Oct. 31 is approaching quickly — a day marked throughout the United States by costume contests, pumpkin carvings, and children knocking on neighbors’ doors with questions of “trick or treat?”
But for Protestant churches around the world, Oct. 31 is also a celebration of a grown man knocking on a (rather large) door, asking a different question of the Catholic Church:
From whom does salvation truly come? And a follow-up: How do we refocus the church on the Gospel?
On this date, almost 500 years ago, Martin Luther hammered his 95 Theses onto the front doors of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany — an act that, unforeseen by Luther at the time, is now credited with beginning the Protestant Reformation. Luther’s 95 Theses outlined his abstentions to the practice of selling indulgences to guarantee Christians salvation, emphasizing that grace is given by God alone and can only be assured by the clergy, not bought from them.
With the help of the social media of his day — the newly-improved printing press — news quickly spread to people throughout Europe that Martin Luther was questioning the papacy and attempting to refocus the church’s theology on forgiveness through the word and the eucharist, neither of which required financial prosperity. Within a few years, Martin Luther was excommunicated from the Catholic Church for his continued teachings, which included suggestions that the Bible should be accessible to all people and that priests not necessarily need to be celibate.
The Reformation gathered Christians from across Europe into a community of “rebels,” from which multiple denominations would spring up over the next half a millenium.
Today, 498 years later — with a Catholic pope nicknamed “The Peoples’ Pope,” who is on Twitter and preaches about income inequality — what would Luther think of the state of the church?
This, I believe, would still be the cry of the reformers today — “the church is always reforming.” Or, rather, the church is always in need of reforming and we, as the church, must continue to reform. The Reformation is not just a historical period but a modern-day call for justice, from within the walls of the church to our homes and out onto the streets.
And I think Pope Francis would be rallying with Luther, traveling to remind us that “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God” (Thesis 62).
Pope Francis has done away with much of the pomp and circumstance of his predecessors and has a message that brings attention to income inequality and climate injustice, among other important foci. Pope Francis is on the street with the people instead of hidden away in the papal palace. Though still a part of an institution of tradition that may not radically change during his time as pope, Pope Francis is trying to refocus the church away from hierarchy and back to the gospel.
In a sermon from a mass in 2014, Pope Francis said (with many claps from Luther, I’m sure),
“The Cross is not an ornament that we must always put in the churches, there on the altar. It is not a symbol that distinguishes us from others. The Cross is mystery, the mystery of God who humbles himself.”
It is the forgiveness on the cross that must seep into our lives and be shown to others through good deeds and gracious thoughts. We must welcome the stranger into our churches and meet people where they are. The church needs to be a place of service, not simply weekly services. The cross is a promise — though sinners, we can put our faith in Christ and, strengthened by that cross, we can go into the world to work for justice and peace.
God’s word is a Living Word and God’s work requires listening to a call and attempting to fulfill that call to justice, love, and grace. Who knows about listening to a call better than a humble Jesuit priest who all of a sudden is called up to be the most public religious figure in the world?
On the 498th celebration of The Reformation, this Lutheran will be looking ahead to spreading the good news of justice and peace to all people, with a “This Pope gives me hope” sticker next to my Luther Rose. Pope Francis and I may have (quite a few) differences in theology, but I think we both know that work needs to be done to ensure we are living in the kingdom of God, not the kingdom of gold.