Friday, November 3rd 2017

Reflecting on the 500th Anniversary of Martin Luther's Theses

By Noel Preston

Noel Preston reflects as a Co-lapsing Protestant Catholic on the 500th Anniversary of Martin Luther's 95 theses being nail to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral.

Perhaps you have noted the clumsy and lengthy title to this homily – but, just in case, here it is: “Reflections of a Co-lapsing Protestant Catholic on the 500th Anniversary of Martin Luther's 95 theses”. (By the way Protestants preach longer sermons than Catholics and ex-Catholics!)

But first my mind goes back 27 years to a Sunday morning in the church up the road. I had just learnt 48 hours before that I had a serious bowel cancer requiring urgent surgery which was to happen the following day. As I stood around the Eucharistic table with hundreds of communicants, I was overwhelmed by a grief I did not fully understand, and then a sense of quiet settled in me as I realised that I belonged to this community more than to any other faith community. Though I remain a Uniting Church minister that is still the case today. I want to acknowledge that with you I am at home even if home is a place I visit these days, rather than live in, which had been the case for more than twenty years. I am grateful to you all.

Let me reminisce a little further. Fifty years ago on October 16 I was ordained a Methodist minister. Methodism morphed into the Uniting Church in Australia as you may know. Being a Protestant, and not depending on an income from the church for much of my working life, I have managed to avoid excommunication and de-frocking. As you may know, Methodism came from Anglicanism and most Anglicans remain close to their Roman roots. So, as a Methodist, I was not as protestant as Lutherans or Presbyterians are.  I did contemplate becoming a Catholic at one stage but I couldn't become part of a medieval institution - the Roman thing spooked me.

In fact, today I am a hybrid -  i.e. a non-theist, greenie, social democrat and protesting Christian tinged with Buddhism. Nonetheless, I don't disown the best of my heritage and that is why I thought, around this All Saints Feast Day, you wayward catholics might like to hear a homily about what happened in Europe 500 years ago. It was the beginning of an outbreak of schism with Rome and it converged with the rise of the printed word, capitalism,  nationalism and the decline of the Vatican and other emperors. So it wasn't all about theology. Luther's timing was right. In fact,  others like John Wycliff in England and John Hus in Prague had preached about reform a century or so before. But a fiery incineration was their fate.

In 1517 a biblical scholar and monk by the name of Martin Luther nailed 95 propositions of complaint with Roman practice and theology to the church door in Wittenberg. He was not planning a schism but trying to promote a debate. A couple of events provoked the dissent and unease in Martin Luther – one was an earlier pilgrimage to Rome. He was appalled by the corruption in  church and society in Rome. The other event was a fund-raising preaching tour on behalf of the Pope by a Dominican priest named John Tietzil. Tietzel was selling “indulgences”  which were a ticket of forgiveness for past and future sins.  Indulgences were, sort of, insurance policies or  travel documents to be cashed in when you died. Apparently they minimized time in purgatory, or even gave one a ride straight to heaven without worrying about judgement day. I imagine sometimes families bought them as birthday or Christmas presents or the poor hocked their favourite furniture to secure their future upon their demise.  Anyway, Luther objected to indulgences and thereby plugged into an anti-Roman sentiment in central and northern Europe. When you think about it, that money was going straight over the Alps to the Vatican coffers and their building projects and lavish lifestyles. Some people were bound to see the scam.

Luther was excommunicated  on January 3rd, 1521. I need to say that Luther was no saint. As well as being a monk he was really a politician, lobbying to build a coalition with local rulers. In fact he ended up being party to some rather bloody wars. But out of this mixed bag, Lutheranism was born and other parts of Europe for reasons of personal power, burgeoning nationalism and religious dissent followed – and we call it the Protestant Reformation.

Let's now move from history to theology. Luther's great insight came out of his biblical studies. His study of the New Testament led him to a doctrine that had been forgotten or misconstrued. St Paul (Ephesians 2 v. 8,9) maintained that “justification” or “redemption”, being right with God, was not a matter of 'good works'  but of 'grace', ie. We are 'saved' by 'grace' alone. As a young Methodist the  catechism taught me that GRACE is “the undeserved love of God freely given to all”. I still remember this and I still regard it as pointing to a truth which sustains me.

The pandora's box opened by Luther is that Grace does not require a priest's mediation, it is not owned by a clerical hierarchy, nor is it even dependent on keeping the rules which otherwise  might exclude you from the sacraments. Significantly, the Gospel reading set for today is making this point. Jesus' comeback to the Pharisees who asked what was the greatest commandment anticipates the teaching about Love as Grace. As religions tend to do, a great body of law and dogma is built up by the self appointed guardians of religious teaching and practice. Jesus sweeps all this aside and says:  “ It's loving alone that counts !”

This Love we call Grace is unconditional, inclusive and universal. That is the good news.  But as a later Lutheran, who was  martyred by the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminded us  - there is a difference between cheap grace and costly grace.  The idea of unconditional love does not liberate us to do what we like (cheap grace) but calls us to love in ways that may be costly, calling us to live transformatively(costly grace). Putting it that way explains how we should understand  the saying attributed to Luther: “Let us sin boldly that grace may much more abound.”

Some of you know that social and political ethics has been my focus. Well, ethics, or even living ethically - good works you might say - is not enough. Underpinning the ethical life or the ethical society is what our tradition calls grace, AND at the end of the day when our ethical efforts have not been enough there is grace.

Finally,  another insight opened up by Luther and the Protestant Reformation has been called the Protestant Principle. As the reformers, religious and otherwise, down through the ages have said (as did Luther himself when he was on trial before the cardinals ): “Here I stand. I can do no other.” . Protesting is the way, standing up for the good, the just and especially against the abuse of power and for the empowerment of the powerless. The reformation, the revolution, the struggle never ends when you live by the Protestant Principle.

In this sense I hope SMX remains a protestant community.