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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Reformation Sunday - 10/29/2017

Today is perhaps the culmination of Reformation 500, the term that’s been used to designate the past year, a year during which considerable attention has been paid to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Various commemorations both large and small have taken place throughout the year, some involving both Lutherans and Catholics, books have been written, there have been TV specials.

On Tuesday, October 31st it will be 500 years since Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses, the event which serves as a convenient marker for the beginning of the Reformation. The theses were essentially points of discussion and questions regarding the sale of indulgences, indulgences being pieces of paper, the purchase of which were said to shorten time in purgatory for the person who made the purchase or to shorten the time for their loved ones who they weren’t sure about. Purgatory was understood as an intermediate state for people destined for heaven but in need of further purification before they achieved the holiness necessary for entry into heaven.

Luther had issues with purgatory, seeing it as unbiblical, but the 95 Theses were mostly about the sale of indulgences which Luther saw as a deceitful scheme of the part of the church, taking advantage of poor, frightened people and making them think they could, in essence, buy their way into heaven when the real purpose of the indulgences was to raise the money needed to rebuild the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Rome. Luther posted the theses because he wanted a chance to talk about them. At that point, reformation of the church was not his goal, he just wanted the church to correct this practice.

These days there is debate as to whether or not Luther actually nailed the theses on the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg or if he simply sent them to the archbishop. Nailing them would make it more dramatic and it’s entirely possible that Luther did just that as the church door also acted as something of a community bulletin board so posting them on the door would have been a logical thing for him to do. Even with that, it would have been easy for church leaders to ignore the questions of an upstart monk, but because the theses were printed and widely distributed, the church authorities had to get involved. The invention of the printing press always gets a share of the credit for Luther’s success.

The big issue though, wasn’t so much the content of what he wrote, it was more his challenge to the authority of the church and his refusal to surrender to that authority. He wasn’t the first to make such a challenge, but previous challenges had been eliminated, with the challenger often being burned at the stake as a heretic. Luther escaped that fate though because it wasn’t just about him. There were others among the nobility, the secular leaders, who saw Luther’s challenge as an opportunity to reign in the power of the church, so they supported him and protected him. Reading the history though, one still can’t help but be amazed that Luther wasn’t captured and executed.

I’m not really here to give you a history lesson though, more to think about where we are 500 years later. Without question, because of what Luther started, the Christian landscape is vastly different today than it was 500 years ago. In 1517 there were essentially just two groups; there was the Western Church, the Catholic Church and there was the Eastern Church, the Orthodox Church and for the most part there were pretty clear geographical areas and boundaries for each of them. 500 years later, in the year 2017, a quick look through the local Yellow Pages shows at least forty different denominations just in Marquette County, all of whom call themselves Christian and who represent a wide variety of approaches to Christianity.

Among the forty or so groups, I found, I think, eight different Lutheran church bodies, not eight different Lutheran churches but eight different Lutheran church bodies. Nationwide, on one list I counted forty-four different Lutheran denominations. In some cases it has to do with ethnic and cultural backgrounds but more and more it has to do with differences in doctrine and practice. One suspects that all of this would have Luther rolling in his grave.

In many ways though, the denominational and inter-denominational diversity is the result of one of Luther’s foundational tenets, sola scriptura or scripture alone. For him, the Bible alone was the source of authority, not tradition, not the Pope, not councils, not the church, only the Bible. That sounds good, but then the question becomes, “Whose interpretation of the Bible is authoritative?” For Luther the answer was easy: his interpretation was the right one. Others however, thought their interpretation was just as legitimate as Luther’s and so even in Luther’s lifetime it didn’t take long for further division to take place and it continues into the present.

When one group separates from another it usually has to do with disagreements concerning some passage of scripture and how it should be interpreted. So, while Luther’s focus on the Bible as God’s word was a good thing that has inspired preaching, devotion, study and prayer, it has also played a role in the many expressions of Christianity that have evolved. There are good things about the many expressions as many styles of worship are available. The down side is opening up interpretation to everyone can also result in bad theology, in my opinion Christianity that is not always very Christian.

So, sola scriptura presents some problems, but two of Luther’s other solas, sola gratia and sola fide, grace alone and faith alone, for me anyway are why Luther’s theology was and continues to be compelling, compelling because it’s the theology we need. From today’s reading from Romans: “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.” There it is; justification by grace through faith, Luther’s most important theological insight.

Luther could be arrogant, boorish, stubborn, rude and spiteful but his insight into what Paul wrote in Romans represents a moment of divinely inspired genius that reveals the truth we need to know about God and our relationship with God. Luther was haunted by the feeling that he wasn’t good enough to meet the demands of a God he saw as wrathful. In Romans though, he found a gracious God who became human in Jesus Christ precisely because none of us is good enough. Out of love, God, the Word, became flesh taking on our humanity and restoring it, freeing us to serve others as Jesus did, not to earn our way but in response to the gift of grace we’ve been given, helping us to grow in faith and holiness. Trusting that Jesus has done all that is necessary, in baptism we are then joined to his life, his death and his resurrection. In and through Jesus, our future is revealed and it’s a hope filled future.

There is grace in other theologies. It’s not that Luther had the grace market cornered. But I don’t think that anyone else articulates a theology of grace as clearly and forcefully as Luther and…I don’t think there is any other Lutheran church body that embraces a theology of grace as strongly as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America of which we are a part. Those who were present at Bishop Katherine’s installation last week heard a strong message of grace preached by ELCA presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton which was perfect not just for that day but any day because that’s who we are.

Because of some of the positions it has taken the ELCA is a target for criticism from other Lutheran church bodies and I would say “Bring it on,” because what we have decided as a church is that if we’re going to make mistakes, we’re going to make them on the side of grace not just because Luther emphasized grace, but because Jesus emphasized grace. Criticize us if you want, but our defense is grace, the grace of Jesus Christ.

We also don’t stand still. Bishop Eaton made reference to the “Lutheran movement” which I like because it highlights the fact that we are moving, open to the call of the Spirit in an ever changing religious landscape, part of a Reformation that continues, not one that ended 500 years ago. We take the Bible seriously, we take the Lutheran Confessions seriously but see both requiring ongoing interpretation while remaining faithful to the tradition of which we are a part; that’s who we are.

Things have changed in 500 years and the installation service also witnessed to another aspect of that change. Many of us remember a time when we wouldn’t have thought of setting foot in a Catholic church and a Catholic would not have set foot in a Lutheran church but on that Saturday we had a female Lutheran bishop installed by another female Lutheran bishop in a Roman Catholic church in something of a “who woulda thunk it” moment.

While acknowledging that there are differences between us, Bishop John Doerfler of the Marquette Diocese said, “I am happy to extend a warm welcome to our Lutheran brothers and sisters who will be celebrating the installation of their new bishop in St. Peter. Such gestures of fellowship give witness to the love that is proper to followers of Jesus. Let us pray that the love of Christ helps us to overcome divisions among Christians.” Bishop Doerfler attended the service and processed with the other bishops and clergy who were present and also attended the banquet that evening, further witnessing to the welcome and hospitality he professed. While we perhaps long for the day when a Catholic bishop would also join us in celebrating Holy Communion, for now, I think that service, with Bishop Doerfler’s blessing and presence, represented about as good a Reformation 500 moment as we could hope for.

Along with Reformation 500 today is also Bethany 147. I haven’t said anything about that because I don’t think I really have to as we are part of Reformation 500. In the special that was on PBS back in September though, there was a quote from Richard Perry who was one of my seminary professors and I think it’s a quote that fits pretty well with who I think we are as the ELCA and specifically who we are here at Bethany. He said, “We claim Luther; we claim what he had to say and teach. At the same time, we’ll disagree with Luther.” 500 years later or 147 years later, I think that’s who we are, and I would trust, that in some shape or form, for another 147 years, another 500 years, that’s who we will continue to be.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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