Pastor Shawn Hannon
Hope Lutheran Church Arcade, NY
To this day my mother claims that she knew what she was doing and she had a really good reason for switching our family to First Lutheran Church in Jamestown when I was in middle school. I, however, know the real truth. She switched us to First because First, at the time, had a children’s choir. She thought that was pretty cool. And there you have it, but it’s crazy to think that one of the most important decisions in our family’s history was decided over something so extracurricular.
But whatever the reason, I am grateful. I was baptized in a Catholic Church, I took my first communion as an Episcopal, I married a Baptist, but I am home in the Lutheran Church, and not because all Lutheran churches have children’s choirs. I’m home because Lutheranism is the best way for me to live out my faith in Jesus and the best lens I’ve found yet to understand the love of God and how we are called to live with one another.
And I mention that because this month marks the 500th anniversary of the spark of the Protestant Reformation that inadvertently created the Lutheran Church. In 1517 Martin Luther, distressed about the bad theology and abuse of power at the time, wrote 95 Theses condemning the practices of the church and posted them for all to see. A revolution snowballed.
Protestantism forever changed the church and the world, and as we remember that transformation now 500 years later I’d like to quickly point out the five things I believe are the greatest gifts Luther gave the church.
1. Salvation by grace through faith. Luther insisted that good works and big offerings could never earn salvation. Instead he lifted up Romans 3 that reminds us all have sinned and fallen short, but are saved by grace as a gift.
2. Personal relationship with God. Although Luther never could have imagined a world without the church (ever!), he also noticed some practices of the church separated God’s children from their maker. They weren’t able to participate fully in the sacrament. They had to confess their sin and receive forgiveness through their priests. God was far away. Luther broke down the barriers that protected the power of the religious elite and granted people access to the divine. He restored the sacrament to the faithful, and began to eliminate the necessity of an intermediary for one of God’s elect to pray.
3. Accessibility of God’s Word. Along the same lines, Luther saw a world where the faithful could read their Bibles for study and reflection. He translated the Bible from Greek, Hebrew, and Latin into the common tongue of the people. With the help of the Gutenberg Printing Press and the increased literacy, God’s word was alive once again.
4. Priesthood of all believers. Luther taught that we are all at the same time sinners and saints. We’re in bondage to sin and can’t free ourselves, yet also washed in the blood of the lamb. And so the work of the gospel wasn’t limited to those preaching on Sunday, but to all the faithful. He taught that in whatever you do, you are to do it for the glory of God, and that all our work in our homes, communities, and work places should be honorable and good.
5. Rise of faith formation. And the last big thing I believe Luther gave the world is an understanding of the importance of faith formation as a life long endeavor. When he visited towns and churches he noticed common people had no clue about the Lord’s Prayer, the Creeds, or the 10 Commandments, and that their pastors were incompetent teachers. So he wrote what we call the Small Catechism, which was a short instruction manual covering the basics of the Christian faith. God isn’t interested in blind devotion and obligatory participation. For Luther faith was meant to be formed and nurtured, so that it could be lived.
Imagine a church without those things. A church where the rich get to heaven faster because they can afford it. A world where souls are crying out in purgatory while a pope teaches he can free them if you help him build his basilica. Imagine what it would be like if any time you needed to hear a word from God you had to come ask me to read it to you. Or a world where every time you made a mistake you had to individually confess in my office before receiving forgiveness.
Thank goodness we don’t have to imagine a world like that. Thank goodness for grace, and the word of God that once released from captivity was able to re-shape the church. Thank goodness for change.
I’m proud to be a Lutheran. I know denominational identity matters less these days, and I’m all for that too. But no matter what the church sign says, I’m grateful I can follow a tradition that repeatedly lifts up the importance of grace, purpose, and our relationship with God—a tradition that reminds us that we are always reforming (although it would be neat to bring back the children’s choirs. Who knows who we might bring in).
For more inspiration and insights from Pastor Scott and Pastor Shawn’s past columns, please visit www.jamestowngazette.com and click on the Faith Matters page. The Jamestown Gazette is proud to present our county’s most creative and original writers for your enjoyment and enlightenment.