Reformation Week 2015: The “Failed” Reformation

Pieta, David

Like all of us, Martin Luther didn’t always remember or apply his own theology in the face of life’s realities.

The following story by David Lose illustrates this.

This past summer I was visiting Wittenberg and heard a story about Martin Luther I hadn’t heard before that seems appropriate for those observing Reformation Sunday this week. I knew that Luther died in Eisleben, the place of his birth, bringing his work and life, in a sense, full circle. And I knew that he preached his last sermon there after successfully negotiating disputes between several local magistrates. What I didn’t know was that only five people showed up for the sermon. What I didn’t know was that he was pissed. He wrote a friend about the event, despairing over what he feared was a “failed” reformation.

I’ve been a pastor and I get Martin Luther’s sense of failure. We all long to be “successful” in our churches (however we might define that), and when the church appears weak and sickly, and people don’t seem interested in supporting or responding to her ministry, it’s the most natural thing in the world to imagine that our efforts have been for naught.

We can become angry, as Luther did. We can become fearful, disillusioned, and depressed like Elijah did in 1Kings 19, running from Jezebel after he had defeated the prophets of Baal. We can become sad of heart, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, who kept saying, “But we thought he was the one . . .”

The brilliant answer to this sense of failure that Luther gave voice to in many of writings is what we know as “the theology of the cross.”

When it looks most like God has been defeated, he is winning. When God seems most absent, his presence is sustaining us. When all feels lost, we are, in fact, being saved.

I have long thought that this, above all Luther’s teachings, is needed in the Christian church today. We give so much attention to the appearance of success and strength that we fail to find God in much more prevalent circumstances of failure and weakness. We forget that our hope is in resurrection from hopeless death, not in being crowned after having built a glorious resumé.

The last word today goes back to David Lose:

While I can understand his dismay and disappointment, I nevertheless think that at that moment Luther forgot that much of our energy and effort will be given over to failed endeavors. He’d forgotten, that is, Paul’s reminder that we have all sinned and fallen short … and will keep sinning and falling short. Moreover, he’d forgotten that our ultimate hope rests not in our successes but in God’s great failure on the cross, the failure that redeems all failures and successes, binding them together in the promise of resurrection. He’d forgotten, that is, his own words at the close of the hymn many of us will sing this week, “Were they to take our house, goods, honor, child, or spouse, though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day. God’s kingdom is ours forever.”

17 thoughts on “Reformation Week 2015: The “Failed” Reformation

  1. The need to place our hope in Jesus and Jesus alone is critical, and at the same time so difficult in our society. I have personally felt broken as I discover, despite my best efforts in family and business, I cannot drive the kind of success I’ve hoped for. As a result, I am emptied and forced to turn back to Jesus as my only lasting hope.


  2. And it’s not that I object to such an institutional claim; I misspoke. I personally reject it and have no confidence in it. What others believe regarding it is their business.


  3. I personally hope that all the dead are in God’s loving, redeeming embrace, and can’t imagine how the goodness of God can be trusted if it doesn’t include universal reconciliation . The fact that any funeral service in which the officiants say or suggest otherwise seems positively inhuman and cruel indicates just how deep-seated is the feeling that the dead must be with God in bliss, rather than alone in hell; we all instinctively know that we are all, all of us, good and bad alike, in this together.

    I don’t object to people speaking to the dead, and asking for their prayers. What I object to is the claim by any church body that they are competent to officially know the degree of “holiness” of deceased Christians, or any requirement that Christians must invoke the dead as part of their faith practice. The dignity of the process you describe at the small corner church is born out of the intimacy of the fellowship in that place, and the visceral experience of that specific community; to turn it into a formulaic process assessed by institutional measures is to falsify its essential characteristic of intimacy. The comforts available here are ones of the heart.


  4. Luther was the first to successfully pry the prison doors open. That he was appalled at some of the results is irrelevant, the cat was out of the bag, the horse was out of the barn. What he thought was of utmost importance does not seem all that crucial to me, and in fact I see some of the Catholic Church’s subsequent reforms as closer to the mark than some of Luther’s. Neither one could list the Ten Commandments according to common order, and still haven’t figured that one out.

    Francis and Teresa had much to say of great import to us today, but it didn’t make much of a dent in the ongoing practice and understanding of Rome at large, certainly didn’t set me free to worship as I see fit, probably wouldn’t have thought that was a good idea anyway. I’ll hold up two Johns, Wycliffe and Hus, as doing what Luther did other than ultimately succeeding. To my mind they paved the way for Luther, maybe made it possible for him to finally see it thru. I can see the three of them on the other side drinking beer and playing cards, arguing over finer points of theology.

    I am so thankful that I am able to go my own Way without church Authority telling me exactly how I have to do it. Don’t mind those who choose to submit to a church rather than God direct, but if Luther hadn’t done his thing, I would have had to give it my best shot, and I don’t think I would have done nearly as well as he did. Not terribly interested in being burned at the stake, tho I did agree to the possibility when I signed on.


  5. Certainly true; but when speaking of “The Reformation” Luther is without a doubt the seminal figure. The rest of the actors scramble for a distant second. And there was more Reform in Luther than in many of the others who, such as Calvin, seem bent more toward Revolution than Reform and/or Reconciliation.


  6. Nah, I think Great Divorce preceded the Sarah Jane Smith era of Doctor Who by a couple of decades. 😉


  7. It is short-sighted to assume Luther invented church reformation. Saint Francis and St. Teresa of Avila among others brought needed change to the church.


  8. “….we don’t believe the Church has been given special knowledge of the position of people in heaven.”

    Robert, in EO it’s not about “who’s in heaven.” We can’t know information about the true spiritual state of others, but beyond that the theology of last things is very different – we don’t believe in “heaven” and “hell” as “physical spaces.” For EO, it’s either union with God, on this resurrected earth when the Lord returns, or nothing… We believe that God reveals saints, mostly by their manner of life on earth – the life of God the Holy Spirit made manifest in and through them, particularly through their prayer life, possibly through “miracles” but not necessarily so – and that there are many saints who have not yet been revealed. See Mule’s comment below.

    One modern Orthodox saint is St Silouan, a monk on Mt Athos. Like St Therese, nearly all his contemporaries thought there was nothing overly-special about him, other than generally being a “good monk.” After his death in 1938, his spiritual son, Fr Sophrony Sakharov, gathered, collated and published St Silouan’s writings, along with a biographical sketch. It was that process and book that revealed Silouan to be a saint, as Fr Sophrony believed he was, and as the Ecumenical Patriarchate declared in 1987. There are many who believe Fr Sophrony was also a saint, and his elevation (that’s the EO term, not “canonization”) is expected literally any day now.

    Most Orthodox saints are revered and venerated by the laity long before the Synods get around to elevating them.



  9. The little Lutheran church I have attended these past seventeen months is scheduled to shut it’s doors after the December 27th service. I have been there when I was one of Martin’s five congregants, and the average might be ten. It was obvious to me the first day I visited that it was not a sustainable situation and I chose to see it thru, missed one day in all that time when I visited the local Evangelical church. There are people there in their 80’s and 90’s who attended since childhood and expected to have their funeral service there. But not many, not enough.

    The church property will be up for whoever wants to take it on for whatever reason if you feel like starting your own church. It’s a beautiful old country church building over a hundred years old and well kept, should be a historical monument, could squeeze in a hundred people in the pews given a reason to come. You would be up against the same forces at work here and many other places, old folks leaving the planet and young folks moving on. Times change. The next chapter remains to be seen. Maybe the next book.


  10. But Robert, declarations of Sainthood are not the exclusive territory of the RC or EO. Every small corner church down every rural lane makes the same declaration. An innocent child dies too young, a generous and kind grandmother passes, a fallen soldier is buried as a hero. And we know where their heart resides. So we boldly make an assured and confident profession that they are in heaven (might we even dare to invoke the dreaded “infallible” word here as well?). If we allow for the dignity of this process in a small country church, can we not also allow for the dignity of process in the RC and EO as well?

    You say “we live without such comforts…by a Church with special powers.” Tell that to the community of believers when they gather for the next funeral.


  11. Just wondering if the theology of the cross might explain why GOD had Luke spend so much time chronicling Paul’s many different imprisonments in Acts. Why spend so much time, it seems like easily a fourth of the entire book on Paul’s many trials, trials he could have avoided except that the Holy Spirit drove him there. Maybe to show us that along with spectacular results and miracles, there would be (for all of us, his interested readers) days locked up forgotten by man and “useless”…. Just wondering.


  12. St. Therese of Lisieux pray for us.

    I don’t say that lightly. Of all the recent Roman saints, St. Therese strikes me as being the most “Eastern” in her sanctity. That Rome continues to produce, and more importantly, is still able to recognize, sanctity in her midst is a great comfort to me. I heard a sermon by a village priest from Greece who, when asked if the age of the Elders and Eldresses had come to an end with the death of St. Paisios, answered in the most terrifying way imaginable:

    “There will always be saints and elders in our midst. If it were not so, the world could not continue. Hell would be manifest on Earth and every man would be at every other man’s throat. There will always be saints, but because of the hardness of our lives, our own lack of faith and love, and the distractions of the world, we will become unable to discern them. We will call them saints who are no saints, and we will pass by in total ignorance and contempt those by whose prayers God continues to maintain the world.”

    Since early childhood I have had a bad habit of thoughtlessly placing small, important items like keys, glasses, documents, or wallets in out of the way or hidden places, only to go furiously looking for them when they are needed. This self-punishing behavior has caused both myself and my family unnecessary grief and delay throughout my life. I have found considerable relief in the intercessions of St. Xenia of Petersburg, who after the death of her husband gave away all her property to the poor and went to live on the streets of St. Petersburg as kind of a crazy bag lady. Among her many virtues, she would often find things on the ground and keep them safe until their distracted owners arrived seeking them. Most of her contemporaries saw her as a nut-case, but she is now one of Orthodoxy’s most popular saints.


  13. “Is it?…is it?” I whispered to my guide.
    “Not at all,” said he. “It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of. Her name on earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.”
    “She seems to be…well, a person of particular importance?”
    “Aye. She is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things.”

    C. S. Lewis, *The Great Divorce*


  14. I’m glad that such declarations of Sainthood help you and others in your faith, Christiane. But I, along with others, have little confidence in the ability of the Church on earth to discern and ascribe such special sanctity to any deceased individual, because we don’t believe the Church has been given special knowledge of the position of people in heaven. We have to live without such comforts, or such rescuing from apparent failure and anonymity of individuals by a Church with special powers.


  15. “We give so much attention to the appearance of success and strength that we fail to find God in much more prevalent circumstances of failure and weakness.”

    this is so true when we look through worldly eyes, searching for ‘what God is doing’ (as some call the Church fads of the day)

    . . . but there are times when the little people do get recognized for contributing something of great importance to the Body of Christ . . . for example, a small nun dies at age twenty-four in Lisieux, France . . . a simple child-like girl struck down in her youth by tuberculosis,
    but when her astonishing diaries and letters were later read by the Vatican, she is declared a ‘saint’ and in time, a ‘Doctor of the Church’ on par with the ‘great’ thinkers and theologians of the faith

    how does such a thing happen? Goodness knows . . . but it DID happen, and it matters to those who look for the ‘signs’ of God’s Presence at work in the midst of the simple people of our faith


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