First Lesson: Deuteronomy 34: 1-12
Responsive Reading: Psalm 90: 1-6, 13-17
Second Lesson: 1 Thessalonians 2: 1-8
Gospel Lesson: Matthew 22: 34-46
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
Today we are supposed to celebrate the most famous moment in the Lutheran church in Martin Luther supposedly nailing The 95 Theses to the castle door at Wittenberg. In just a few minutes, we will sign Luther’s hymn A Mighty Fortress is Our God as a symbol of pride for being members of the church that Luther discovered. As we gather on this Reformation Sunday, it causes to us to reflect upon what was really going on when The 95 Theses were posted. Perhaps more importantly we ask ourselves whether The 95 Theses posted by Luther are event to celebrate or an event to mourn.
Before we begin this morning I wish to begin by addressing three misconceptions about The 95 Theses.
1. The 95 Theses started the Lutheran church-
I think as we consider Luther’s legacy this morning an important thing worth noting is that Luther never wrote the 95 Theses with any intention of breaking from the Roman Catholic church. Luther addressed the 95 Theses to the local Archbishop Albert of Mainz, within the theses Luther wrote comments concerning what a great job that the Archbishop was doing.
The 95 Theses original purpose was to serve as an academic debate on the question of “Whether certain indulgences should be sold?” Indulgences were pieces of paper that one could buy as a way to get out of writing on the chalkboard, saying your Hail Marys or whatever earthly punishment was when you did something wrong.
Luther’s main motivation for writing the 95 Theses wasn’t indulgences themselves, but rather one man named John Tetzel, who Luther believed to be misrepresenting Catholic teaching on indulgences. Luther honestly believed that Pope Leo would agree with his critique of John Tetzel. Any Catholic scholar would tell you that Luther’s criticisms of Tetzel misrepresenting Catholic teaching on indulgences were right. In Luther’s later years, he said at the time of posting the 95 Theses that “He would have murdered anyone who denied obedience to the pope.”
2. Luther posted the 95 Theses as a good Lutheran-
It should said that many of the beliefs that Luther had when he posted the 95 Theses were much closer to modern Catholicism then modern Lutheranism. Luther believed in Purgatory. Luther still prayed to the Virgin Mary and Saints in Heaven. Luther also tended to hold the Roman Catholic position on the Mass or Lord’s Supper. If one is to look back at Luther’s life, you would be struck by the whole hosts of issues on which his positions evolved as his break from the Catholic church became more defined.
3. Luther understood the consequences of his actions-
Initially, when Pope Leo X heard about the 95 Theses, he didn’t consider them to be all that significant. For three months after their publication, Leo ignored them.
What ended up happening though is that supporters of Luther eventually came in contact with the recently invented printing press. So Luther’s theses began to spread throughout not only Germany but all of Europe.
Most of the initial uproar within Germany over the 95 Theses had to do more with grievances regarding the Pope’s heavy-handedness in German politics rather than any agreement with Luther’s statement of belief. What should also be said is that Luther was also tapping into a widely held sentiment in his day that the Catholic church was in need of internal reform. So eventually Pope Leo X decided to call a scholar to respond to Luther’s objections over indulgences.. Luther was not convinced. Luther then met with a papal delegate at the Diet of Augsburg. Luther was asked on what authority could he question the pope?
Luther then invoked a story from Galatians the 2nd chapter where the Apostle Paul rebukes the supposed first Pope Peter because he refused to dine with Gentiles.
It was at this moment when the central question which would define the Reformation was really raised for the first time whether the church is a human institution capable of error (Luther’s view) or a divine institution (the Roman Catholic view) incapable of error.
Perhaps even more important is the question of “What makes a church true?” Whether a church is true because it adheres to the traditional structure of having a Pope or whether a church is true because it possess the Gospel in the form of Word and Sacrament.
Luther after several debates and meetings with Roman Catholic officials could not be convinced that his position was in error. Further public stands led to Pope Leo X issuing a Papal Declaration called The Papal Bull calling for people to burn all of Luther’s writings. Luther at this point received sixty days to either recant his beliefs or face death as a heretic. When Luther received The Papal Bull, he burned it in the Town Square all the while being cheered on from adoring Germans in Wittenberg.
Luther’s burning of The Papal Bull took place three years after posting the 95 Theses. This event was the beginning of the Lutheran Church as Luther had won quite a bit of support among German Princes and Nobility during this time.
What we must always stress is that the Lutheran church formed only after Luther went through great emotional distress at the possibility of being kicked out of the Catholic church. Luther also made pledges to his followers not to divide the Church. Luther never intended to form a new church until he came to believe that the issues of division could not be resolved.
So what this tale of the beginning of the Reformation indicates is that Luther was by no means anti-Catholic nor anti-Pope as people would understand the terms. Luther vowed to kiss the Pope’s feet if the Pope would proclaim the Gospel. Luther had every intention of staying within the Catholic church and reforming it from within until circumstances forced him to do otherwise.
Even nearly a decade after The Papal Bull was presented as a sign of Luther’s banishment, the Protestant Reformers put together the chief teaching document of their faith in The Augsburg Confession they wrote it in such a way that it highlighted their areas of agreement with the Catholic church as a means of seeking to foster an eventual reconciliation.
Luther’s burning of The Papal Bull would set the stage for a long period of religious warfare between the catholic power of Spain against a loose confederation of Swiss and German states. Warfare would not end until the resolution of the Thirty Years War, more than a century after Luther’s death.
What then should we say on this day about the division that remains between Lutherans and Catholics?
I think one of the great misunderstandings that exist in the Church today is the relationship between Lutherans and Catholics. We have a lot of commonalities. We both recognize each other as Christian. Both churches recognize each other’s Baptisms as valid. Lutheranism and Catholicism are not in direct opposition to each other, but in many ways similar branches of the same tree of Christianity. For example, both churches are liturgical churches that confess the historic creeds of the faith (Apostles, Nicene, and Athansain). We both make common use of such things as stained glass, organs, candles, robes, and banners for the means of edifying the believer. The greatest theological unity that exists between Lutherans and Roman Catholics is that we’re both sacramental churches. We both believe that God gives us new life and forgives sin through Baptism. We both believe that God sustains and strengthens our faith through the Lord’s Supper. We do not exclude Catholics from Communion for this reason. We both believe that Confession is sacramental whether done in public or private and a true treasure of the church. Lutherans and Roman Catholics are in agreement on plenty of other issues such as the End Times, the Trinity, and the development of scripture.
The Churches have grown even more together in recent years as the Second Vatican Council adopted Luther’s ideas about the need for worship to be in the language of the people.
In fact in the year 1976, Joseph Ratzinger who is best known as the former Pope Benedict XVI expressed the possibility that the chief teaching document of the Lutheran Reformation in the Augsburg Confession could one day be accepted as a universal statement of faith. There are plenty of Lutheran pastors today who hold out hope for a reunion with the Roman Catholic Church to occur sometime in the future.
We must be honest though plenty of areas of division still remain on this day with the Roman church. We disagree regarding the role of the Bishop of Rome or Pope this is a complicated historical question which led to the first prominent church split in the Great Schism of 1054 between the Orthodox East and Catholic West. We disagree on the question of what happens to believers in the period between one’s death and resurrection. We disagree regarding the role of Saints mediating in our daily lives. We disagree regarding the question of whether Women can serve in ministry. Ultimately the true issues lie with the matter of salvation. Everything boils down to the question of “What is the Gospel?” While we both believe in salvation by grace, what this means is still a matter of dispute.
Today’s epistle reading from Romans 3 gets to the very heart of the scriptures. What this passage reminds us of is the power that sin maintains over us all. Sin is so deeply rooted in the human psyche that we cannot control it. Sin’s depth is why it is too easy for any of us to misunderstand the Gospel. We inevitability think God has done his part, now we need to do ours. We come face to face all too often with the truth that even our best works can be a cause of sin. Too often good can cause us to fall away from the truth about ourselves that we are ultimately sinners.
In the words of Mark Tranvick “When Luther first studied the Bible it became for him a great puzzle as to why Christ should have to die. After all, sin is punished by death (Romans 6:23) but Christ was not guilty of sin. When he came to see that Christ himself actually became a sinner (compare 2 Corinthians 5:21) the mystery dissolved.” If there was any other way to salvation than Jesus wouldn’t have hung on a cross.
We celebrate Reformation Sunday 2014 with mixed emotions. Rest assured that we do grieve. We grieve that so many have sought to bring Christianity beyond Luther’s very modest initial goals in posting the 95 Theses. After Luther church group after church group would rise up claiming to have re-discovered New Testament Christianity. The Reformed would soon rise up in Switzerland, the Radical Reformers in Germany, decades later the Baptists in England, a couple centuries later would spring up John Wesley’s Methodists. Almost four hundred years after Luther, Pentecostalism rose up in America claiming to have rediscovered the “Holy Spirit” and quickly became a world-wide phenomenon. Luther’s modest initial goals resulted in a widespread schism throughout all of Christendom. Soon every man, woman, and child would claim to be the arbiter of religious truth.
Peter Leithert writes “Renouncing Rome’s one Pope, Protestantism has created thousands.” This is not something to celebrate.
We do celebrate on this day; we don’t celebrate necessarily Luther himself. Luther would have been the first person to admit that he shouldn’t have a church named after him, nor even followed. What we instead celebrate is the central conviction of all of Luther’s action that no matter how futile our situation in this day may be, God set out to solve the problem in Christ Jesus. We celebrate that salvation is determined by God’s action, never our own. We celebrate that our eternal life is not dependent on any institution or even ourselves; we celebrate rather that the promises of salvation belong to Christ Jesus alone. The ultimate legacy of the Reformation is that humans are broken and will remain divided until Christ returns to settle it all out. Our great hope for today is that God saves us outside of us, in spite of us, God saves us on a Cross against every human instinct for moral improvement. God doesn’t save a pure church; God rather saves an imperfect church. Amen
 It’s somewhat debated whether Luther actually nailed The 95 Theses to the castle door. The evidence of this is a letter from Phillip Melanchton where he mentions it. Melancthon though doesn’t describe the event till after Luther’s death. Heiko Obermann makes the cast that posting academic disputations was common practice. So in conclusion, it’s probable that Luther did nail the theses to the castle door, yet possibly a legend also. The Outlaw Monk wrote a really good article on October 24,2013 on this subject.
 The Wikipedia Article on Johann Tetzel has an excellent explaination from German Catholic Historian Ludwig von Pastor on this matter.
 Luther wrote this in a preface to The 95 Theses shortly before his death. This is taken from the Christian-History.Com article on Martin Luther.
 Galatians 2:11-14
 This Papal Bull is techincally called The Exsurge Domine in Latin. A Papal Bull is a letter or declaration made by the Pope (Bishop of Rome). Hundreds of Papal Bulls have been issued throughout the history of the office. For the sake of brevity and clarity, I just refer to Luther’s notice of excommunication as The Papal Bull.
 Tranvick, Mark. “Commentary of Romans 3:19-28”. Working Preacher.com. Luther Seminary. Saint Paul, MN. 28.Oct.2012. Web. Oct.21.2014
 Poteet, Mike. “Reformation Sunday: A Day To Celebrate?” Ministry Matters. 20.Oct.2014. Web. Oct.20.2014