Five hundred years ago Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. His intent was to engage in a healthy debate about the corrupt sale of indulgences, not to split from the Roman Catholic Church, which had split from the Eastern Orthodox Church 500 years prior – in 1054. Yet Luther served as a catalyst in a reform movement that had been brewing for a couple of hundred years as scholars like Wycliffe, Hus and Tyndale translated the Bible into the spoken language of their people and questioned a very powerful Church.
It is important to remember the names of those who remained loyal to the Roman Catholic Church and reformed it from within — St. John of the Cross, Francis Xavier and Teresa of Avila are among them. We would be remiss not to mention the most radical reformers, the Anabaptists, who became Mennonites and Baptists and others who promoted an adult baptism.
The Reformation is best not celebrated, but only commemorated, for it created division in the Church and sparred years of vicious conflict — Protestants and Catholics killing each other. It is good to see that bitterness of many generations is beginning to abate. After all, Christ prayed to his Father, that the Church would be one. While there is still division, many Protestants are returning the historic unity of weekly Word and Table Sacrament, while Catholic parishioners are studying their own Bibles. Many of us honor the baptisms of other denominations.
Here are three of the gifts of the Reformation that have blessed all of us, no matter our tradition:
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▪ The first gift of the Reformation is the education of all the people, girls included. In the 1500’s only 1 in 10 people in Europe could read. Now around the world, only 1 in 10 is unable to read. With education comes knowledge and power. The invention of the printing press was crucial for the education of all. Translation of the Bible into the common language of the people was a vital change, as it put the Scriptures in the hands of the common people. Apart from education and the printing press, the second and third gifts below would not have been possible.
▪ Second is the empowerment of the people. Filled with the Holy Spirit of Christ and able to interpret the Holy Scriptures in the company of fellow believers, Christians are called to embody the faith, to be models of faithfulness one to another. Protestants call this the “Priesthood of All the Believers.” This sharing of the authority of leadership and accountability for those in power can be seen, to some degree, in all branches of the worldwide Church today. It can also be seen in the shaping of the government of this country, with its checks and balances.
▪ The third gift of the Reformation is the church’s engagement in civil affairs. John Calvin, leader and organizer of the Reformation in Geneva, Switzerland, is credited with initiating city councils where representatives could improve conditions for all by working together to improve commerce and public services. Because Christian life transforms all of life, and is communal as well as personal, these councils were charged to uphold human dignity and to protect, as Christ would, the poor, the outcast, the prisoner, the immigrant, and the vulnerable.
We are grateful for the gifts of the Reformation, yet we continue to pray that compassion, unity, and peace will prevail over obsessive concerns for purity of doctrine and practice. We pray that the empowerment of the people will always guard against abuses of power by religious, political, or economic leaders, that all people may be dignified and protected by faith, hope, and love.
The Rev. Elizabeth Deibert: 941-753-7778 Peace Presbyterian Church, 12705 State Road 64, Lakewood Ranch. Email edeibert@peacepcusa. Faith Matters is a regular feature of Saturday’s Herald, written by local clergy members.