Five hundred years ago this month, on October 31, 1517, an unknown monk posted a series of 95 statements on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, unknowingly beginning a movement that would forever change the world. That monk’s name was Martin Luther. The movement became known as the Reformation.
Luther never intended to start a movement. He had grown ever disturbed and frustrated with the church--a huge, monolithic institution headquartered far away in Rome with vast amounts of money and land, and, at a macro level, substantial power, influence and control over the politics and economy of Europe. Luther had also grown frustrated with the control the church exercised at a much more micro level among its parishioners.
In Luther’s day, Europe operated under a feudal system, where nearly all of the money and property was held by just a few--the nobility, the 1% of that time, plus the church. The nobility and the church worked closely together to control the masses, keeping people locked into an economic system where one could never achieve even moderate wealth and a religious system where one could never escape the guilt and shame of not measuring up to the legalistic teachings of the church.
Luther, himself, had experienced much of this guilt and shame as young monk. As a junior faculty member at a university in small-town Germany, he was tormented by the demand for righteousness before God. “I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God,” he wrote.
Luther poured over the Scriptures, trying to find answers to free himself from this torment and from his “disturbed conscience.” It was in his study of Romans, specifically of Romans 1:17, that Luther experienced a theological and spiritual breakthrough. “The righteous will live by faith,” he read. For the first time, he began to understand that keeping the law--the commandments and other natural law--had nothing to do with his salvation. He began to see that there was nothing he could do, no good work that he could perform, that would be enough to save him, to make him right with God. Rather, that what saved him was faith--faith in the life-giving work of Christ dying on the cross for all people. And this faith was freely offered to him and to all by a generous, loving and life-giving God.
This was incredibly freeing for Luther. He began, then, to fully understand the nature of God through the lens of that cross--that God was a god of love and not a god of vengeance or punishment. He began to see that God wanted him and all people to be freed from shame and guilt and, then, in response to this freedom, to turn back to the world and serve it—to be God’s hands at work in the world.
This was a radical understanding in Luther’s day--a new understanding of personal freedom that would result in the overthrow of the feudal system and usher in the ideas that would eventually lead to the Enlightenment and to the democratic ideas of individual freedom and liberty that would result in the French and American revolutions. It was a time of profound upheaval and change that would lead to new ways of thinking and new ways of living.
It was radical in Luther’s day. It is just as radical in our day.
We live in a similar time as Luther. Just as the invention of the printing press revolutionized communication in his time, so, in just a few short decades, the invention of the internet has revolutionized our ways of communicating. The world is a much larger place. We are more exposed to other cultures, religions and ways of being that are very different from what many of us grew up with.
Is it perhaps possible that God is at work in our world today? That God is continuing to work through the Luthers of our time to reform the world once again? To lead us to new ways of thinking and new ways of living, just as God did in the 16th century? That God might be continuing to reveal to us even more of God’s true nature of infinite love and justice--a nature we often seek to contain within our own limited imaginations?
I believe that this is so. And I believe this because I know and believe that God is always creating--bringing life out of death, light out of dark places, order out of chaos, and new ways of being out of times of change and upheaval.
God is at work today. Just as God was at work in 1517 through some unknown monk.