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Reformation Day commemorates the efforts that theologian Martin Luther made towards religious and social changes. ©iStockphoto.com/Christina Hanck

Reformation Day commemorates the efforts that theologian Martin Luther made towards religious and social changes.
©iStockphoto.com/Christina Hanck

October 31, 1517 marks the day Martin Luther posted his 95 thesis on the Wittenberg Cathedral door (titled more accurately: “Disputation on the Efficacy and Power of Indulgences”). Eamon Duffy writes in First Things:

[This] year marks the fifth centenary of one of the few precisely datable historical events that can be said to have changed the world forever. In 1517, an unknown German professor from an undistinguished new university protested against the sordid trade in religious benefits known as “indulgences,” which were then being peddled around Germany to fund grandiose plans to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Martin Luther’s protest initially took the form of a public challenge to an academic debate on a swathe of theological niceties. But this was the first age of print, and Luther was a publicist of genius. His list of topics for debate, in the form of Ninety-Five Theses, was printed as a broadsheet (though the legend that he nailed them to a church door is, sadly, probably untrue).

The theses nonetheless became the world’s most improbable bestseller. What might have been a technical academic exercise in a Wittenberg lecture hall rapidly escalated into a fundamental questioning of the theological underpinning of Western Christianity. In its wake, Europe divided, roughly north and south, and the peoples of Europe were pitched into a series of murderous ideological wars in which tens of thousands died, and during which the religious, cultural, and political map of Europe was redrawn. We are all still living with the consequences.

Theological Shock Wave

An attempt to initiate an important and open discussion – turned into a theological shock wave through Europe. There is no historical doubt that reformation was needed;  “in fact, a whole array of political, social, and ecclesiastical interests converged on the trajectory for reform.”  Sadly, “in a climate that emphasized force and ultimatums, eager efforts at dialogue failed.”

By 1545, when the reform Council of Trent was convoked, “the split was real and irreversible. Catholics might say the Protestants went too far by then to turn back. Lutherans say that the response from Rome had been so inadequate for so long that they needed to go their own way.”

Since then, the commemoration of 1517 has been “remembered” differently:

  • 1617: Protestants used this moment to promote their differences with Catholics, and to stabilize and revitalize a common Protestant identity for Lutherans and other “Reformed” Christians.
  • 1717: Protestants minted coins depicting the posting of the theses on the Wittenberg castle church door.
  • 1817: Came close on the heels of the Prussian-led defeat of Napolean – thus this anniversary was used to lay a foundation stone for a monument in Wittenburg’s plaza.
  • 1917: German leaders rallied their people by portraying Luther as a national hero amidst the terrible losses of WWI.
  • 2017: Today Protestants and Catholics have an opportunity to commemorate 1517 differently.

Lutherans and Catholics have been engaging in church sponsored dialogues for some fifty years. The turning point toward this came at Vatican II (between 1962-1965), and has been growing slowly with the recognition that “we should always begin from the greater unity we share and not form the remaining (but often more noticeable) differences that divide.”

“From Conflict to Communion”

In this millennium, the “Commission on Unity” formed between the two denominations offered a lengthy report in preparation for 2017 titled “From Conflict to Communion.” They are trying to “imagine how what they do together in 2017 will be remembered in 2117.”

As we look forward to the next 500 years of dialogue and communion, such practices will be essential to the ongoing ‘re-membering’ and ‘re-forming’ of the body – not just to recall our history in a commemorative and retrospective way, but also to take the broken pieces and put them back together as a new creation.

Quotes above from: One Hope: Re-Membering the Body of Christ

Take the Broken Pieces and put them back together

The Psalmist laments (74:3),

Search through these everlasting ruins, all the destruction the enemy has brought on the Sanctuary.

What is God looking for as He searches through the fragments of brokenness?  A restoration? Something of value? Finding pieces to put back together?

Yes, I think so, but it won’t be like it was before; it never can be.

What kind of re-membering and re-forming are you going through?

For more see Jim Wallis article: “Germans are Welcoming Refugees as a Way to Honor Luther’s Legacy.”