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Why there and then? Well, the church door was the community bulletin board - notices and advertisements were regularly placed there, just as they are on the bulletin board today at Bi-Lo. As to October 31st, then and now that is the date for All Hallows Eve (Halloween, as we know it), the day before All Saints Day, November 1st, a day that saw church attendance in Medieval Europe at its peak as people gathered to remember the dearly departed. So, as in all of life, Luther knew that timing is everything, and this place on this day would be certain to attract a good audience. It worked. It started a debate that, in many ways, has continued now for almost 500 years.
There is an old story about a six-year-old Protestant boy who accompanied the family of a six-year-old Catholic girl on an outing to the beach. The day was warm and the girl was precocious, and could not wait to get into the water. She removed her clothes, but in her haste neglected to put on her swimsuit, and thereby gave the young lad an education. He stared at her with open mouth and remarked, "I didn't know there was that much difference between Protestants and Catholics!"
Differences? Well, there are some, although not nearly so many now as in generations past. When many of us were coming up, Protestants and Catholics eyed each other with, at best, suspicion, and, at worst, thinly disguised disdain. Not so now, fortunately. Several years ago, on the Sunday I was installed as pastor here, the list of speakers included my good friend, Father Walter Packard from St. Joseph's, who, at the time, was president of our Warren Area Ministerial Association. As we know, there are a number of religiously-blended families in this congregation, one spouse Presbyterian, the other Roman Catholic. Many of our Catholic relatives attended that installation service that day despite a lingering feeling among some of the "more senior" ones that they might be committing some heinous sin simply by entering this sanctuary. The look of relief on their faces to see Father Packard sitting up here was a joy to behold.
Fortunately, within the past generation, we have begun expending more energy expressing our essential unity as the church of Jesus Christ than exacerbating our disunity. The world is smaller now; it is much more religiously diverse, and as 9/11 made all too plain, much more dangerous because of religion. The differences between Protestant and Catholic just do not seem so important anymore.
For that matter, as you history scholars know, Luther would have been appalled at the split that occurred in the church because of his questions. He wanted to fix a problem, not create an entirely new branch of Christianity. There were some issues that needed to be addressed. Fix them and move on.
Luther's immediate distress was over the sale of INDULGENCES or "pardons" for sin offered by the church - kind of a "Get Out of Hell Free" deal (but not quite "free," as we shall see). The young priest had a theological problem with that. His own study of scripture had convinced him of the truth of Paul's statement in the epistle to the Romans: "We maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from observing the law."
Simply to thy cross I cling.
Brother Martin had come to the doctrine that has been called the cornerstone of the Reformation: Justification by Faith Alone. No "indulgences" necessary, thank you.
But Luther's new understanding clashed sharply with the church's position that people are saved by both faith AND good works - God is willing and able to forgive sins, but God requires some religious ritual or good deed, some act of penance, to prove that the sinner is truly sorry. If the forgiven sinner dies before getting the slate wiped clean, he or she has to spend time in purgatory, a place of purifying pain, until the spiritual obligations are met. For Luther, this was a problem.
Well, as we all know, the most sensitive nerve in a person's body is the one attached to the pocketbook. To be painfully honest, that same rule often applies to the church. That meant that Luther's concern might hit where it hurts. Indulgences had been used for hundreds of years to finance the work of the church. Indulgences had paid for the Crusades. Now, the Pope was using them as a "Capital Campaign" to complete construction of St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.
Enter a new player onto the stage, a Dominican Friar named Johann Tetzel. Tetzel had been commissioned to travel throughout much of Germany on behalf of the campaign. In exchange for a contribution, Tetzel would provide donors with an indulgence, either for a departed loved one, or even perhaps yourself to be used later (sort of a pre-need service). The sales pitch was down to a science, even an ancient version of "You Deserve a Break Today." Tetzel's jingle went, "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings/ a soul from purgatory springs." In the current movie on the life of Martin Luther, Tetzel says to the assembled crowd of his assistants, "These priests are waiting." The first telethon???
To Luther, Tetzel's preaching was not simply bad business, it was bad theology. That precipitated the 95 Theses. As we say, Luther did not expect anything remarkable to happen now other than a scholarly debate. But, this thing began to lose all proportion and take on a life of its own. The people in the streets began discussing the issue; Luther became a hero, not because of his theology, but because he wanted to keep German money in Germany. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The Reformation laid important foundations for the faith you and I share today:
You can go back to New Testament times and find something similar. In the city of Thessalonica, there were Christians who were convinced that the Second Coming of Christ was just around the corner. Thus, they quit their jobs and abandoned the routine claims of every day to wait about in excited idleness for the Lord to return. They waited...and waited...and kept on waiting. Finally, their resources were spent and they were forced to rely on the kindness of the church to keep them going.
The Apostle Paul, who had helped found the Thessalonian church, got wind of the problem and wrote to bring them to their senses. He used himself as the example:
We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone's food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to make ourselves a model for you to follow.
All his life Paul was a man who worked with his hands - he was a tentmaker. No surprise. He was a good Jew and good Jews glorified work. "He who does not teach his son a trade," they said, "teaches him to steal." Paul was a trained Rabbi; but the Jewish law said that a Rabbi must take no pay for teaching. He must have a trade and must satisfy his daily needs with the work of his hands. So we find Rabbis who were bakers, barbers, carpenters, masons, whatever. The Jews believed in the dignity of honest toil; and they were sure that a scholar lost something when he became so academic and so withdrawn from life that he forgot how to work with his hands. Honest work was important, no matter what kind. Paul could not believe that able-bodied folks were just sitting around and doing nothing for no other reason than they chose to.(1) Finally, in exasperation, the Apostle fairly screams, "If a man will not work, he shall not eat."
All right, we buy that. But all work is not equally important. True enough. I would never argue that a multi-million dollar NBA player is as important as a first-grade teacher, even though the compensation levels might indicate otherwise. All that money truly reflects is the ridiculous system of values extant in modern society - someday, we will wise up (I hope). No, all work is not equally important, but the Reformation insists that all work has its own importance.
In an English churchyard, there is an epitaph half concealed by moss on a simple flat stone which reads:
In this parish for forty years
He cobbled shoes to the glory of God.(2)
I really believe that if folks took this seriously, we would have a better world than we do. Once a man was negotiating to buy a house and bought it without even seeing it. He was asked why he took such a risk; his answer was, "I know the man who built that house and he builds his Christianity in with the bricks."(3) Good for him. Is that the way you work? I hope so.
This understanding of the sanctity of the common life, I believe, is where the rubber meets the road concerning the way we witness to our faith. This is the faith that matters between Sundays. This is the faith the world sees, and it preaches a sermon that is louder than any from a pulpit.
We believe God calls each of us to service, whether at a paying job, at home with a family, or in volunteer pursuits. If you would like some guidance concerning what is a valid "Call" from God, use these four questions:
1. William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible, CD-ROM edition (Liguori, MO: Liguori Faithware, 1996) used by permission of Westminster/John Knox Press
2. Dr. Daniel W. Massie, "The Servant's Calling," sermon preached at First Scot's Presbyterian Church, Charleston, SC, ½0/02, via internet
3. William Barclay
4. Adapted from Bible Illustrator for Windows, diskette, (Hiiawatha, IA ; Parsons Technologies, 1996)