Many Lutheran churches are retracing their roots, anticipating this year’s Reformation Day observation which commemorates 500 years since Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of Wittenberg Church on Allhallows Eve.
Although Luther only intended to initiate debate on church practices he considered unbiblical, his actions triggered a church schism that spawned a denomination, Lutheranism.
For the past several months, Pastor Jason Shockman of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in West Salem guided his flock through a Bible study called, “What it Means to be Lutheran.”
“My hope is that by going through the study – 500 years after the Reformation – the result is following Jesus,” he said. “It’s not about following Luther.”
On Reformation Sunday, (Oct. 29 this year), Shockman’s flock will join several other Lutheran churches at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church for a special Reformation Day service.
“Ultimately, the Reformation is about truth,” Shockman said. “For us as Lutherans, our faith is defined by the truth of God’s Word.”
Pastor Kent Johnson of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in La Crescent asked his congregation to study “Luther’s Small Catechism” as a devotional during Lent this year. “This is an important year to recognize what 500 years means to us,” he said.
Johnson also pointed out that this was a chance for his church to look at its 58-year-old heritage in light of the Reformation. On Oct. 29, he will conduct both a confirmation service and a special Reformation Day service.
Pastor Don Stein of Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church in Onalaska set aside 10 minutes during 10 worship services this fall to discuss Luther and the background of the Reformation. He examined issues like why Luther succeeded, the heart of Luther’s message and the religious climate of the day.
“Reformation Day gives us the opportunity to discuss the blessings God has given through a servant such as Luther,” Stein said, “the good news in both language and music.”
Several services at Shepherd of the Hills recently featured “interviews” with Martin Luther played by Bruce Kerr of Onalaska. Kerr sang one of Luther’s original compositions, “From Heaven on High to Earth I Come,” in the original German. He also sang a German folk song, “Our Thoughts, They are Free.”
As host of the multi-church Reformation Day service, Shepherd of the Hills will feature special music by members of the Coulee Region Gospel Choir.
Although Pastor Tim Duesenberg of Gift of Grace Lutheran Church in Holmen didn’t schedule any special congregational activities, he and 300 other pastors of the North American Lutheran Church Synod will attend an ecumenical Reformation Day themed vesper service at St. Mary’s Catholic Seminary in Mundelein, Illinois.
Duesenberg painted the Lutheran heritage as a conservative one, pointing out that “Luther never wanted to go in a different direction.” The Reformation is really about, “getting back to the Scriptural authority that guides the Church,” he said.
The 95 Thesis
While Reformation Day is often built around Luther’s 95 Theses, many pastors concede that not all of Luther’s postings impact church life today. Some churchmen are using this time to bridge the 500-year-old chasm between the Catholic and Protestant churches.
“Many of the 95 Thesis’ don’t apply because we’ve found common ground,” observed Johnson. Last year, Johnson was part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) assembly that approved a document called, “The Church on the Way.” Johnson explained that it’s a guide to ecumenical relations with the Catholic church; one that the Pope helped initiate last year in Sweden.
Johnson pointed out that the assembly found 32 areas of agreement between Catholics and ELCA Lutherans as well as 15 areas of major differences.
“In the spirit of finding common ground, we can celebrate together that many of the things that divided us 500 years ago we no longer disagree on,” Johnson said.
Duesenberg voiced a similar thought, stating that much of what irked Luther involved the Indulgence question which today is a non-issue.
“We like to emphasize the ongoing nature of reform, not the schism,” Duesenberg said. “Reform was needed, but that should always be happening.”
Stein sees the 95 Thesis as setting the overall tone for Reformation and its effects today.
“I love the way Luther begins it,” Stein said. As a loose paraphrase it says, “out of love and concern for the truth.”
“He had concern for the eternal life of the people,” Stein added, referring to Luther. “He saw things that turned their attention away, and did not help people grow closer to God.”
Shockman, whose office wall displays a picture of Luther’s interrogation at the Diet of Worms also admits he doesn’t subscribe to the 95 Thesis because they lack relevance in today’s religious climate. “They were an invitation to have an open debate about Indulgences,” he said.
“But Luther still thinks of himself as a good Monk,” continued Shockman. “He’s still saying the church is good, valuable and right and we need to correct them.”
Yet, during Luther’s life, the debates would grind on. Simmering tensions exploded. The doctrinal fissure caused by Indulgences split open, spilling out a litany of other differences.
“Ultimately, the hiccup was grace,” Shockman said. “Grace is what saves you and you receive it by faith. It’s not your work, it’s a gift of God.”
“It’s about Jesus,” Shockman said. “We’re 500 years away from the Reformation and it’s still about Jesus.”