On Oct. 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted 95 theses against indulgences on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. This is an iconic moment for Lutherans, but it was hardly viewed as dramatic at the time. In Luther’s day, it was common for public notices to be posted on the doors of all five of the churches in Wittenberg. Because of this, relatively little attention was given to Luther’s action when it took place.
I’m not disparaging the significance of Luther’s words or his action. What I am doing is lifting up how important it is for us to reflect on things in order for them to become meaningful for us. Luther was an active reformer — of the church, of the university and of civil society — for three decades. Later Lutherans chose to highlight this one date, Oct. 31, as symbolic of the whole Reformation movement. It was this reflection, not just the events themselves, which helped shape Lutheran identity.
As we reflect on Reformation 2012, what is meaningful for us? Is this only a day to celebrate our past? That’s an easy temptation for those of us of German or Scandinavian heritage. Or is it also a day for living into new meanings?
Luther’s constant question in The Small Catechism is “What does this mean?” When we read, memorize, or recite Luther’s answers to this recurring question, we sometimes forget that for Luther it was a real question, not just a formulaic one. Timothy Wengert, the Reformation historian on the faculty of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, points out that Luther’s original German is “Was ist das?” (“What’s that?”). Wengert speculates that Luther’s question-and-answer format may have been stimulated by the presence of his 2-year-old son, Hans, running around the house asking this very question again and again while Luther was writing the catechism. “What does this mean?” — “What’s that?!” — is a real question.
You’re Lutheran, you say? What is that? What does that mean?
It’s Reformation Day/Sunday, you say? What is that? What does that mean?
How would you answer? How do we answer?
Personally I’m struck by how “we” keeps changing. “We” Lutherans are no longer just those of northern European descent. Unlike previous generations, we live in an age of global Christianity. Christianity — including its Lutheran version — is growing rapidly in Africa and in Asia, even while it is declining in many of our neighborhoods. And we Lutherans aren’t alone. The ELCA has ecumenical agreements with Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Moravians, Methodists, the Reformed Church in America, and the United Church of Christ. We now live in an ecumenical age, when the gospel we share as Christians is more important than the histories and the traditions that have divided us. The Reformation heritage isn’t our private treasure to pull out and celebrate once a year. It’s a shared calling to use our hearts and hands and voices in God’s world here and now.
You’re Lutheran, you say? What does this mean? It means a faith rooted in the gospel as God’s promise of forgiveness of sins, new life and salvation, for Christ’s sake. You’ve heard of things that are too good to be true? The gospel is too good not to be true! God loves you. It’s a gift! There is nothing God wouldn’t do for you, and the cross and resurrection are confirmation of that gracious love.
Reformation, you say? What does this mean? In Luther’s day, it meant translating the Scriptures into language regular people could understand. It meant changing the worship service and writing new songs so that people could say and sing their faith together. It meant Christian education, for young and old alike. It meant caring for the poor and needy, so that God’s loving care was experienced in this life, not just as a promise for the next life.
What does Reformation mean in our places and time? You tell me! And then tell others. What does this mean, this gospel of God’s gracious love? It’s a real question, and the world is waiting eagerly to hear the answer!
Editor’s note: Kit and others will be leading educational tours to Wittenburg, Germany, in 2013. For more information, click here.
Kit Kleinhans, an ordained pastor of the ELCA, has taught at Wartburg College, Waverly, Iowa, since 1993. She currently is a religion professor in the department of religion and philosophy, which she chaired from 1999-2010, and is the program director for the Discovering and Claiming Our Callings initiative, Wartburgʼs Lilly Endowment-funded Program for the Theological Exploration of Vocation.