Lutherans in our midst

LutherandKatieI was quite surprised to see the story Terry sent me from yesterday's Los Angeles Times. Written by religion reporter K. Connie Kang, the story is about the holy day being celebrated today by millions of Lutherans, as well as Christians of various Protestant denominations: Reformation Sunday. The last time I wrote about a Kang story was her excellent piece on Epiphany. It's so nice to see a reporter delve into the liturgical calendar for story ideas:

This liturgical festival, marking Martin Luther's 16th century challenge to papal authority by nailing 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, inspired the Protestant Reformation that changed the course of Western civilization.

Luther's theses, challenging certain practices and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, ultimately led to the division of Europe into two camps and triggered religious wars that lasted decades.

"The Reformation was about the centrality of Christ in the life of the individual and centrality of the word of God in worship," said the Rev. Nathan P. Feldmeth, an expert on medieval and Reformation history at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.

At the heart of the Reformation is the doctrine of justification by faith -- meaning people are saved by God's grace, through faith in Jesus Christ, not by good deeds, Feldmeth said.

Luther said works are important, but they are a natural outgrowth of salvation -- not crucial to earning it.

I think Luther may have been a tad bit stronger about precisely how much our works accomplish toward our salvation, but I'm not quibbling because I'm so darn happy to see a story about Reformation Sunday in a major paper. My church is holding a special service today following the order of Luther's Deutsche Messe (except in English, just as Martin "Vernacular" Luther would have liked), with a special Bible Class explaining the history and meaning of the service. I'm sure, lest there be a riot, that we will heartily sing "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God." True aside, here: I have sung that hymn in a Roman Catholic church in Maryland. I still don't understand how the battle hymn of the Reformation gets sung during a Catholic service. Anyway, later I'm gathering with friends for a party (complete with German beverages and food).

Kang gets a bit of local color in her story, explaining that one area congregation is celebrating the 400th birthday of Lutheran hymn writer Paul Gerhardt and a presentation by theologian Madeleine Forell Marshall, a professor of religion and literature at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, who has translated Luther and Gerhardt's hymns into contemporary English:

The cozy sanctuary, with its dark wood ceilings and exquisite stained-glass windows, will be decked out in red -- red altar cloths, red banners and red hangings, called paraments, from the altar, pulpit and lectern.

The Rev. John Rollefson, pastor of the church, donning a red chasuble, will deliver a sermon on the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.

As the Gospel of Luke tells the story, the Pharisee prayed, "God, I thank you that I am not like other men -- robbers, evildoers, adulterers -- or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get." But, the tax collector, overcome with his sinfulness, beat his chest and said, "God, have mercy on me, a sinner."

It was the tax collector, Jesus said, not the Pharisee who went home justified before God. Quoting Jesus, Luke wrote: "For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."

The parable is a "great text" for Reformation Sunday, Rollefson said, because so many religious people are self-righteous.

"Christians, particularly Christians in the American setting, tend to be quite self-congratulatory about their piety," he said. "Jesus' punch line is that he came to save sinners -- those who know their need of God, rather than those who think they're doing God a favor."

LutherRose350Again, so nice to have a reporter actually include details like what text a local pastor will preach on. Later Kang explains the significance of red (the color of the Holy Spirit as well as martyrdom) as well as the significance of the Reformation in the way Christians worship, study the Bible and pray:

The sermon has become much more important and a longer part of the service since the Reformation, Feldmeth said, because it was used to expound upon biblical passages. Luther also introduced the idea of congregational singing.

The story is long, giving the reporter time to explain what Luther was protesting (the use of indulgences, among other things) and his subsequent excommunication from the Catholic Church. She doesn't sugarcoat Luther but neither does she make his intolerance a major part of the story. She includes nice words from the unlikely source of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. For that matter, she includes criticism from an unlikely source, too: Luther's wife Katie Van Bora. (That's Lucas Cranach the Elder's depiction of Katie and Martin above.)

The Fayetteville Observer also had a Reformation Sunday story (all based on one source). Let us know if you see any local coverage that's worthwhile.

Please respect our Commenting Policy