Today we celebrate an important milestone in the history of Western Christianity. On this day in 1517, an Augustinian friar named Martin Luther posted his famous “95 Theses” to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. This set off a much-needed firestorm that has continued to this day. “I have come to set fire upon the earth and how I wish it were already blazing,” says Jesus (Luke 12:49). The flames of the reformation are still burning, bringing regeneration and new life in their wake.
When I first preached in Germany in the 1980s, my Lutheran friends took me to Wittenberg, and we staged a scene of this Franciscan friar nailing my agreement with Martin Luther to the same church door. With irony, we enacted a too-Catholic-God striking me dead.
For the most part, Roman Catholics have viewed the Reformation as the division of Christendom. Yet we should not have been surprised by Luther’s call to reform! Catholics teach that “the church was reformed but always in need of reformation.” Reformation is the perpetual process of conversion that is needed by all individuals and by all institutions. Otherwise people and churches become idols.
Christianity has experienced many periods of dramatic change and upheaval, beginning with the Constantinian privileges and separation from the poor in 313. In the Great Schism of 1054, Christianity split between East and West.
In my opinion, this is the way that history and spirituality move forward. Change is never in a perfectly straight and logical line; it happens through the constant push and pull, death and life, that mirrors the Paschal Mystery:
Some seeming Ideal Order is the easiest way to begin. >
This is followed by a necessary experience of Disorder, which Christians call “the folly of the cross.” >
Finally, there is a Reordering, what Christians name the Body of Christ, the Mind of Christ, or Resurrection!
In the Center for Action and Contemplation’s Living School, drawing from the teachings of George Gurdjieff and Cynthia Bourgeault, we call this sacred pattern Holy Affirming > Holy Denying > Holy Reconciling. It is the subtle but powerful work of grace. Without the self-correcting of Holy Denying (Disorder), all persons and groups become idolatrous of themselves and thus corrupt.
At the time of the Reformation, this was true of the Catholic Church. As many Lutherans now recognize, this was soon true of the new Lutheran and Evangelical churches as well. Both Lutherans and Catholics are “reformed but ever in need of reforming.” None of us will ever live up to “the full stature that is Christ” (Ephesians 4:13), though at the same time we are all already in Christ. It took the Catholic Church until the Second Vatican Council of 1963-1965 to admit its mistakes and return to a more Scripture-based Christianity.
Now, by the grace of God, we are all beneficiaries of a Holy Reconciling by a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, formally agreed to by the highest theological authorities of the Vatican and the Lutheran Church in 1999. The declaration affirms that Luther was largely right, but both churches split into our own forms of dualistic thinking and remained in our dueling camps for 500 years. One side made an idol out of the Bible (Sola Scriptura!) and the other made an idol out of tradition (placing all confidence in leadership), but they were much the same in their human idolatry of something other than God. We are still learning the dangers of the dualistic concept of “only”!
Now the Reformed churches and many other denominations have affirmed this important and healing Joint Declaration, although the common churchgoer knows little of it. We are ever so slowly growing up together (how else could it be?). The future of Christianity is certainly ecumenical and even interfaith, and thus finally and hopefully “catholic” (universal). How else could Jesus ever be “The Savior of the World” (John 4:42)?
For 500 years we were stuck in Holy Denying of one another’s ideas and practices. But today we celebrate a new Holy Reconciling! There is no point in perpetually restating the initial arguments which have kept us in an endless Holy Affirming. The Risen Christ is forever leading us into a much larger future that is always created by God, where none of us wins or even needs to win. Here only God—Love—wins.
Be forewarned that this Holy Reconciling now sets the stage for the cycle to begin again! All we can do is to be ready and willing and a little less surprised.