by Rev. Dr. Marty Kuchma, Senior Pastor
On October 31, 1517, a Catholic priest and professor named Martin Luther posted his infamous 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. By so doing, Luther intended to reform the Catholic Church, but what he did resulted in a Church split that gave birth to Protestantism. His act precipitated a seismic shift in the life of the Church. Remember that before Luther, for about 1500 years, “the Church” was the Catholic Church. All of that changed 500 years ago this week. So, as Protestants, we celebrate that powerfully transformative moment in the history of the Church that had significant implications for the history of the world.
A number of factors converged at the moment in history when Luther approached the church door with his hammer in hand. For example, there had been previous attempts at reform over several centuries, like those led by Jan Hus who was burned for his heresy, John Wycliffe who translated the Bible into English in the fourteenth century, and others. Luther could capture some of that energy in his bold action. At about the same time, Gutenberg’s printing press had come into popular use, so Luther’s own writings could be published broadly and, as was Luther’s intent, the Bible could be mass produced in many languages. And, importantly, Luther addressed deeper issues of theological significance.
Luther’s concerns, as a faithful priest, were numerous, but in particular, he was driven to take action by the Catholic Church’s wide use of indulgences that had their roots in acts of simple penitence but had grown to include the Church taking money – often in large sums – in exchange for promises of less time in purgatory – a “place” designated by the Catholic Church for people who were believed to go neither directly to heaven nor directly to hell after death. In opposition to such corruption, Luther’s theology followed that espoused by Paul in his letters: salvation came by grace, not by works. Indulgences were not only wrong, they were useless, and the practice had to be abandoned, according to Luther’s strong conviction.
So Luther’s name is prominently attached to the Reformation. But other reformers were active as well and soon joined the chorus, chief among them John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli. In that booming era, Lutheranism took root, along with Reformed faith, Anglicanism, Presbyterianism, Anabaptist traditions, and eventually Methodism, along with many other variations on church. The “Church” became something different than it always had been, and Catholicism was forced to reckon with another way of being and doing church – which it aggressively but unsuccessfully tried to eliminate in what is known as the Counter-Reformation.
All of this sets the stage for St. Paul’s United Church of Christ, which traces its roots back through the Reformed tradition which had particular impact on the Reformed Church and the Congregational churches, and Lutheranism which influenced the Evangelical stream of our early movement.
So this week, we mark a major shift in what it meant and what it means to be “church.” We do so even as we ponder what a New Reformation might look like. What are the ways the Church and its various churches must change to meet the needs of the present and the future? What new form might church take? Underlying those questions, of course, is an assertion that the Church and its churches are constantly in need of reformation and transformation for each new age.
The 10:45 service on Sunday, October 29, will mark the celebration of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. In so doing, we will join with Protestants the world over. And the Seekers group will follow up with a Reformation conversation on Sunday, November 5.
Let’s think together about what’s next for the Church, and what’s next for our church. And let us be as bold as we need to be to bring about the change we are called to make.