Although the historic date (Oct. 31, 2017) marking Martin Luther’s protest of Catholic Church practices that sparked the Reformation has passed, its worldwide influence lives on.
One example is the newly-opened Museum of the Bible (just blocks from the U.S. Capitol) maintaining an exhibit on the historic event. Then there is another continuing display at a Bible museum in Australia.
I’m no longer part of a Lutheran church. Still, having grown up in a segment of this denomination, I had more than a passing interest in the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
So, last summer and fall, when a nearby Lutheran congregation sponsored a three-month film series, followed by a workshop on the importance of the Reformation, my wife and I attended.
The first two films were particularly enlightening. While I had heard of Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli, I didn’t know many details of his historic October 1529 meeting with Luther.
Nor did I know of Luther’s refusal to shake hands with Zwingli over their differing interpretations of the Lord’s presence in the Communion elements. And, whether they were real—as Luther insisted—or symbolic, a la Zwingli.
So, during the final workshop, I jotted down a question to the leader: “If Luther hadn’t refused to shake Zwingli’s hand, would there have been fewer church splits over the past 500 years?”
Unchanging Human Nature
It’s a relevant question. As much as we would like to pretend we are above certain petty arguments in our supposedly enlightened, modern society, I think there are two reasons such divisions continue:
- The ways we continue to be affected by the actions of our ancestral fathers. That’s a role Luther plays in Protestant circles worldwide.
- Basic human nature remains unchanged after thousands of years. As the wise king, Solomon, wrote long ago: “What has been is the same as what will be, and what has been done is the same as what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9 MEV).
The workshop leader gave a highly-nuanced answer to my question. He pointed out there were numerous factors behind his reasoning—one that couldn’t be reduced to the kind of simple, bumper-sticker-type thinking so popular today.
Still, his answer boiled down to one word: “Yes.”
You may be asking what in the heck Martin Luther’s stubborn, bull-headed refusal to shake hands with Zwingli has to do with life in the 21st century.
Everything, I would suggest. Especially at a time when sexual-abuse charges of late have toppled so many entertainment, political, media and other figures, both well-known and obscure.
The abuses of power are so far-reaching that they can easily spark a cynical reaction to everyone and everything. We might be tempted to declare there are no heroes anymore, just a bunch of self-serving, self-seeking glory hounds running the show.
Such a response is understandable, considering recent events. Yet I see it as an over-reaction and a misunderstanding of the truth that there are no perfect people among us. As in Luther’s time, we just have a group of flawed individuals doing the best they can despite their shortcomings.
Luther’s name lives on nearly five centuries after he passed on from this earth because of the profound nature and consequences of his actions—good and bad.
So it will be with people who are part of modern life. The only person Perfect person died on a cross. We shouldn’t expect anyone else to attain that status.