On July 2, 1505,
while he was on his way back to the college dorms,
after visiting his parents,
A 23-year-old Law student was caught in a really nasty lightning storm.
As it was storming badly, he tripped.
He fell down in the mud,
Lightning was crashing in every direction, all around him.
And, scared out of his mind,
He prayed to St. Anne. (As he was a good Catholic lad).
And he promised St. Anne,
that if she were to spare him his life,
he would become a monk.
“Help, St. Anne! [And] I’ll become a monk!”
Perhaps, unfortunately for him,
That young man survived.
Ten years later, that same young man,
had become a not only a monk,
but also a priest, a doctor of theology, and a professor of the Bible.
And on the day before All Saints Day,
October 31, 1517,
that young man
went to the Wittenberg Castle Church Door
and on it, he posted what we now refer to,
as Martin Luther’s 95 Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.
“The 95 Theses.”
We could also call them: his 95 thesis statements,
or 95 sentences.
(These are actually a copy in English, if you’d like to read them.
They’re also easy to find online).
Luther posted these theses,
(The 95 Theses on The Power and Efficacy of Indulgences),
in hopes of starting a debate with other scholars and leaders of the Church,
a debate specifically about
“The Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,”
and about what it means to be truly sorry, and act accordingly.
And a few other things.
Instead of simply starting a debate--or, rather in addition,
Luther, perhaps unintentionally...
symbolically, and, I believe, by the Grace of God)
sparked, catalyzed, gave birth to the Protestant Reformation.
This is the event we celebrate today.
(Everybody claps and is excited.)
That’s why we’re all wearing red.
The color of the Holy Spirit that moved in Martin Luther, and that continues to move in the church and in the world today,
Usually, once a year, at this time, on Reformation Sunday,
I like to take a couple of minutes to read some of my favorite theses from Luther’s 95 Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.
And I want to (of course) do that again, this morning.
But before we do that, just a little bit of backstory--context
for these 95 Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.
A good starting point is with the question:
What are indulgences?
To start to answer that question, we need to say what might,
to some of you might seem obvious:
And that’s this:
Luther existed in a politically tense time.
Luther existed in a politically tense time.
And though he is credited with sparking the Reformation,
with his 95 Theses,
and his nailing,
the reality is that history
and (I believe) the work of the Spirit
was already leading up to this event,
for a really long time,
and Reformation in various manifestations was already bubbling up all over the world, and throughout the church… Among lay people, among nuns and monks and priests… the Spirit of Reformation was already at work--and we might argue (accurately),
had always been at work,
stirring in the hearts of people all over the world.
But, for Luther, as we greet him in 1517
it is important to know that:
in the 500 years leading up to the this time
and this event
the night Luther went to nail his
95 Theses On The Power And Efficacy Of Indulgences
to the Wittenberg Castle church door,
the Church in the West--that is, Luther’s church,
the Roman Catholic church,
our church mothers and fathers,
(NOTE: We’re not talking about someone elses church here today. We’re talking about us, our church history, our tradition...)
the Church, our church
had been involved in a lot of killing.
And other horrible things.
That is, they had been commissioning one “Crusade” after another after another after another...
To clarify: The Church and its leaders were actively waging and fighting wars, mostly against Islamic nations, sometimes against our Christian sisters and brothers in the East.
For FIVE HUNDRED years, the Church had been waging unjust and aggressive wars, during which many of the popes, the bishops, and the clergy actively preached and promoted war
“in the name of God!”
During this time, to “take up one’s cross and follow” became synonymous with taking up one’s sword and going to battle.
To be a soldier became the perfect “holy” combination of the most pious Christian practices:
half pilgrim on a pilgrimage,
half martyr sacrificing his own life “for Christ,”
These “holy men,” these “Christian Soldiers,” entered villages and towns, raping, killing, pillaging, and burning much of what they encountered.
|Christians killing. Source|
On occasion they would even rob eastern churches and holy sites.
They would rob their sisters and brothers in Christ, in the East-- and bring the spoils back home.
“Onward Christian Soldiers, Marching As To War…”
[Now, this is a good time to pause and to say that there were always Christians in the church that opposed these wars--St. Francis, whom we celebrated a couple of weeks ago was one of them. I believe that Spirit of Reformation moved deeply in Francis, thank God!
But this was the majority view, the “moral majority.”
And the official practice of the church].
Now, there were other perks gained in joining a holy war,
[and here we come, finally, to indulgences!]
Soldiers in the Crusades were issued “papal indulgences” by:
Soldiers in the Crusades were issued “indulgences”
by the Pope.
That is: Soldiers who went to war “for Christ and his bride, the church,”
were guaranteed God’s Grace while at war.
If they died, said simply, they got a “get out of hell free ticket”
or in other words, a “free ticket” to Heaven.
(It was kind of like a Medieval version of the G.I. Bill).
As Luther appears on the scene,
the Crusades have ended, but a new movement in church history has begun: a movement we call Colonization.
Or the conquering of the Americas.
In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,
bringing with him more church-sanctioned violence,
The church leaders in this time are political leaders, many of them corrupt;
many of them, quite concerned about gold
Bishop Bartolome De Las Casas reported that when the colonizers came to the Americas, the Indigenous people were convinced that Columbus and his compatriots must be worshipers not of Christ (of whom they did not know), but rather of GOLD!
At least that is what their behavior indicated.
At the same time,
Across the ocean,
back in Europe,
the vatican had taken to building really big, expensive buildings,
some gilded with gold from the Americas.
The biggest building project in Luther’s time,
(remember he is nailing the theses in 1517)
The big project in Luther’s time
is the construction of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome
(Just so you can get a visual,
Rome is about 900 Miles from Wittenberg and Luther and his 95 Theses)...
The Basilica to St. Peter, which you can still visit today...
Was a really big, fancy, monument dedicated to Peter, Jesus’ disciple, and the so-called “First Pope,”
A place for his remains to be “rightfully” honored...
A “multi-trillion dollar project” that would last from 1506-1626
built to Honor the saint who had given up all of his possessions and became homeless in order to follow Jesus.
[We’re almost to Luther]
To add to the wealth generated from conquest and colonization,
Specifically for the St. Peter’s “Building Fund,”
Leaders in the church, bishops and cardinals and priests,
decided, or, better, realized,
that they could raise a considerable amount more money
if they re-imagined and re-branded
Papal Indulgences--those things they used in the Crusades!
An so that’s what they did.
And this brings us to Martin Luther.
|Indulgence Signed by Tetzel. "By the authority of all the saints, |
and in mercy towards you, I absolve you from all sins and misdeeds
and remit all punishments for ten days." Indulgence - 1517 Source
In Luther’s corner of the world, in particular--that is, in Germany,
Indulgence peddlers were given the task of:
Probably the most infamous was a man named Johann Tetzel.
Indulgence Peddlers were putting on these graphic, travelling theater productions describing people suffering in hell or purgatory,
They’d scare people to death with hellfire and wrath
and a picture of an angry God
who seemed to have traits much like those of the Crusaders and Conquistadores,
And the indulgence peddlers would then
immediately follow these “plays” with (of course) a sales pitch.
“If you buy this piece of paper (this indulgence) from the pope, your loved one will be freed from suffering and damnation.”
One of the most famous indulgence jingles was this one:
“When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs!”
In Luther’s time and place,
It was the teaching of some,
specifically of indulgence peddlers in Germany,
that God’s forgiveness--more specifically, God’s grace, was for sale.
The opposite of “can’t buy me love.”
Actually, love--or at least Grace is what was being purchased...
The church was corrupt.
Mystics, Nuns, Monks, priests, and others had already been calling their church back to faithfulness in their own ways, in their own places.
And Luther, himself an Augustinian monk and professor, did likewise.
Specifically, one of the things he saw
was the damage the indulgence peddlers were doing,
especially the psychological and economic damage they were doing to the poor in his own native Germany.
He was beginning to see clearly the indulgence peddlers as exploiters and abusers of the people.
He was concerned for the people in his own parish,
many of whom were poor,
and who were forgoing buying food that week
in order to buy forgiveness for family members--
Convinced, of course, that temporal hunger was more tolerable (at least psychologically) than the eternal or semi-eternal suffering of hellfire for a loved one, folks would “splurge” on indulgences,
and not eat that week. Or something comparable.
Luther also saw the indulgences themselves as contrary to a genuine call to a faithful Christian life, which he saw marked by genuine repentance and reformation of the heart.
If faith was reduced to a financial transaction
if a Christian could buy God’s grace,
then the Christian life would become meaningless and worth-less,
a relationship with God would be reduced
to an economic transaction…
Luther was concerned about faith, and a genuine, lived, Christian life, and was beginning to see how the church hierarchy, steeped in corruption, greed, and the selling of grace, by way of indulgences, were in contradiction, and even opposition to the picture of Grace he would discover about two years later more clearly in the Gospels,
and in the writings of St. Paul and St. Augustine.
Luther was concerned.
So he wrote 95 theses, stating his concerns and opinions.
He meant to start a debate. He sparked the Protestant Reformation.
This is Luther’s context.
And With that context, I present to you a few of the 95 Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, published by Martin Luther, October 31, 1517, and according to legend, nailed to the Wittenberg Castle Church Door.
I also leave us with the challenge, of course, to listen for and participate in the continued work of that Spirit of love and Reformation and liberation today.
How will we proclaim boldly God’s love for all people?
How will we resist both the commoditization of God and of humans?
How will we resist the exploitation of the poor?
How will we create a church made of Christians known not by their hierarchy or exploitation, or gold,
but by their genuine lives of reform, daily renewal, and Love of neighbor?
Then, without further ado:
Some of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses On The Power And Primacy Of Indulgences!
Again, these are simply a few of my favorites:
Thesis #43 Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than he who buys indulgences.
45 Christians are to be taught that he who sees a needy man and passes him by, yet gives his money for indulgences, does not buy papal indulgences but God's wrath.
46 Christians are to be taught that, unless they have more than they need, they must reserve enough for their family needs and by no means squander it on indulgences.
50 Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the indulgence preachers, he would rather that the basilica of St. Peter were burned to ashes than built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep.
51 Christians are to be taught that the pope would and should wish to give of his own money, even though he had to sell the basilica of St. Peter, to many of those from whom certain hawkers of indulgences cajole money.
82 ``Why does not the pope empty purgatory for the sake of holy love and the dire need of the souls that are there if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a church?'' The former reason would be most just; the latter is most trivial.
86 Again, ``Why does not the pope, whose wealth is today greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build this one basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?''
90 To repress these very sharp arguments of the laity by force alone, and not to resolve them by giving reasons, is to expose the church and the pope to the ridicule of their enemies and to make Christians unhappy.