People say Rome wasn’t built in a day. It’s also true that it wasn’t destroyed in a day, either the city itself which took several centuries to fall, or to the Roman Catholic Church, which still stands but continues to wither, for reasons both long known and recent to us.
I’m thinking of this today, October 31, known to Lutherans as Reformation Day, the day when Martin Luther strode up to the Castle Church doors and nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to them, forever changing Western Christianity. Rome, or the Roman Catholic Church, began to fall that day, petty Protestant triumphalists like to crow. While it was unquestionably an important event in history, Luther’s nailing was actually normal. He’d slapped other papers on the wood before, and so had many others. And he wasn’t the first person–or even the first priest–to criticize the RCC. But that reality isn’t flashy enough for us. “Man Does What Many Others Had Done Before” just doesn’t really sell as a headline. (If you’d like to read a fascinating secular analysis of how Luther and his reforms ended up garnering so much attention, I’d highly recommend Brand Luther by Andrew Pettegree.)
Things of great import never happen overnight, much as we like to think they do. Let’s be real: we love the movie-reel squashing of time that erases all the toil and sweat and sheer inching along of tiny efforts that make up Great Imports because we don’t like incremental. We want everything dreamed one second and done the next, mostly because we’re shiftless and loafing and mostly interested in pleasing our stomachs, to paraphrase Luther.
I say all this not to belittle Luther’s contributions to the world. On the contrary. I actually just want to make the point that momentous days have beginnings prior to their happenings. Luther had spent decades studying theology and the Bible, as well as the writings and teachings of church fathers and many other respected pastors and teachers. In fact, through his own well-rounded, classical education, he revolutionized education as we know it. He didn’t just wake up one day with some grand understanding of the Truth. He sought it like silver and like a hidden treasure. (As an aside, that’s probably a good, solid way to sniff out a theological swindle. If someone wakes up with a revelation after Revelation is over, and said revelations contradict Scripture, well, besides rejecting Scripture, which isn’t good, their insights haven’t been around long enough to percolate under the test of time. A flash-in-the-pan is not a silver strike. And news flash: “because an angel only I could see said so” isn’t valid evidence.)
So what should this teach us? In part, we should learn that, absent a lightening bolt of wisdom sent straight from God (hint: not likely), we should remember that small doses of the Truth, taken repeatedly and often, over long periods of time, reap great faith benefits. We recite the catechism, which comes from a Greek word that means to “sound back and forth.” As an experienced pastor, Luther wrote in his Enchiridion to the Small Catechism about how appalled he was to encounter Christians who didn’t actually know the basics about the faith they professed.
[They say that they were] Christians, [had] been baptized, and [had received] the holy Sacraments, even though they [could not] even recite the Lord’s Prayer or the Creed or the Ten Commandments. They live like dumb brutes and irrational hogs. Now that the Gospel has come, they have nicely learned to abuse all freedom like experts.
If that wasn’t clear enough, Luther went on: “[Those] who are unwilling to learn the catechism should deny Christ and are not Christians.” Ouch.
The freedom of the Gospel means Christians delight in the Law of the Lord, not ignore, revile, or neglect it. Even the well-intended don’t get a pass in his preface to the Large Catechism: “Oh, what mad, senseless fools are we! While we must ever live and dwell among such mighty enemies as the devils, we still despise our weapons and defense, and we are too lazy to look at or think of them!”
So what should we do? Or what does this mean? We should not shun the Word or the Catechism or the Divine Service. We should daily read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest these treasures we have. We should bask in the gift of life that we have been given in our baptisms, and continue to be nourished in our small, faltering faiths, not having any illusions about how very small and faltering they are. We know those mustard seeds can move mountains; we must not shirk the gifts that water and feed them. We will not be Martin Luthers, titans of our time and in history, but we hope and pray to maintain the blessed grace we have been given, and never take it for granted–the same lesson Luther sought to cultivate and honor himself, and that led him to restore the Church.
Happy Reformation Day.