Five Hundred Years of Reformation

It was one of those seminal moments in human history, a time when we can look back and say with wonder and humility, “The world was never the same after this event.” Tomorrow, Tuesday, October 31, is not only the eve of All Saints Day, but it is the 500th anniversary of the day when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the church door at Wittenberg, Germany.

Martin Luther (1483-1546) came from peasant stock. His father was a miner in southeast Germany and wanted a better life for his son by urging him to become a lawyer. Luther was on track educationally until July 1505, when he was caught in an intense storm that threatened his life. Luther prayed to the patron saint of miners, St. Anne, crying out, “Save me, St. Anne, and I’ll become a monk.” Luther’s life was spared, and he joined the strict monastic order of St. Augustine.

Life as a monk was not easy for Martin, whose father was greatly disappointed in his career change. During his early years in the monastery, Luther’s motivation seemed to be fear of the wrath of God more than love, and he was often obsessed with his sin. Thus began Luther’s quest for salvation by being the very best monk he could. Starting his day at 3 a.m., Luther tried to purify himself through practices like confession, reading scripture late into the night, and silently praying at almost every moment. For penance, he fasted to the point of emaciation and would even strike himself with a whip. Luther was a monk for almost twenty years.

In 1510, Luther was selected to participate in a church conference in Rome and was greatly distressed by the corruption and immoral behavior he witnessed among some priests. He was shocked to see how they would sell indulgences, essentially pardoning the sins of others in exchange for money. Not only was Luther deeply grieved about the practice of “selling salvation,” but he also began to question the role of grace, good works, salvation, and the relationship between clergy and laity in the Catholic Church.

In his anguish, Luther decided to enroll as a theology student at the University of Wittenberg, where he received his doctorate and became a theology professor. Luther’s distress at the state of the Catholic Church continued, however, and culminated on October 31, 1517. On that day, Martin Luther tacked up on the church door of Wittenberg (which served as a community bulletin board) his 95 theses, ways in which the Catholic Church needed reformation.

Luther’s savvy capitalization on the advent of the printing press enabled his writings and influence to spread far beyond Wittenberg.

I am not a Reformation scholar, nor did I grow up as a Lutheran. However, I did receive a bachelor of music degree from Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, and was very active in the Lutheran chapel as a student. I also studied organ and church music for a year at the Spandauer Kirchenmusikschule in West Berlin, Germany. I became steeped in the Evangelical Church in Germany, which is a federation of Lutheran, Reformed, and United Protestant church bodies, and would occasionally serve as a substitute organist.

Martin Luther’s influence is pervasive in Germany as well as in the US and other countries around the world. I have come to appreciate how the Reformation of the 16th century shapes us still today and lift up two ways in particular.

The Five Solas

Five Latin phrases have come to summarize the Reformation movement and Martin Luther’s theological convictions about the essentials of Christianity.

 

  • Sola Gratia (“grace alone”): We are saved by the grace of God alone.
  • Sola Fide (“faith alone”): We are saved through faith alone in Jesus Christ. We cannot be saved by anything we do.
  • Solus Christus (“Christ alone”): Jesus Christ alone is our Lord and Savior.
  • Sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”): The Bible alone is our greatest authority.
  • Soli Deo Gloria (“to the glory of God alone”): We live for the glory of God alone.

The priesthood of all believers

  • The Reformation movement begun by Martin Luther was grounded in the belief that Christians are not mere spectators but participants in worship. We don’t simply watch the priests others “do church” for us, read the Bible for us, or forgive sins for us. We have direct access to God.
  • Martin Luther translated the Bible into the German vernacular from the original Hebrew and Greek. He encouraged literacy so that laity could read the Bible for themselves.
  • Luther also translated the Latin Mass into the everyday language of his people and made congregational singing a regular part of worship. His love for singing influenced Lutheran composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel, and Felix Mendelssohn.

Martin Luther’s movement marks the beginning of the Reformation and the subsequent birth of other Protestant churches. John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli were leaders in what became the Reformed tradition. Anabaptists, the radical wing of the Reformation from which Mennonites and the Amish trace their roots, refused to baptize babies, insisting upon confession of faith as entrance into the church. King Henry VIII, challenging the Roman Catholic Church over politics and progeny, started the Reformation in England and set the stage for the Wesley brothers and the Methodists to emerge.

It was Martin Luther’s influence that precipitated John Wesley’s “warmed heart” at Aldersgate when he heard a reading of Luther’s “Preface to the Epistle to the Romans.” John and Charles shared Martin Luther’s emphasis on justification by faith and the priesthood of all believers. However, they also provided a corrective by emphasizing holiness of heart and life, that justification leads to sanctification. In an effort to counter the unscrupulous practices of “buying” salvation that led to the Reformation, the Wesley’s felt that Luther had gone too far in the other direction by emphasizing only “faith alone.” Personal and social holiness go hand in hand. A genuine faith will always express itself in love and good works.

The Reformation has forever changed the religious landscape of our world, reminding us of the importance of a deep, personal faith lived to the glory of God. At the same time, the shadow side of the Reformation spawned many a conflict over theological issues, not only between Luther and the Catholic Church but between the hundreds of Protestant denominations that exist today.

Despite all the good that Martin Luther did and the reformation he started, he had a shadow side. Luther was not only vehemently opposed to the Catholic Church of his day, but he also published scathing rhetoric against the Jews, which included these words in On the Jews and Their Lies, “And so, dear Christians, beware of the Jews… you can see how God’s wrath has consigned them to the Devil, who has robbed them not only of a proper understanding of the Scriptures, but also of common human reason, modesty and sense…. Thus, when you see a real Jew you may with a good conscience cross yourself, and boldly say, ‘There goes the Devil incarnate.’”[i]

Luther’s anti-Semitism was embraced by Nazism in Germany and led to unthinkable genocide, but it was also reflected in the complicit attitude of the Evangelical Church in Germany and their inability to call out the unspeakable evil perpetrated against the Jews.

The 500th anniversary of the Reformation gives us the opportunity to pause and question our own faith.

  • When are we reluctant to speak out against evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?
  • If we are saved by faith alone, what is the role of good works?
  • When Jesus so clearly yearns for his followers to be one, why are there so many different denominations?
  • How might Jesus be calling The United Methodist Church to be One in the midst of our diversity?
  • What needs to be reformed in our own lives today and in the next 500 years?

[i] “On Luther and His Lies,” Noam E. Marans, The Christian Century, October 25, 2017, p. 10.

Home to the Heart of God 

“It’s good to be home,” said Bishop Hee-Soo Jung. Last Saturday, our group of twenty bishops, clergy, and laity from the North Central Jurisdiction traveled from our home base in Incheon, South Korea, to the island of Ganghwa, along the northwest coast.

We had a two-fold purpose. First was to visit the Ganghwa Peace Observatory, which is only 1.4 miles across the water from North Korea. The observatory provides a sacred place for people from around the world to pray for the people of Korea, who have been separated from each other for more than sixty years. At this time in history, visiting the Peace Observatory also reminds us that tensions between North Korea and the United States are very high right now and that God calls people of faith to advocate for a peaceful reunification of both countries as well as to limit continued nuclear development in North Korea.

The Ganghwa Peace Observatory was a deeply meaningful experience, as we stood in front of the “altar to bowing for lost people” and prayed that God would use each one of us as instruments of God’s peace. The conflicts that we experience at times in the church as well as in our everyday lives seem trivial in comparison to families that were torn apart in an instant and are still not reunited.

The second reason we visited Ganghwa Island is because of its Methodist connections. The leader of our spiritual and cultural pilgrimage to Korea, Bishop Hee-Soo Jung of Wisconsin, was born and lived his early life on the island. It so happens that the house in which Bishop Jung was raised is now the location of the fellowship hall/educational building of the church in which he was baptized at the age of sixteen.

As we parked the bus and walked a quarter of a mile to Shinsam Methodist Church, Bishop Jung talked about his growing up years in a Buddhist Confucian family. Even though his parents were not Christians, he made a conscious decision to give his life to Christ as a teenager because of the influence of the Methodist preacher who built a church next to their house.

We were greeted warmly by the pastor of Shinsam Methodist Church and his wife, as well as Bishop Jung’s uncle, who is a congregational leader. We took off our shoes, as is the custom in much of Korea, and were seated in this beautiful sanctuary. Bishop Jung’s uncle told some stories from the church’s past, and then Bishop Jung shared how he came to faith. His parents did not want him to go to a Christian church, yet Bishop Jung persevered, believing that Christ was the only way forward for him. His uncle lovingly called him the “handsome guy” in the family.

Bishop Jung joined the church, was called to be a teacher and preacher, and was eventually elected a bishop in The United Methodist Church. Bishop Jung commented, “This is how we grow in grace and understanding. We tell our stories. This island is so close to North Korea. Our job is to share the peace of Christ and seek reconciliation.”

The women of the church made a beautiful lunch of traditional Korean food in the Fellowship Hall. What was most amazing is that, after hearing that our delegation was coming, one of the men stayed up all night and built new wooden tables for our lunch. Church members usually sit on the floor to eat. How incredible that God set Bishop Jung apart as a youth and that he responded by saying, “Here I am, Lord. Send me.”

The second Methodist Church we visited is the third oldest Methodist church in Korea. In 1892, Missionary George H. Jones tried to go on a mission to Ganghwa Island, but the residents refused to receive him, and it resulted in failure. Around that time, Lee Seung-hwa, who was converted and became a missionary in the town of Incheon, went back to Ganghwa Island, his hometown, and led his mother to God.

After Lee’s mother asked to be baptized, Missionary Jones returned to the island dressed in Han-bok, which is Korean traditional clothing, However, Sang-im, a Confucian scholar, refused to let any western people into the village. Consequently, Missionary Jones invited Lee Seung-hwa to bring his mother to the ship by boat. By the light of a full moon, Missionary Jones baptized Lee’s mother in the Yellow. This was the first seed of Christianity planted on Ganghwa Island.

Our guide at the Kyosan Methodist Church and museum shared this story to remind us that the gospel of Jesus Christ always begins on the margins. Our call is to spread the gospel that we have inherited from our missionary tradition: a gospel that is relevant to the culture where it is shared, and a gospel that invites all to come to the waters, especially the very least of God’s children.

The gospel that missionary Jones preached began on Ganghwa Island started in the northwest corner, moved to the center, and spread all over Ganghwa. At a time when there was a rigid social class system, the gospel of Jesus Christ proclaimed that all are one body, and the dividing wall came down. Missionary Jones and Lee, who was the first upper-class man to be converted to Christianity, are forefathers of the Methodist tradition on Ganghwa Island.

Today there are an amazing 125 Methodist churches on the island, all because of Lee, a man who heard the gospel from a western missionary, dedicated his life to Christ and made a commitment to share that love, hope, and peace throughout the island. Social justice, equality of class, and liberation have always been part of the Methodist tradition in Korea.

In, 1876 there was one Christian in Korea. In 1906, there were 44,000 Christians. Today, out of a population of 51.1 million people in South Korea, 13.2 million are Protestants. The three largest Protestant groups are Presbyterians, with 36,328 churches and 8,173,488 members; Methodists, with 6,518 churches and 1,486,215 members; and the Assembly of God, with 618 churches, and 1,057,783 churches.

The Korean Methodist Church, which is an autonomous church and not part of The United Methodist Church, has 13 annual conferences, 13 bishops, 3 theological seminaries, 693 facilities for social welfare, and 1,094 missionaries in 72 countries.

Last night, as we said farewell to our friends at the Bupyeong Methodist Church, Pastor Hong said, “There is a real possibility of war in the Korean Peninsula, so there is really no choice but to pray. Please continue to pray for us, and I hope that you will share our deep love and appreciation for your country. You sent missionaries to share the love of Jesus with us many years ago. Then you supported us during the Korean War. God bless you.”

Thanks be to God for that gifts that the Korean Methodist Church offers to the world: prayer, discipleship, service, deep spiritualty, perseverance, and radical hospitality. Our challenge as Christ followers is to go and do likewise: to offer Christ in such compelling and grace-filled ways that all are invited to come home to the heart of God.

Don’t Make Me Choose!

While traveling to a denominational meeting, my eyes were immediately drawn to the front page article in the September 15 Wall Street Journal. “A Doctor’s Hard Decision” by Drew Hinshaw was about John Vallentine, a doctor volunteering on a rescue ship in the Mediterranean Sea. The Golfo Azzurro is dedicated to helping immigrants who are floating on rafts, desperate to escape to Europe and begin a new life. The ship was traveling south to locate a rubber dinghy packed with migrants. The raft was beginning to deflate, putting many lives at peril. 

As the Golfo Azzurro was steaming toward the raft, the ship’s radio interrupted to say that a lone West African man who was rescued from the water by another vessel was desperately ill. They needed a doctor immediately. What to do? Change direction to try to save this one man or continue on their mission to save many more people on the rubber dinghy? Doctors use many methods to triage or prioritize care, but, still, decisions are not often clear-cut.

Dr. Vallentine, age 70, was a professor of ethics in his home country of Australia until he retired and is now devoting his life to rescuing migrants from the waters that can lead to a new home and life. Vallentine was accustomed to dealing with very difficult moral and ethical questions regarding the treatment of the ill, yet, still, the decision was agonizing.

Valentin said, “It’s all about finite resources in a world of infinite need. Do I look after this one, that 10, this 600?” What to do? Change course to save one man who might even be dead by the time the ship got there, or simply stay on course to find the overloaded dinghy and let the sick man die? Don’t make me choose!

The next day, I became involved in conversations with other United Methodists around the Commission on a Way Forward and the future of our beloved church. One person shared how their congregation is having holy conversations around human sexuality and said, “Our church is divided around this issue, as are many other churches. However, most of our congregation is committed to remaining united in our diversity. We believe our greatest witness to the world is that we can continue to worship, serve, and share God’s love together in the midst of our differences. Our fear is that The United Methodist Church will split. Please don’t make us choose one side or another!

Humans have always lived in a world where we are faced with complex choices. The Old Testament book of Deuteronomy witnesses to the fact that when the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness for forty years, they were often tempted to go astray and follow the ways of the people in the land. But Moses tried to bring them back by reminding them to choose wisely.

I call heaven and earth as my witnesses against you right now: I have set life and death, blessing and curse before you. Now choose life – so that you and your descendants will live –  by loving the Lord your God, by obeying his voice, and by clinging to him. That’s how you will survive and live long on the fertile land the Lord swore to give to your ancestors: to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (Deuteronomy 30:19-20, CEB)

Dr. Vallentine made the difficult decision to change the ship’s course and head toward the man who was gravely ill and was having seizures. Once this man was on the ship, the crew tried to summon a helicopter to come and take him to a hospital on the mainland, but none were available. It was a no-win situation. They could not evacuate the man, nor had they been able to travel toward the dinghy that was deflating.

Almost one-third of all migrant boats that leave Libya sink and most West African migrants can’t swim. No one could help the dinghy that was taking on water. Meanwhile, Dr. Vallentine and the Golfo Azzurro landed six hours later at Lampedusa, an Italian island, to get help for the old man who was gravely ill.

The doctor told his crew, “I feel a little responsible and sad because of the amount of energy involved in this operation for one person, but we chose to do what’s right for this man. We think that this man represents every man.” Don’t make me choose!

Indeed, every life is precious. In the Social Principles of our United Methodist Book of Discipline, the language used around abortion reflects the enormity of the choices we often have to make. “We recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases we support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures by certified medical providers.” (¶161K) I was in that situation myself when I was pregnant and experienced serious complications. There are not always clear answers. Don’t make me choose!      

In order to survive, our local churches are faced with similar choices. How will we choose life in the midst of declining worship attendance and resources? How can we realign our priorities so that we can focus our energy outward rather than inward? How do we let go of activities that do not align with our mission, vision, and strategic priorities and focus on those ministries that will make a transforming difference in our communities? Don’t make us choose!

How do we overcome the temptation in local churches to spend our time at the fellowship gathering after worship talking to our friends rather than greeting and engaging those who are first-time guests? When resources are limited, do we start a Sunday class for special needs children, throw our energy into using the church as a homeless shelter once a year, or travel to the nearby city once a month to cook dinner at the rescue mission? Do we set aside what little staff money that is available for a parish visitor, a middle school youth coordinator, or a nursery coordinator? How do we make prayerful decisions when there are no easy answers? Don’t make us choose!

At a conference level, how do we decide what positions will need to be eliminated when budget cuts are necessary? How do we decide which ministries should receive conference funding and which need to secure their own funding? How do appointive cabinets decide when it is time for a local church to intentionally discern its future? When do congregations admit, “We’ve tried everything we know how to revitalize this church, but it’s not happening. We are using up all of our reserves. If we can’t continue, let’s save what little we have left to leave a legacy in this community or give our assets to another church that is making a difference in discipleship, ministry, and outreach.” Don’t make us choose!

The man who was ill, Mr. Osei, was finally flown by helicopter from Dr. Vallentine’s ship to Sicily but died in the ambulance that was taking him from the landing strip to the hospital. Several days later, the Golfo Azzurro ended up back in the place where the deflating rubber dinghy had been. The crew saw the remains of two recently deflated rubber boats in the water. There appeared to be no survivors. No one knew what happened.

Did Dr. Vallentine make the wrong choice? He did what he could on a boat that was dedicated to rescuing migrants. He acted with integrity, using the best knowledge he had.

  • Can you and I “choose life” by loving the Lord our God, obeying God’s voice, and by clinging to God’s grace?
  • Can our local churches, each one precious and unique, “choose hope” by giving ourselves away in love to our communities?
  • Can The United Methodist Church “choose unity” by focusing on our common mission to make disciples rather than on what divides us?

Lord, when we experience tragic conflicts of life with life and our hearts cry out to you, “Don’t make us choose!” inspire us to choose life and love by acting prayerfully and humbly together.