Five hundred years ago this year, a rather cross and forthright Augustinian monk, the professor of moral theology at the University of Wittenberg, did what many disputatious scholars did in those days. In order to generate theological debate, he nailed his 95 points of theological dispute (or Theses) to the door of the cathedral church. Luther’s chief aim was to express opposition to the sale of indulgences and other clerical abuses in the church. However, a combination of spiritual and political factors meant that, whether intentionally or not, there began a new spirit of revolution and The Reformation had begun.
Whether we are Christians or not, whether we are Protestant or Catholic, we are all (in the West at least) children of the Reformation. The concept of the individual, the task of interpreting the meaning of the world by our own lights and the concept of human rights all have deep roots in the Reformation. Modern political thought and economics find their sources in what emerges from the Reformation.
As Christians, and as Christians in the Anglican tradition (itself, for complex reasons, a Church of the Reformation), this is an important milestone in the history of Christianity. We will find ways of marking it at St Mary’s this year. But at the outset, it is worth pausing to remember that this moment of public dispute marked an inner journey of renewal for the young professor Luther. In it, he rediscovered the liberating message of the Gospel through the study of the bible. He realised that God’s favour was not to be achieved by attempts to scale the spiritual mountaintops (in his case through monasticism), not by works of penance, mercy or goodness, but as a free and unconditional gift, received simply by trust in God. We are liberated by the grace of God.
So as we begin this new year, ask yourself what this unmerited, unearned favour of God means to you. I can recall how it transformed my own faith, when I realised that God loved me not because of who I was, but in spite of who I was. It was a genuine moment of liberation to discover that God’s favour to me was a free gift of love.
May we all discover more of that grace of God in the year ahead.