It’s interesting to think how much history can change because of a lightning strike.

About This Sermon
Rev. Mark Schaefer
St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church
October 25, 2020—Reformation Sunday
Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Matthew 22:34-46

On July 2, 1505 a young graduate student, studying law, was returning back to school from his family’s home when he got caught in a terrible thunderstorm. A bolt of lightning struck nearby almost killed him and he prayed to St. Anne to save his life making a solemn vow: if she spared his life, he’d become a monk. He survived the storm and true to his word, he became a monk, entering into St. Augustine’s monastery in that same city.

That young law student turned Augustinian monk was Martin Luther and that lightning strike changed the course of Western civilization.

See, Luther’s plea to St. Anne wasn’t just because he was afraid to die—he was afraid to die unprepared. He felt that if he died in that moment, there was no way he’d be getting into heaven. I mean, he was a law student after all. Thus, he vowed that if he were to be spared, he would attain the right level of holiness in the most extreme way he could imagine: by being a monk.

And so he immersed himself in what we might call an “ascetic piety,” trying to attain holiness through a life of discipline and self-denial. He picked the Augustinians because they were a fairly strict order and he was desperate to find God’s mercy. As a side note, none of this pleased his father, who’d been really hoping his kid would become a lawyer.

Despite all his efforts to be pious through asceticism, he still did not feel acceptance by God, so he became a priest. In this work he immersed himself in the sacramental life of the priesthood, attempting to find a merciful God through this sacramental piety. But he still did not feel acceptance by God.

He was encouraged to study theology and he eventually became a professor of Biblical theology at the University of Wittenberg. He came to believe that it was not by virtue of fasting or self-mortification that one came to know salvation, but by study that salvation could be obtained by divine gift. In this, he identified himself now with a reasoned piety.

But in spite of all of this, he still felt frustrated and when he tested all these ways of attaining holiness and salvation—asceticism, sacramentalism, reason—against the scriptures, he saw a profound discrepancy between the way he was trying to live and the Scriptures.

What Luther found in the scriptures—especially the letters of Paul—was that you get to God by God’s grace, whereas he’d been trying to get to God via his own piety.


Luther’s examination of Paul’s letters, the oldest of Christian writings, brought him back to the basics of Christian faith. He returned to the source of the Christian proclamation and it had profound consequences.

For once he’d brought into question his whole life of trying to earn the mercy of God, suddenly entire structures were called into question.

This was no more evident than when Tetzel came around selling indulgences for the remission of time in purgatory. 

See, the Medieval Catholic church—and I want to be clear that we’re talking about the Medieval Catholic Church, not the contemporary one—believed that you needed a certain amount of grace to merit entry into heaven. The way you could earn this grace was to do good works: say your prayers, attend the mass, give money to the poor. Or you could give money to the church, they’d give money to the poor, and that would go on your account.

Now, if you happened to die before you got enough grace to go straight into heaven, you would go to purgatory wherein your impurities would be purged so that eventually you could enter into heaven. To speed your way along, your loved ones could purchase an indulgence, for which price a mass would be said in your honor and the credit for that good work would go on your account. This would speed your time out of purgatory.

But what Luther came to understand was that God’s grace could not be earned, it was freely given. That’s why it’s grace.

Luther Nails his 95 Theses to the Church Door, by Ferdinand Pauwels. Public Domain.

So, if grace cannot be earned, if it is given freely, then what exactly was it that the church was selling you? Luther considered these sales of indulgences to be a kind of fraud that were a danger to the spiritual welfare of the church. 

And so, on October 31, 1517, in what has gone down as the greatest trick-or-treat prank in history, Luther posted 95 Theses on the Cathedral church door at Wittenberg objecting to the practice of indulgences. These theses were posted primarily to spark debate at Wittenberg, and they certainly did that. And the debates that were sparked ignited further conversations and further challenges to established ideas of ecclesiastical authority, the papacy, obedience to authority, the sacraments, and more. 

This experiment in theological dialogue resulted in Luther’s eventually being hauled before the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and ordered to recant. His famous reply: Hier stehe ich; Ich kann kein anders. Gott hilf mir. “Here I stand; I can do nothing else. God help me.”

By going back to the beginning, by focusing on the core of the teaching, Luther would begin a movement that would reform the church.


The problem that Luther faced was not a new problem. There has long been a problem with identifying the heart of the faith as opposed to all the accumulated human traditions around it.

We see this in the Gospel lesson this morning. Jesus has just answered a very arcane question from the Sadducees about whether people will be married in the Resurrection and has answered in a way that has impressed those listening. One of the Pharisees—a lawyer, predictably—decides to test him to see what he believes the most important commandment to be. There are by one famous rabbi’s count 613 commandments in the Torah and so it’s important to know which one Jesus thinks is the most important. Jesus answers:

‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Matthew 22:37–40

Jesus references the most famous prayer in Judaism, the Shema “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One,” which is followed by another prayer called the V’ahavta, which means “you shall love” and states “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” (Deut 6:4-5) He then goes on to quote the holiness code in Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus hasn’t missed a beat. He hasn’t quoted some marginally recognized commandment. He hasn’t quoted, say, Exodus 30:1 “Make an acacia-wood altar for burning incense,” or Leviticus 7:15: “The flesh of your communal thanksgiving sacrifice of well-being must be eaten on the day you offer it; you cannot save any of it until morning.” Nor does he quote any of the many provisions that require stoning to death. He responds, “Love God… love your neighbor.”

Back to the basics.


Living on this end of 2,000 years of Christian history it can be easy to get lost in accumulated tradition. This was not just a problem of Jesus’ day dealing with the Temple leadership, or in Matthew’s day dealing with the traditions of the Pharisees, or in Luther’s day dealing with the elaborate traditions and structures of the Medieval Catholic church. In every generation, the church is in need of reformation.

The work of Reformation did not end with Luther, it only began. For the church that bears Luther’s name, resisting the entanglement of the church with the Holy Roman Empire would itself before too long get entangled in the politics of Europe. In more recent times it became shamefully compromised during the Nazi era. 

John Calvin the great reformer of the Swiss reformed tradition would simplify the worship and order of the church and craft one of the great Protestant theological treatises. But the churches that bear Calvin’s legacy would find themselves exercising tyrannies and burning heretics in Geneva, and establishing theocracies in Puritan New England.

John Wesley looked at the status of the Church of England and saw what he referred to as “almost Christians.” (He actually referred to them that way even when they were in church listening to his sermons. You get the sense as to why he was not terribly popular with the establishment.) He launched a revival that would emphasize action and a religion of the heart. But the church that bears Wesley’s legacy today would find itself in need of reformation early on when it softened its previously strong witness against slavery to accommodate Southern slaveholders. It would suffer schism over the issue of slavery, dividing into the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the Methodist Protestant Church. When those denominations would be reunited in 1939, they created something called the Central Jurisdiction in which all the African-American congregations were placed, regardless of where they were located geographically. This segregation by any other name was not reformed until the merger with the Evangelical United Brethren in 1968—fourteen years after Brown v. Board of Education was decided. 

There are sections of our church and of the church universal who fall prey to the Constantinian trap—the lure of access to the power of the Empire, the willingness to forego the heart of the Gospel’s basic commands in order to cozy up to the powerful and mighty.

This is not a new problem, but neither is it one that is going away any time soon.

END — A Reformation Unfinished

The church is still in need of reformation. It is in need of being re-formed, by returning over and over again to the basics of love of God and love of neighbor.

The Protestant Reformation was a seachange in the life of the church, challenging institutional authority and endeavoring to bring us back closer to the primitive church. But the problem with our historical memory is that we think of history as events—a lightning strike, nailing 95 theses to a door—or as something caused by particular individuals—Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley. The reality is that history is a process. The seeds of reformation were sown long before Luther by others and were carried on by others. The main players in history are us—the people—the movements that bring change.

It’s not the lightning strike that make the difference—it’s the brushfire that is kindled by the lightning strike that does.

It’s easy to celebrate the Reformation as an event in the past—something we commemorate every year by bringing out all the Bach settings of our favorite Lutheran hymns. But in every generation, the church is in need of reform, in danger of sliding once again into temptation of the lure of power. 

We might never ourselves see the church perfected, we might, like Moses, never cross over into that promised land, but in every age is the call to bring the church closer to perfecting the call to love God and neighbor.

The Texts

Deuteronomy 34:1–12 • Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the LORD showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, and the Plain—that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees—as far as Zoar. The LORD said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.” Then Moses, the servant of the LORD, died there in the land of Moab, at the LORD’S command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day. Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated. The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended. 

Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the LORD had commanded Moses. 

Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face. He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the LORD sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel. 

Matthew 22:34–46 • When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” 

Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,

 ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet” ’? If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

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