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.

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  • Martha

    Well, for us unregenerate Papists, it’s the Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time (if it wasn’t Sunday, it would be the Feast of St. Simon and St. Jude, and in the old calendar as the last Sunday in October, it would be the Feast of Christ the King).

    Anyway, if Protestants can sing “Faith of Our Fathers” (written by an English convert, Fr. Faber, as a reminder of the Catholic martyrs during the English Reformation), then Catholics can sing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (though I’ve not heard it – yet).

    Enjoy your – well, Lutherans don’t celebrate saint’s feast days, now do they? After being reformed from those superstitious and vain practices? What Would Marty Do? ;-)

  • Martha

    As a side note, I wonder if the liturgical colour used (red) is a holdover from the old days when it was the Feast of St. Simon and St. Jude, and red was the vestment colour for the day?

  • CJE

    Ouch! Actually Lutherans do keep the feasts of apostles, evangelists, and martyrs – and dozens of commemorations as well, just as the Augsburg Confession and its Apology declared. Remembering them our faith is strengthened; we give thanks for them and we imitate their example. Since the Feast of the Reformation takes precedence, we’ll get to SS Simon and Jude tomorrow.

  • cheryl

    Well, I recall occasionally hearing “A Mighty Fortress is our God” as a kid in my Catholic parish in the 1960s. This was post-Vatican II, but not by much.

    As an aside, I just came from Mass in which we sang the full lineup of sappy tunes from another infamous Marty (Haugen, that is! :-) I’d take A Mighty Fortress any time over what passes for music in many Catholic parishes these days. And after reviewing the lyrics again, I can’t say there is anything here for a Catholic to disagree with:

    Maybe I’ll celebrate today by reading up on the Counter-Reformation :-)

  • stevesh

    We sang “A Mighty Fortress” as the recessional hymn about six weeks ago at Mass. Our missal’s music section has both the English version and “Ein’ feste Burg.”

    The battle’s over — we love and abideth that tune. Thanks!

  • Rev. Christopher S. Esget

    @Martha: Red is not the color by virtue of a holdover from Ss. Simon and Jude; Reformation Day properly is Oct. 31 (the day of the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses), but frequently is transferred to the last Sunday in October.

  • David Palmer

    Love those Lutherans!

    Presbyterians celebrate Reformation Sunday as well, we sang “A mighty fortress is our God” yesterday – #316 in the (Australian) Rejoice! hymn book.

  • Basil

    Luther also introduced the idea of congregational singing.

    Perhaps “reintroduced” would be more accurate? I understand that the participation of the people had dwindled by the time of the 95 theses, but as I recall in my reading of liturgical scholarship, the choir develops rather late in both East and West. Someone please correct me on this if I’m wrong.

  • Rev. Paul T. McCain

    Nice paintings!

  • John M

    Again, so nice to have a reporter actually include details like what text a local pastor will preach on.

    Yes – that is good.

    Religious reporting often likes the new and the sensational, but rarely likes the mundane historical details – like what actually happened. One of our local reporters tells me that in reporting services of note in our community, he will often give the gist of the preacher’s message, but that it tends to get omitted by the editor.

  • wrigley peterborough

    I am shocked to see the 11pm time stamp for Rev. Esget’s entry. This might suggest the Lutherans in his area were up late, drinking and supping in honor of Brother Martin. But still coherent enough to make a valid point about liturgical colors. Impressed indeed am I!

  • The young fogey

    Ironically considering his place in history Luther is far less Protestant than most people suppose. He believed in the Immaculate Conception (St Thomas Aquinas didn’t!) and had a personal devotion to Mary he never gave up, and wasn’t shy about calling her the Mother of God (or Protestants are Nestorians and don’t know it). He believed in and went to confession. For a Protestant he was amazingly Catholic about the Eucharist. European Lutheranism is obviously an old Catholic reform movement that got pushed out. (In America Lutherans protestantised to blend in, still a tension in American Lutheranism… today the liturgical is competing with the megachurch evangelical style.) They retained the crucifix and chasubles when Anglicans got rid of them. The Missouri Synod site defends the crucifix and crossing yourself, things endorsed by Dr Luther himself. There are pockets of Lutheranism where I feel at home. (Just add apostolic bishops and Bob’s your uncle.) One issue on which Fr Richard John Neuhaus and I can agree is that the ‘Reformation’ wouldn’t have happened today. Justification by faith vs works is a non-issue.

  • Susan

    I did a paper on Luther for an education class in collge. He was an educational reformer and not alot of people know that. Sola Scriptura is the foundation to the other Solas: Truth over tradition. Jesus contended over that issue with the religious Jews. Religion makes God hard to live with.

  • MJBubba

    Contra the Young Fogey, I do not believe that Luther believed in the Immaculate Conception. At any rate, the LCMS rejects that teaching (ref. Augsburg Confession 2:1)
    Regarding the days of the saints on the liturgical calendar, LCMS recognizes about 50 festival days, a far smaller number than the Catholics do, and as a matter of practice we seldom notice any of them unless they happen to fall on a Sunday that has no other special significance. There is the whole thing about the mediation of the saints that we see differently.
    Thanks to Terry and Mollie for awarding kudos to good reporting when it can be applauded.

  • Julia

    The Gospel yesterday at our Catholic Church was the one cited in the article. Our take on it is: don’t brag about your good deeds and/or following purity laws and such from Old Testament Law is no longer necessary. Indulgences never were thought to forgive sins; they had to do with the perceived punishment for sins that remained after they were forgiven. The selling of indulgences was never official teaching of the Church; it was due to the excessive zeal of some priests that were castigated for it.

    “I still don’t understand how the battle hymn of the Reformation gets sung during a Catholic service.” There’s nothing in the words that Catholics can’t sing.

    And I second the irony that “Faith of Our Fathers” is frequently sung by you guys – it is by & about the brave recusant Catholics in England who persisted in spite of mortal danger. Why do you guys sing that hymn?

    Much of the impetus for the Reformation had to do with Luther’s shock at the earthiness of the Renaissance going on in Rome that he witnessed during a visit there and the political squabbles of the time. His theology actually deviated only slightly from standard Catholic teaching.

  • Julia

    One last comment:

    “He posted [the theses] in Latin so he wouldn’t disrupt everyday Christians.”

    Actually this was the ordinary way of calling for an academic debate. All academic debates were held in Latin – the call for a debate in Latin had nothing to do with shielding the non-Latin-speaking populace. This was standard practice until the last 100 years or so in Europe. In fact, an elderly Jesuit cousin of mine remembers being present at the defense of a thesis where everything was conducted in Latin – presentation, questions, answers and rebuttals. This probably ended sooner at Protestant Oxford and Cambridge than at Jesuit universities, but was surely still the norm in Germany at the time of Luther.

  • Mike Gridley

    It’s true that Luther did not endorse the doctrine that Mary was immaculately conceived but he did, evidently believe in her perpetual virginity.

    Interestingly enough, the Latin version of the Smalcald Articles contain the only reference to Mary’s perpetual virginity in our confessional documents, calling her “semper virgo”. The German version omits the expression.

    I have often thought that this may be because the German version, being meant for wider publication and use, intentionally avoided the enshrinement of this particular doctrine as confessionally binding.