A little over twenty years ago my wife and I had the wonderful opportunity to travel on a church “study tour” to Germany and Switzerland. It was great to see several of the architectural landmarks of the Reformation. But a more important observation was how history is read, or presented, through various lenses. The examples were numerous, both on my part and on the part of the places we visited and people we talked to. A couple of examples:
At the time we visited Germany was still a divided country and visiting Erfort and Eisenach required crossing into East Germany, the DDR. It was very interesting visiting the Wartburg Castle in Eisenach and seeing and hearing the official presentations about the castle under “godless communism.” If you are not familiar with the Wartburg, it is the castle in which Martin Luther hid out and finished his translation of the Bible into German. It is an impressive structure with a long history and wonderful architecture. But when we visited, the information on Dr. Luther was almost devoid of religious significance. It acknowledged the historical facts and the context of the Reformation, but the official view was that his pastoral and professorial duties were just his occupation. The great achievement of translating the Bible into German was not getting Holy Scripture into the common tongue for all to read, but rather by translating an important work into German he established a linguistic and grammatical standard for the German language. Oficially, what was translated was not important in itself, just that there was now a recognized and widely distributed book that would set the standard for the written language. If you don’t need God, you don’t need God’s Word for its own sake.
On the other end of the spectrum was visiting with local pastors from both East and West Germany. In West Germany, the Evangelish (Lutheran) Church was effectively a national church and we saw school children, as part of their classes, coming to church. A parish did not need to directly support their pastor since support came through their taxes. The church was a pivotal point in the community. In the East, we were told it was a rare exception to be the pastor of a single church. The general trend was to minister to three congregations: “To serve less would be an offense to the people and to serve more would be an offense to God.” But you could tell that the pastor we spent the evening talking to was dedicated to his work serving God and he loved the people.
A friend of mine had a similar experience when he visited the communist bloc with a church youth group a few years before our visit. At one stop a local came up to him and quietly introduced himself as another Christian. My friend expressed concern for the man because it must be hard to be a Christian in that country. The man reversed the comment to my friend, expressing his concern for the Americans because being a Christian was too easy, before slipping away into the crowd.
A lot is being said right now about how we have entered a Post-Christendom era (for example the recent Trinity University Consultation on Post-Christendom Spiritualities) and people are concerned about the decline of the U.S.A. as a “Christian nation.” Elsewhere, the British Parliment is considering the disestablishment of the Anglican Church and the Church of Scotland is discussing if it should be a national church. And from many sides people are suggesting that we may be in the midst of a “New Reformation.”
I am not convinced that this is a totally negative turn of events. As products of Christendom how do we live our lives? Do we remember that one of the earliest names for the Covenant Community was “The People of The Way?” Our faith is not just an hour and some coffee on Sunday morning but a lifestyle choice. Are we too embarresed by our churches to invite our friends and neighbors to join us on Sunday morning? Do we take our faith too lightly? Do we recognize and give thanks for the freedom we have to practice our religion? Maybe, like Christians throughout history, including those I met in the communist bloc, some challange, rejection, or even oppression would help to focus our faith on living according to “The Way.” Is there a cost of discipleship? In the face of conflict do we need to stand up and announce what we believe? Sometimes we do need to declare “Here I stand. I can do no other. May God help me. Amen!”
Happy Reformation Day!