As we honor the 500th anniversary of the Reformation this Sunday, we might be tempted to go back to this idea of a 33-year-old monk named Martin Luther disrupting the entire Roman Catholic establishment by nailing 95 theses to a door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany.
Except that he never did that.
Most likely, Luther's 95 theses were written and submitted to be part of academic dispute. They were intended as a corrective to widespread corruption in the Roman Catholic church. The corruption itself spread from an injurious level of taxation that existed to justify a war against the Turks, who were pounding on the gates of Vienna, as well as repay the debt incurred in the building of the extravagant St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Further, priests were encouraged to sell "indulgences," certificates that purported that the buyer, for a set fee, had shortened his or her time in purgatory merely by making the purchase. Luther had trouble with these practices on many levels, including the lack of any mention of purgatory in the Bible.
But this argument was never nailed by Luther to a door. Yet, its effect was more profound.
As a recent New Yorker article suggests, Luther's argument took root because the people were ready for it. Their church had become corrupt. They did not trust their leaders. Knowledge was becoming more widespread, and the thirst to know more about the world was real. Luther questioned a stranglehold that was being maintained for selfish purposes. The church had become a political body whose interest was not the thriving of human life. Luther became a folk hero because, while he did not nail things to a door, the effect resonated with a people hungry for real change and belonging.
Phyllis Tickle suggested a few years back that every 500 years we encounter a major Reformation. What's more, the people participating in that Reformation are usually unaware of just how profound it is. We might actually be in a new Reformation right now. We're feeling the energy of a new "something," as was evident in the charrette on Thursday night. But what will it look like? Are we ready for that challenge? Can we sustain the relationships we've forged with one another as we go through the reformation together?
I pray it is so.