A Brief Introduction to the Luther Reformation, Given at the New Life Lutheran Church of Bolingbrook, IL

The Protestant Reformation, which we are celebrating this year, was an event so cataclysmic before it was over 100,000’s had perished. It forever changed the political, social, and religious landscape. There had been many rumblings about abuses coming out of Rome for much of the preceding century. In England, John Wycliff was translating the Bible into English against the expressed instructions from Rome. Upon his death, the Roman authorities dug up his body and burned it along with all of his books, declaring him a heretic.

On the other side of Europe, Jan Hus in Prague, actually broke from Rome and established a sect known as the Hussites. Rome burned him at the stake. For Martin Luther to hang his 95 thesis on the church door in Wittenberg took no small amount of personal courage. Within a year his death warrant was signed and if Roman authorities had captured him, his death would be certain and eminent.

Even though Luther wrote 95 different statements or thesis calling into question the practices and theology of the Roman Church, two key themes  run through most of them.  sola fide (“justification by faith alone”) and sola Scriptura, the Bible and the Bible alone has the authority to inform our faith. Our salvation and redemption can not be earned by any monetary donation to the church or any other good work. It comes simply and completely by the work of Christ upon the Cross. We are utterly incapable of doing anything to aid our redemption because sin has tainted every corner of our being.

Through the centuries a body of traditions had attached themselves to the church like barnacles on a ship. Some may have started as a way of understanding scriptures but they had grown into something completely extra-scriptural. Luther wanted to return to a faith informed solely by the scriptures.

These two ideas formed the basis of the Reformation as it took different forms throughout Europe over the next several decades. With the aid of the newly invented printing press and growing level of literacy in the general population it was a fire which could not be extinguished.

So how did this affect the common person sitting or rather standing in church? (Seating was something only the wealthy had access to.) One of first affects was the loss of a church building. If the local ruler didn’t approve of the reformation going on, the local church building would stay the provenance of the Roman Church. Civil and religious authorities often ostracized and persecuted the new convert. The Huguenots in France, one of the better known victims of this persecution, were nearly entirely exterminated.

One of the first tasks for Luther was the establishment of a whole new church. He had to establish a governing authority responsible for proper worship practices, providing new church buildings, training of clergy, and the care for the various congregations.

One of the most remarkable changes for the common man was now he could actually understand what was said. The vernacular became the language of worship instead of Latin. Another new development was the inclusion of congregational singing within the service. No longer was the music the prevue of the clergy and professional choirs, everybody sang!

Now as an aside; sometimes you may hear that Luther used drinking songs as a basis of his new hymns. He did not do this; actually writing very strongly against the practice. Luther knew the secular words would be more on the minds of the people than the new sacred texts. The confusion comes from the term for new development in musical notation: the bar line. The bar line divides music into even time periods which makes group singing easier to do. Before this time music contained no bar lines. So yes, he used “bar form” music, not music from bars.

Luther wrote extensively to give a form and foundation to his new church. And along with John Calvin in Zurich, Switzerland, provided the intellectual justification for the Protestant Reformation. I would encourage you to read his writings, he had some very interesting things to say on all sorts of very relevant subjects.

Lift High the Cross

Lift High the Cross

Text by: George W Kitchin 1827-1912
Music by: Sydney H Nicholson 1875-1947

Lift high the cross,
the love of Christ proclaim
till all the world adore
his sacred Name.

Come, brethren, follow where our Captain trod,
our King victorious, Christ the Son of God. Refrain

Led on their way by this triumphant sign,
the hosts of God in conquering ranks combine. Refrain

Each newborn soldier of the Crucified
bears on the brow the seal of him who died. Refrain

This is the sign which Satan’s legions fear
and angels veil their faces to rever. Refrain

Saved by this Cross whereon their Lord was slain,
the sons of Adam their lost home regain. Refrain

From north and south, from east and west they raise
in growing unison their songs of praise. Refrain

O Lord, once lifted on the glorious tree,
as thou hast promised, draw the world to thee. Refrain

Let every race and every language tell
of him who saves our souls from death and hell. Refrain

From farthest regions let their homage bring,
and on his Cross adore their Savior King. Refrain

Set up thy throne, that earth’s despair may cease
beneath the shadow of its healing peace. Refrain

For thy blest Cross which doth for all atone
creation’s praises rise before thy throne. Refrain

Although “Lift High the Cross” was written in 1887, by: George Kitchin in England, it wasn’t until 1978 that it finally appeared in the US. That honor belonged to our very own LBW, the Lutheran Book of Worship; the old green hymnal.

It is thought the inspiration for this hymn came from the story of Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity. It was the Edit of Milan in 313 which finally ended the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire.

Only a few years earlier Christians were routinely used in gladiatorial games, their dismemberment and their deaths providing entertainment to the elites and masses. A generation earlier, our brothers and sisters would be regularly crucified and lit on fire to light the roads leading to Rome.

This Edict freed the church from brutal persecutions and for the first time in the church’s history, the gospel and the cross could be freely proclaimed without the fear of death.

Knowing and understanding our collective history can help us keep in perspective the world we live in now.

A few months ago I shared with you the plight of our brother, Vano Kiboko and his ongoing imprisonment in the Kinshasa, Congo prison. On Thursday, our brother, Vano was released after 498 days of imprisonment for his faith. Today, Vano can once again Lift High the Cross of his Savior.