similar refrain: “What are the things that really, really are fundamental to our faith? . . . People are going to be increasingly asking what makes you different? What do you believe? Why do you believe it? What does it mean to be a Christian?”

At times, the basic questions are the hardest. What’s the gospel? What do you believe? What does it mean to be a Christian? Those were the questions at the root of Martin Luther’s life, of John Wesley’s life; and they’re the questions Christians around the world ask every day. They’re the questions we ask on this Reformation Sunday and as we heed Bishop Watson’s call to remember the events that sparked the Reformation “with thanksgiving, repentance and hope.”


500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation - PBS
Call to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation - UMC.org
Reformation Day: What, why, and resources for worship - Discipleship Ministries
Why Martin Luther matters to United Methodists - UMNS
Pope Francis, in Sweden, urges Lutheran-Catholic reconciliation - The New York Times

Other resources:

Reformation Sunday lesson - Youth Ministry Partners
Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation (Free download below) - Deep Blue Kids  

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