Five years ago we were all worked up for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. I still have my playmobil Luther figurine on a shelf in my dining room. It was a bit of a frenzy. I remember one German scholar talking about Reformation exhaustion. That all seems like an eternity ago because it was on the other side of COVID.
In the fall of 1522, 500 years ago this year, I think Luther might have looked back on the day he nailed those 95 Theses with a similar sense of distance. In 1518 he presented the Heidelberg Disputation and articulated the Theology of the Cross (better said: theologian of the cross.) He also met Cardinal Cajetan that October and his Reformation movement started taking a decidedly anti-papal turn. In 1520 he rocked the theological world with three important treatises which outlined Sacramental, Vocational, and Justification theologies. The next year he appeared before the Holy Roman Emperor at Worms and made is famous “Here I Stand” statement. From there, 10 months in hiding in the Wartburg. By early 2022 he was out of hiding and back in Wittenberg.
But his return to Wittenberg that year was occasioned by the excesses of Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt. The reformation in Luther’s absence had gone radical in Wittenberg. Crowds, mobs really, inflamed by the rhetoric of Karlstadt had broken windows and statues in an effort to purge the church of idolatry. Karlstadt had abandoned any ties with the past, conducting services without vestments, distributing the elements in both kinds, and inflaming people with his words.
In 1522 Luther must have felt like he had a tiger by the tail. It felt like all the rules were being overturned. It was a moment when the world seemed poised for radical upheaval and change. I think if we are honest about it, the Lutheran movement in 1522 looked a lot more like the rioting and looting mobs which afflicted Portland in the days after George Floyd’s death than it did the stolid middle class folks who sit in our pews.
Luther’s response in that time is instructive and continues be informative for us. In the midst of a world in which it appeared everything was up for grabs, he latched onto a singular truth – God’s love for people. That principle, that God loved people more than he loved anything else would guide Luther’s actions during 1522 and the years that followed. That meant that Karlstadt’s excesses were reigned in. He had gone too fast, ignoring the needs to people. When the peasants revolted in 1524, Luther turned to the secular authorities to put down the rebellion because the rebellion was not in the interest of people.
We would likely call this emphasis by Luther today a Pastoral. He was willing to say that people were more important than doctrinal or practical rectitude. Yes, communion in both kinds was the goal, but we will get there by the patient and careful instruction of people. We do not strip out the images from church before we teach people how to read because the images help them see the story which they cannot read. We might even keep the images for the children and the simple people who cannot read. Even sacramental practices and Ten Commandments bowed before the principle of God’s love for people and what is best for them.
Every generation has its temptation to radicalization and the sort of change which puts a new idea, an old idea, or some rectitude before the needs of people. Luther’s Reformation largely succeeded where others failed because he remembered the pastoral core of Theology and Church. Jesus has gathered people into His church because he loves them. We need to remember this as well.