Back in November, I let you know that there was some planning going on among Catholics and Lutherans in the Springfield area to commemorate the beginnings of the activity, five hundred years ago in Europe, which led to what is today called “the Protestant Reformation.”
I am happy to announce the opening event for this commemoration. The planning group, which is called “Project 501” in recognition of the work which is before all Christian brothers and sisters as we seek the unity Jesus intends for us, has scheduled an opening event for Sunday, Jan. 29, from 2 to 3:30 p.m., at the Chiara Center, 4849 Laverna Road, Springfield. I will be speaking, along with Pastor Christian Repp of Grace Lutheran Church in Champaign (who is ecumenical officer of the Central/Southern Illinois Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), on the situations in western Europe which led this German Augustinian monk and Scripture professor, Martin Luther, to question teachings and practices of his time regarding salvation and justification in the sight of God.
I feel I have a good deal of work to do in preparation for this event. I look back to my seminary years and the treatment of the Reformation in a European-history class, as well as a church-history class specifically on the Reformation. In the years since ordination, I was fortunate to have participated with Lutheran pastors, in the 1980s, in a study of the issue of “justification by faith.” In 1999, of course, we recognized the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, by Pope John Paul II and the Lutheran World Federation, as a significant step toward attaining mutual understanding between Lutherans and Catholics on issues which, in our initial misunderstanding so long ago, led not only to rifts between believers but also to religious wars. My ecumenical interactions over the years have allowed me to gain appreciation and esteem for Christians who have reflected on the gift of salvation in their post-Reformation traditions.
Immersing oneself in the world of Luther, however, requires even more work. I hope I can do justice to this most important topic: how Christians, at that time, understood God’s work of salvation and justification, and the urgency which Luther felt to critique and clarify our understanding of the believer’s fundamental disposition before God.
I keep mentioning “justification,” which is a key term for grasping Luther’s anxieties. He gave lectures on St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, in which Paul clearly proclaimed that people are saved and justified by the free gift of Jesus in his death and resurrection. Luther was concerned that, for many Christians, this awareness of the free gift of salvation was being impeded. This is, I believe, as close as we can get to a brief summary of the Reformation.
Today’s Solemnity of the Epiphany keeps before us the image of an entire world — represented by the Magi who made their journey to Bethlehem — recognizing the universal significance of the child who has everything to say to human beings about who we are and about the God to whom we all belong. I hope you can be present on Jan. 29 as we explore together the common treasure of Christian faith. May we together take a few more steps toward the unity which gives praise to Jesus.