Around the world, over the coming week, there will be numerous celebrations for the 500 anniversary of the Reformation. The truth is that this year only signifies the beginning of the Reformation, when Martin Luther posted the 95 thesis on the cathedral door at Wittenberg. For Lutherans, the climax of the Reformation happened in 1580, when the Lutheran communities agreed to the Formula of Concord. Nevertheless, 1517 began that journey, and we remember that 500 years this year after that simple moment a German monk publicly questioned the established church.
What was the heart of Luther’s issue? The church of his day had become more concerned about a lot of other things and lost focus on the heart of the Gospel, Jesus. The way they imposed rituals and traditions upon people, the selling of indulgences so people could receive forgiveness, the separation of the priests from the people, and the lack of access to the Bible itself, all became issues of the Reformation. Luther’s concern was that the church had imposed upon people something God never intended, and so made them slaves to a system that should have been about freedom and unconditional grace. The church had become consumed with the law, and had forgotten the Gospel.
History often has a habit of repeating itself. At the time of Jesus the Jews had developed intricate systems to ensure they obeyed the law and remained the people of God. They traced their lineage back to Abraham, and claimed faithfulness to the tradition was the most important concern. But Jesus comes and shatters that illusion. It is not about what you do, but who you know, namely Jesus. Being a disciple means knowing this single truth, it is all about Jesus. Without Him, we are slaves to sin, and doomed to repeat the past by imposing upon ourselves and others anything but the unconditional gift of grace Jesus won through his death and resurrection.
Being Lutheran is not about whether the pastor wears a gown or not. It’s not about what sort of music we have, or even the way we worship. It is not about buildings, or money, or family lineage. Being Lutheran is about being in a relationship with Jesus that is founded on pure, simple, unconditional grace. The moment we begin to insist on certain forms of worship, or certain traditions or customs, or even whether one has a family name that goes back generations, we miss the point. The Reformation was about Jesus and today it is still about Jesus.
We live in a world that is busy doing stuff it thinks makes it right and good and pure and worthy. We’re not too sure what that good is measured against, but we live the lie that it surely makes us worthy of a life that is well lived now, and better lived when we die. But all of that is an illusion, which sadly the church seems to foster. Our heart as church must be about Jesus and only Jesus. There is no other way one can be free unless the Son sets us free. He does that for all who believe in Him. It is to Him we must point in everything we do, with everyone we meet, no matter how life is challenging us. It has always been about Jesus, and today, 500 years since Luther nailed his litany of issues to Wittenberg cathedral, it is still about Jesus.