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Friday, October 30, 2009 

Reformation Day 2009: Plus Ca Change, Plus C'est Pareil

Tomorrow, in addition to on of my favorite secular holidays: Halloween, is Reformation Day. On Reformation Day we celebrate Martin Luther nailing the Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. What was Dr. Luther’s problem with the selling of indulgences? Plain and simple; indulgences were the forgiveness of sins; not on the account of Christ vicarious atonement on the cross but rather forgiveness based on coins placed in a coffer or through works demanded by church leadership.

Here is a portion of a Reformation Day sermon (Reformation Day was actually celebrated last Sunday) that outlines some… similarities, to what we see going on in many churches across both the country and as well denominational lines and certainly within my own beloved synod the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod:

Back in October of 1517 there was a man who was not on board with the plan. It was the church’s plan and (as usual) it involved a building and fund raising program. The more things change…

Anyway, this man was not on board either with the building or the fund raising plan. In fact, he was not on board much at all with the general plan of the contemporary church. His objection, in a nutshell? Too much work. Too much of our work, that is. Too much about me and not enough about Christ. That was essentially his objection. This man figured the Christian Church should be about Christ and His body the church which Christ Himself bought with His own blood and builds with His own hands, freely, graciously, without needing our hurrying, scurrying around, all our building and fund raising and outreaching efforts. This man figured that since Christ is God, after all, He can be trusted to take care of everything, while we simply ride the wave of Baptism all the way into the Kingdom…

This was not the plan corporate headquarters hatched. Theirs was more… fiery. Headquarters had sent mission execs to all the provinces, even to little Wittenberg in Saxony where this man lived and taught at the local university. It was listening to one of these mission executives (guy named Tetzel) that moved our man to post some theses pointing out what was wrong with the plan and what Scripture had to say about the plan. 95 theses he had, detailed objections to the plan. It’s what we’re recalling today.

As we said, the plan ultimately revolved around a building program, and every building program has at its heart a fund raising strategy. Because church fund raising goes better if it is tied to the essential mission of the church, the plan from church headquarters tied it ultimately to our eternal destiny in heaven or hell. The pitch went something like this:

“People are dying and going to hell every day. This is terrible. A terrible, tragic thing! Surely, you, dear Christian friend, don’t want to see people dying and burning in hell, especially you or your loved ones, do you? Of course you don’t want to see that. So here’s what we can do about it: the church has these little mission pamphlets. We call them “indulgences”. The name isn’t important. The mission is what drives it! You purchase one of these indulgences (they are like five bucks or so—and what’s five bucks compared to eternity in hell? Surely you can spare five bucks to get a soul out of hell, can’t you? Of course you can. Even in this economy!). You purchase an indulgence, use it yourself or share it with someone in danger of hell’s fire, and voila! They’re on the fast track out of hell, toward heaven…

“Because it’s a process, the more you buy, the quicker the trip. The more they see you care. Now it’s not like the paper itself gets a person out of hell. Of course we rely on Christ to do that, ultimately! But Christ has called us to help Him with this very big job. You wouldn’t want Jesus to have to do this all Himself would you? Didn’t He do enough, getting the ball rolling, dying for you on a cross? Don’t you want to help Jesus? Sure you do. So here’s how you can help: Jesus called 12 guys, we call them apostles, to get people out of hell. Our boss at corporate headquarters is the direct successor of Peter, the head guy. He is empowered to announce the way to life to all people and everyone needs to hear this from him. By purchasing these indulgences you create mission moments where lost souls hear how much the church can do for them and find their way to our doors. From there, the chances they get out of hell and into heaven improve exponentially. All for five bucks. Are you in, dear friend? How many do you want to buy today?”

Some of the purchasers of the indulgences had a good question: “what exactly does the five bucks go for anyway?”

“Well, of course, some of it is for overhead, to pay our international center staff’s salaries. Copying costs, advertising, etc. But half of it goes for building a new corporate headquarters. We need a visible, tangible sign of our church’s great power to save, something to inspire the heart and fill the eye. We call it “St. Peter’s Cathedral”. It’s being built right now in the holy city and will be the biggest and best cathedral in the world, as is fitting for Christ’s holy church…

“When pilgrims come to St. Peter’s, they will see how powerful the church is to save! They will want to tell more of their friends and neighbors and this will put them all on the path that leads from hell to heaven.”

“So, what,” the purchaser wondered, “is required of us to get to heaven, after we come into the church that is?”

“Well, Christ did the hard part dying on the cross! But, of course, you have to do something too! Clean up your act a bit. Live a better life. And buy more indulgences to create mission moments to get you and your neighbors out of hell…

Hmm, plus ca change, plus c'est pareil...


Somewhat off topic... its hard to find a Lutheran Church these days.

Liz, I don’t think you’re off topic at all, not one bit. I think you’re located in the twin cities so I’d recommend Glory of Christ Lutheran Church over in the Plymouth area.

Thanks, Frank, for the recommend! That church is on our list to visit after the holidays.

I’ve only had the pleasure of visiting the twin cities once so I’ve only visited Glory of Christ Lutheran Church. I think you’ll find they are a rock solid congregation theologically and have a great pastor whose preaching is top notch in Pr. Preus

I woke up one morning a couple of weeks ago and realized that I had forgotten the words to many hymns, and that I've probably forgotten more hymns than my daugther has heard in her life. That made me very sad as I grew up singing hymns in church; and they provide me a great deal of comfort.

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  • From The Haut South
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