This October 31st marks the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, heralded by Martin Luther’s nailing his 95 Theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany. His 95 Theses were a list of propositions for academic debate protesting against the Catholic Church’s practice of selling indulgences. Preachers sold indulgences, certificates believed to reduce punishment from sin committed by the purchaser or reduce punishment a loved one was enduring in Purgatory. In short, Luther’s 95 Theses argued that it was wrong to sell indulgences, especially to poor people, to finance the building of St. Peter’s Basilica, that the pope had no power over Purgatory, and that buying indulgences gave people a false sense of security and actually endangered their salvation by inducing complacency. Luther sent a copy of the theses to Albert of Mainz, who then sent a copy to Pope Leo. Because the printing press was already in existence, the Theses were quickly reprinted and distributed throughout Europe. Luther was tried for heresy and excommunicated in 1521. As Luther continued to write, the selling of indulgences took a back seat to weightier theological matters like justification by faith or free will vs. predestination.
To celebrate the Reformation’s 500th Anniversary, last Wednesday night, a group of us from CCOV went to dinner at Byblos Restaurant and on to a concert at the Tempe Center for Fine Arts, which featured Music of the Reformation. A good bit of the concert was in German, and we were treated to a complex arrangement of “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” We especially enjoyed hearing our own Bob Simington sing in the bass section! Following the Chamber Singers and Choral Union (and intermission), we were mightily roused by ASU’s Gospel Choir. Between each of their numbers, including “Lift Up Your Heads O, Ye Gates,” we heard the story of how the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) was founded in Philadelphia in 1816. Also born out of protest, the AME was organized by people of African descent, as a response to being forcibly denied access to the white—and at that time racist—Methodist church.
From what I know of the history of Christianity, God’s people seem always to be reforming, regrouping in some way. Reform comes by way of protest, challenge, and vigorous theological debate. The Church Universal’s issues are by no means settled, and they may never be—especially if God is indeed still speaking. We in the UCC have long been on the prophetic edge and forefront of change, challenging the status quo, moving forward, and striving for full inclusion. One day soon our church family should have a conversation about what new 95 Theses we might nail on the church doors of our communities. Would they have anything to do with environmental sustainability, the health and welfare of all people, peace and justice, radical inclusion, and all kinds of equality? What is the first thesis you would pound into the door? See you Sunday!