Is the Christian Church generous or is it stingy? Since it belongs to Jesus, it ought to reflect His attitude. And I think we can agree that Jesus is bountifully generous.
I was thirteen years old when the 450th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation rolled around. One Sunday my church passed out lapel pins to mark the occasion and I still remember being dumbfounded. I was taught to bring an offering to church, and I just never expected the church to hand something back to me!
I don’t know if we’re going to be giving away any commemorative items for free, but we do have a number of activities planned to celebrate the upcoming 500th anniversary.
But first, what are we actually celebrating? On October 31, 1517 (All Hallows Eve) a young and relatively unknown college professor named Martin Luther posted an invitation to debate his 95 theses on the practice of indulgences in the Catholic Church. Debating was what college professors did in those days. A month earlier he had posted an invitation to debate 97 theses on the validity of scholastic theology. But that was a pretty dry topic and it attracted very little interest.
In comparison, the practice of granting indulgences (relief from debt owed after your sins were absolved) was interesting to everyone. It affected everyone in a sensitive place – their pocketbooks! It was believed that these indulgences came from the pope’s “treasury of merits” and could take time off people’s journey through Purgatory on their way to heaven. Luther questioned whether the pope really had this authority in the first place. And, since the pope was supposed to be Christ’s representative, why wasn’t he generous enough to give them away for free?
The story behind the story is that the profits from the sale of indulgences were being split by the local bishop and the pope. The bishop, Albrecht of Mainz, owed money that he had spent to acquire his position. The pope was in the process of financing the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. (Somebody had to pay Michelangelo to paint that ceiling)!
The result was an aggressive sales campaign that took an already shady church teaching and put it into the hands of a pushy salesman by the name of John Tetzel. He terrified the people with thoughts of their grandmas and grandpas enduring the torments of Purgatory – that could be relieved with the simple purchase of a certificate of indulgence.
Luther began his quest for reform as a very loyal Catholic monk / priest / college professor. His basic question in 1517 was, “Why doesn’t the Christian Church reflect the generosity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ?" After all, Jesus freed us from sin, death, and condemnation.
We can analyze the development of Luther’s thinking. In a few years he would proclaim that Purgatory itself was a figment of the church’s imagination. He would reject the authority of the papacy. He would criticize the monastic system. He would “demote” the Virgin Mary from her perceived role as an intercessor with Jesus. He would put the sacraments on better Biblical footing. He would bring the Bible and worship liturgy to the people in their native language.
But the summary of the Reformation is in Luther’s insistence that the Christian Church affirm Christ’s promise, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” [John 8:36]
Grateful to receive free things in Christ,