On the 31st of October, Christians around the world will celebrate an anniversary that is hugely significant, even if it is largely mythical.
In 1517, on All Hallows eve, a young Augustinian monk and University Lecturer at Wittenberg in Saxony, named Martin Luther, set in train a series of events that would change the world. The popular version of the story sees him hammering his 95 Theses into the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg in the manner of a prospector in the American West staking out his claim to territory. In reality, the church door was used as a noticeboard and he was offering an invitation to debate a series of questions, a pretty typical action for an academic of the day, when peer review was carried out by oral disputation in the absence of the system of printed journals that academics enjoy(?) today.
Luther’s Theses were not a manifesto for the Reformation, they simply called into question some of the practices of church at the time, particularly the selling of indulgences. This practice was effectively a way of monetizing the grace of God and had caused Luther and others considerable angst. It was, after all, an effective means of robbing the poor to pay the rich. Unsurprisingly, Luther wished to see the matter debated in public. What happened next, though, was far beyond anything he expected. It was perhaps the first instance of a social media post ‘going viral’.
The printing press was a still a relatively new invention and printers tended to congregate in University towns like Wittenberg. One such printer recognised the power of Luther’s text and had it translated into German (Luther had written it in Latin) and distributed throughout the German speaking world. The uproar this caused was enough that it nearly cost Luther his life, as it set him on a collision course with the powerful vested interests who had control of the church at the time. Instead of killing him, however, this opposition caused him to re-evaluate everything and led to him becoming a crucial figure in the Reformation of the Church.
It was this Reformation that led to the Church of England becoming a distinct body, free from European control. Put this way, it sounds as if the Reformation was a precursor of Brexit. It certainly divided opinion then in much the same way as Brexit has today. The Reformation did not just mean independence from Rome, however. It meant that the Bible became available in English, something that was highly illegal until 1539; it led to lay people being able to receive both the bread and the wine at the Eucharist; it led to clergy being able to marry (I’m very pleased about that one); it led to church services being conducted in English (and the writing of the wonderful Book of Common Prayer); and it led to a renewed focus on the grace of God in salvation.
It is this last thing for which I am especially grateful as we approach the anniversary of the (notional) birth of the Reformation. It is God’s free gift of forgiveness in his Son that is the Church’s unique offer a tortured world. We do not hold out just one more set of burdens and obligations, but God’s free offer of a relationship with himself through his Son Jesus Christ. The good news of Jesus, as Martin Luther reminds us, is not information about what we must DO but the proclamation of what God has DONE for us. For that reason I am very grateful to God for Martin Luther, and for that unnamed printer who turned his life upside down.