The 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s Reformation — it’s a significant date for Protestants, and for Germans in particular, today. Luther is, after all, a German figure of world-historical significance and tremendous fame. Even here in Japan, I sometimes meet local Lutherans, and they are usually proud to identify as Rûteru-ha.
I took time to watch a new dramatization of his life, “Between Heaven and Hell” on the ZDF public channel, and it was surprisingly good. There are a number of other special reports about Luther and the Reformation on this channel alone.
I had already listened to several pieces about it on Deutschlandfunk, leading up to today’s anniversary. Luther was again the pivot of most of the reporting. One thing I learned there was that the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD, that is the main Protestant umbrella organization) and the Catholic German Bishops’ Conference have worked together to come up with a “joint word” for this occasion, a collection of texts titled “Erinnerung heilen – Jesus Christus bezeugen” (Healing the memory – Witnessing to Jesus Christ). I read a bit through it. Both churches acknowledge wrongdoings in their past towards each other and the suffering that Reformation-related struggles and division have caused in the past. They both show a willingness to repent, ask for forgiveness and create reconciliation towards one another. This seems to be quite a milestone, and it’s encouraging for me to see the document written in a spirit of respect and humility. Luther’s legacy was addressed, too, without painting him as hero or demon as it had been traditionally.
I feel it’s important that Protestants and Catholics can enter a process of healing. But to be very honest, when I learned the EKD chose to focus on Luther for this Reformation anniversary, I was disappointed. As important as all of the above is, it all sounded again like the church being self-absorbed and distracted from the center of its faith: the Gospel. For me, it’s too much Luther and too little Jesus.
Would Luther at all be happy with the fuss around his persona? What was his message anyway? What was the Reformation for? He himself — “bound through the meaning of the Scripture” — pointed to the Bible. He didn’t invent the theology of a merciful and loving God. He found that God through Paul and the Gospels. He was — a translator, of a message already present.
Luther’s resistance against the church at his time was important and earth-shattering. Commemorating it is alright, but then what? What are Protestants going to do from here? What is Christianity for now?
How about not staying content with the Reformation of Luther, but getting back to the Revolution of Jesus? Because the Reign of God that was on Jesus’ lips was not just meant to “reform” the established religion of his time — the Judean temple cult centered in Jerusalem — as if to blow off some dust or tweak the rules to repair a broken machine. It was more than that. He spoke of turning the world, its values, its man-made orders upside down. He went around in the mud, visited the sick, spoke of the destitute and broken as the light of the Earth. His first followers believed that through him a power had come to them that not even death could stop.
So, what if… Jesus’ message of God’s Kingdom became the pillar of our churches? What plans would they come up with?
What if… every action we take is founded on love towards one another? To bring healing? Reconciliation. Peace.
What if… Jesus dreamed of a world without kings or priests as rulers? A world in which all men would be equal?
What if… hunger, lack, and injustice would disappear forever? And we could truly say “We are living under the reign of a good Lord”? What would be our part in achieving this?
I can’t say if this is really what Jesus wanted in the end. But questions come up when you read his words and reflect upon his deeds. He spoke of change of the human heart as well as of change in the whole cosmos.
Martin Luther was right to refocus people’s attention to understanding of scripture, and to the boundless mercy of God. I wish that Christians could now look past Reformation, and look (with Luther) more seriously at the divine love of Jesus, a love powerful enough to shake hearts, shake thrones, shake the stars from the sky. I know that many Christians from all denominations have thought about this through the centuries, and that now many are already on this path of revolutionary love. All over the earth, they visit prisoners, counsel victims of abuse, rescue refugees and protest against tyrants. Let’s get to work.