October 30, 2016 / Reformation: Whole Life Repentance / Sara Wolbrecht
499 years ago tomorrow, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther, a Catholic priest who served as a college professor, walked up to the community bulletin board, which was a church door in Wittenberg Germany, and he attached an invitation into a debate. It was 95 statements of critique over practices that he saw in the Roman Catholic Church that seemed inconsistent with the bible and who he knew God to be and who he knew priests should be.
We know it now as the 95 Theses. That moment 499 years ago changed the trajectory of the church, of history, of faith on levels that no one could have ever imagined at the time. Within three years Luther was excommunicated, which means to be kicked out of the church, and what was intended as a hope for reform within the church (again, Luther was hoping to begin a conversation that would lead to reform) created a split, as the One Christian Church (for there was only one church, led by priests and bishops and overseen by the Pope) now splintered, grew, into new branches, communities whose practices and beliefs in following Jesus would take fresh forms.
Salt House is actually a Lutheran Church, a branch of the Christian church that is heavily influenced by the teachings of Martin Luther – which for some of us here is familiar and important, and for others it doesn’t have a huge significance, or we may not really know what that means.
But what it ultimately means to be affiliated with the Lutheran church means that we look at the story of Jesus through a lens that has been influenced by Martin Luther. And with these brief moments we have here at halftime, I want to name one thing significant for us to grab hold of considering the Reformation, Martin Luther, and these 95 theses of 499 years ago.
To get there, I want to spend these few moments we have left in the first four of Luther’s 95 Theses – listen closely, and then we’ll bring it back to focus on the first thesis.
"Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said Poenitentiam agite, willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance. This word cannot be understood to mean sacramental penance, i.e., confession and satisfaction, which is administered by the priests. Yet it means not inward repentance only; nay, there is no inward repentance which does not outwardly work divers mortifications of the flesh. The penalty [of sin], therefore, continues so long as hatred of self continues; for this is the true inward repentance, and continues until our entrance into the kingdom of heaven (Theses 1-4, Martin Luther).
Jesus willed that the whole life of the believers should be repentance. Repentance. A word that can carry some heavy, inaccurate churchy baggage. It actually means: to turn around. To change direction. A change of heart. A new way of thinking. Repentance sounds like the process of growth – which always leads us into new territory within ourselves.
For Luther – he saw how repentance had become commoditized. Priests would offer forgiveness for money. Much of the 95 Theses are specifically targeting the sale of indulgences, which (you may know) were essentially the get-out-of-hell free card of the time. The life of faith, of following Jesus seemed to be slipping farther and farther from a life that Jesus spoke of, that showed any signs of repentance, of internal transformation – or even outward signs of a life that had been transformed by the grace and love of God in Jesus.
And so this is the first thesis. Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said Poenitentiam agite, willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance. The most important word, perhaps, from Luther’s 95 Theses is his first. That the life of faith was not handled through transactions and physical, people-designed assurances of “forgiveness.” It was not a life that was mediated by priests in power who were somehow “closer” to God and able to hand out grace. But instead, Luther tried to start a debate, a conversation to bring the life of a Jesus-followers actually back to the life of Jesus. A life that is (as he said) Poenitentiam Agite. A lifelong, never-arriving journey of becoming, of being made new, of being transformed, of being met by grace that we have not paid for, nor earned, nor even deserve. But to receive forgiveness and grace and love and hope and a life beyond ourselves simply because the God of the universe delights in us.
I am thankful that Luther put it all out there, dared to risk it all for the sake of starting this conversation. Because this conversation, of the grace of God and a life of love being available to us, personally and communally, a life we continue to discover and work through and own and extend – that conversation needed to happen, and needs to continue today.
I deeply appreciate Luther’s fierce drive of conscience. His devotion to God and faithfulness to living an authentic, engaged life. Luther was not literally or figuratively a saint – there are some awful, racist, painful quotes of his out there, too.
But I still value what he models for us. And I wonder what it looks like for us to own our own devotion to God and faithfulness to living an authentic, engaged life.
And so. I have a Reformation Sunday assignment for us all. I invite us to take some time in the next few minutes, and even into the second half of this Hawk’s game, to consider what conversations need to be started or continued in the church today? What conversation do you want to have in the church? What topic do you think we need to be talking about today? (And maybe we are, maybe we’re not). In could be something here at Salt House you want to talk about. Or it could be as you look at the landscape of faith – the Christian church, a portion of the spectrum of the Christian church, or even beyond to our interfaith brothers and sisters – how doe sour own practice of conversation and reformation continue today. Please name one thing (or more) write it down and bring it on up to nail on our Reformation door – because everyone loves a chance to nail it.
We ask ourselves this question today, because here’s the thing: What continues to shape the future of the church, of faith, of humanity, of history is our willingness to tap into our own sense of devotion – to God, to living an authentic, engaged life. And willingly, intentionally having the conversations that matter for our time.
So my friends, what matters? How can we together embody a life of repentance in our conversation today and in the weeks to come?