Reformation 500

RSS By: Metropolitan New York Synod

Marking the commemoration of Reformation is an exciting time for us as Lutherans. As we all prepare, this blog will offer resources, tips, and background on a number of issues. 

Go on a Luther pilgrimage right here in town!

Jan 04, 2017

by the Rev. Jonathan Linman


It’s now January 2017, and the Reformation’s 500th Anniversary calendar year has begun! You don’t need to travel to Germany to have a Luther and Reformation pilgrimage experience. In fact, you can visit the Morgan Library in Manhattan to witness first hand over 90 artifacts related to Luther and the Reformation.


IMG_2163In my opinion, this is an opportunity not to be missed. Our Bishop’s staff and some other synodical leaders recently had an outing there led by Reformation-era historian, Timothy Wengert. It was nothing short of awe-inspiring and a spiritual experience for me to see: an actual copy of the 95 Theses, versions of the Bible in Luther’s translation, a copy of the Augsburg Confession, the Smalcald Articles, Luther’s German Mass, and various other documents hand-written by Luther himself, revealing his meticulous linguistic artistry. Also on display: a Reformation-era chasuble that Luther the priest may have worn celebrating the Mass, several paintings of Luther and other Reformation greats including wife, Katie, offered by the hand of Lucas Cranach, as well as ceramic household objects from Luther’s home.


For me, it all added up to a visual experience of participation in the communion of Lutheran saints, a poignant experience of and connection to, via historical artifacts, the events that gave birth to our Lutheran tradition. I highly recommend a visit not just to read and study your way through the exhibit, but to meditate and pray your way through the room, giving thanks to God for Luther’s rediscoveries of the radical and freeing grace of God in Christ Jesus.


Thus, here’s one final plug to visit the Luther exhibit at the Morgan. You’ve got until January 22 when the exhibit closes, and most of the items are returned to Germany! I plan to visit one more time!

Faith Alone

Nov 14, 2016

by Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo 


bprt16.031I am so grateful for the witness of all of you especially those who brought their reflections on Lutheranism today. Your reflections and meditations have been gifts to us and offer us bread for the journey of our life together.


Today I want to talk about Faith Alone, which has been something of an issue from the beginning of the Lutheran movement.


My friend, Tim Wengert, told me that in 1550, four years after Luther’s death, there was a fight between some super-Lutherans–the so-called "gnesio Lutherans"–remember them?–and a professor at Wittenberg named Georg Major. It was about the role of good works in salvation. One of the accusations against this professor was that he failed to use the phrase sola fide enough. And he replied that from then on he would always use it in his writings and always capitalize it–S-O-L-A  F-I-D-E–so it would be seen which seems a lot like a good work to my thinking. Faith Alone.


The Augsburg Confession is very clear on this central insight:

It is taught that we cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God by our own merit, work, or satisfactions, but that we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God out of grace for Christ’s sake through faith when we believe that Christ has suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us. (Article 4)


To quote one of our presidential candidates: Wooo! That was one sentence!


The point is not just that we have faith, since one can have faith in anything–a friend or family member, one’s own ability, the Chicago Cubs. Christians aren’t justified by the strength or sincerity of our belief but by the one in whom we believe. Only faith in Christ restores our relationship with God, because such faith trusts the promises God has made–and kept–in the death and resurrection of Jesus.


"Out of grace for Christ’s sake through faith"–this is so central to the way Lutherans think about the Christian faith that it has been called "the article by which the church stands or falls."


But justification by faith alone is not the last word that the Confessions and Luther have for us. It’s only the beginning of the Lutheran understanding. Faith in Christ isn’t just about what happens when we die. It’s about how we live. And it’s about how we live not just for ourselves but for and with others.


My seminary professors said it’s the hub of a wheel from which the spokes radiate out. Without the center, without the hub, all you have is a bunch of disconnected parts. With the right center, everything falls into place. Everything else in the Augsburg Confession–sin, the sacraments, worship,married clergy, the role of bishops–everything else is developed in relation to the core belief of justification by faith alone. Including where all of us fit in as pastors of the church.


Following Article IV on justifying faith, is Article V on the office of the ministry which declares where such faith comes from and Article VI which tells us what such faith does.


So, Article 5 says:

To obtain such faith God instituted the office of preaching, giving the gospel and the sacraments. Through these, as through means, God gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, when and where the Spirit wills, in those who hear the gospel. (Article V)


Faith is not my own personal connection to God. I have had more than one conversation with a parishioner who claimed "I can worship God just fine on a golf course on Sunday morning." I suppose it’s true that one can praise God sitting on a mountaintop or watching a sunset or playing golf (though that is particularly hard to believe for me). But those experiences only tell part of the story. They don’t communicate the great good news that God in Christ is Savior–my Savior, our Savior. "How Great Thou Art" is true, but it’s incomplete unless I can also sing "Jesus Loves Me!" We call Word and Sacrament means of grace because they point to where and how God ministers to us with the promise of forgiveness through Jesus Christ. Worship is our response to God only after God’s gracious initiative first reaches out to us.


Luther knew firsthand how easy it is to get trapped in our own mental and spiritual ruts. He insisted that the Word of God comes to us from outside ourselves, breaking into our sinful self-centeredness. We hear God’s gracious "for you" most clearly when we hear it in a voice other than our own. We feel God’s gracious "for you" when we are washed with water from the font. We receive God’s gracious "for you" when we taste the bread and wine and Christ’s own body and blood give life to ours.


The most frequently quoted passage from the Bible in the Lutheran Confessions is John 15:5: "Apart from me you can do nothing."


Faith alone–only faith–justifies. But in the Christian life, faith never is alone. In his lectures on Genesis, Luther wrote, "We know indeed that faith is never alone but brings with it love and other manifold gifts." In his preface to the New Testament, Luther described faith as "a living, busy, active, mighty thing." He said, "It is impossible to separate works from faith, Quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire." Article 6 of the Augsburg Confession calls this "The New Obedience." So you catch the 4, 5, 6 sequence of the Confession?


I think of it as something that we don’t "have to" do but something we "get to" do.


God comes to us in word and sacrament, in Jesus himself. And through us God reaches out to others. In a very real sense we are means of grace, too.


So while we speak clearly against works righteousness we also boldly proclaim that righteousness works.



At the 2016 Bishop's Retreat, Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo preached on the Lutheran solas. Read his reflections on Scripture AloneFaith Alone, and Grace Alone


Scripture Alone

Nov 08, 2016

By Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo


bprt16.010From early years, I was a church nerd. I knew I wanted to be a pastor in third grade, around age eight. But even before that, I played church every Sunday, as I’m sure many of you did. I would come home from worship, put on an old black "duster" of my mother’s and place toilet paper as a stole on my neck. I was a geek. And I still am. It was white toilet paper indicating that every Sunday is Easter.


So by the time I was in eighth grade confirmation class I was pretty much loaded for bear when it came to questions. I distinctly remember asking my pastor how there could possibly be more than one "Sola"–Sola gratia, Sola fide, Sola Scriptura. Grace Alone, Faith Alone, Scripture alone. How could that be? That was a product of my Missouri Synod Literalism. I couldn’t live with the paradox rampant in Lutheranism, the ambiguity of many things being named "Alone."


I still wondered about those Solas when trying to prepare to preach at this Bishop’s Retreat. I thought–Three Eucharists, Three Solasso I did my research. I found nothing about the origins of these solas in the Lutheran Confessions or even the ancient copy of the Lutheran Cyclopedia given to me at my ordination forty years ago. So I went to the guru of things Lutheran: Tim Wengert.


Here’s part of his reply:


"I actually cannot help very much with this. Here’s what I know: 1. Luther used all of the "solas" we are used to: sola fide (1200 times), sola gratia (250); solus Christus (around 500) but Sola Scriptura only 18 times. But never as a set."


I’m hoping that Dr. Wengert has some kind of computer program that tells him this and it’s not all flying around in his brilliant mind. That would be scary. (He was replying to my email from Eisenach where he was to give a lecture on Melanchthon, who never used the set of solas either, by the way.)


But I decided to soldier on. At the risk of sounding like a lecturer, What does Luther say about Scripture? In his revised edition of the Bible in 1545, he said what people ought to feel when they read the Bible. They should sing, shout, and leap for joy in the gospel of Jesus Christ.


"It is good news, a great shout resounding through the world shared by all who seek within its pages the consolation, strength, and victory offered in it by God."


Luther was his own best example of this joy in Scripture. His passion to communicate its saving message enlivened all of his commentaries, preaching, and theological writing.


Luther’s stormy public career is directly connected to his deep study, analysis, proclamation, and translation of Scripture. And we, dear sisters and brothers, share this legacy. I hope. Our practice of Bible study–around the kitchen table and in the scholar’s library–has been powerfully shaped by Luther’s conviction that Scripture carried God’s saving message to humankind and needs to be faithfully, lovingly, enduringly communicated.


But it means more than treasuring the Bible–although that would be a good place to begin. We also have a particular way of reading it and listening to it, a way that is distinctive and powerful and, at the same time, helps us to steer away from arrogance and presumption and self-righteousness.


The Scriptures are a gift of God offered freely in Christ and read through the particular lens that saved people are judged righteous by God through grace manifested in faith. As a result, the whole of Scripture to Luther seemed to communicate a single message. No longer was it a book of laws and judgment, but a book of grace and redemption.


Is that true for us? Is that lens what we use when we study Scripture and help others open the printed Word of God? Do we see and share the kerygma, the central message that came, first in a person, Jesus Christ, and later in a text? Is our proclamation shaped as a story of the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and as a proclamation of salvation offered freely to humans redeemed by grace? The oft-quoted teaching that the Scriptures are the manger in which the baby Jesus was laidthe Scriptures are not God but the trusty bearer of God for usenclosing, protecting, and cradling the true Word, Jesus Christ. Once Luther began seeing the Bible message as both a message of judgment and a message of forgiveness at the same time he saw Jesus all over the book, constantly presence in both the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament.


Another insight that has particular value for me and I think for all of us who are professional proclaimers is Luther’s caution that we not read the Scriptures alone. The danger in that practice is the possibility people might become distracted by the drama, take the Bible too literally, and begin to speculate when the events it describes would come to pass. Implicit in this is my hope that we all engage in reading the Word with others, from pericope studies to kitchen tables to preaching the lectionary workshops. I think that will help guard against preaching becoming a weekly exercise in Chicken Soup for the Soul, or worse, reverting to the Bible being a book of Law alone.


Our human impulse is to seek comfort in obedience rather than in the Gospel’s promise of freedom. There is no surer and more trustworthy promise than the freedom from sin, death, and the devil that God offers us in the gospel to which the scriptures testify.


This is why Luther invites us to read the Bible–Scripture alone–and sing, leap, and shout for joy! 



At the 2016 Bishop's Retreat, Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo preached on the Lutheran solas. Read his reflections on Scripture AloneFaith Alone, and Grace Alone.



What language should we use around the reformation?

Oct 24, 2016

By Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo


You may have heard myself and others say that we are choosing to "commemorate" rather than "celebrate." I know that I am not alone in this distinction, but I also know that some do not agree. I’d like to give you more background into this decision and why we have advocated for this language shift.


First, let me say that there is plenty to celebrate in being Lutheran. We are duly proud of who we are, and the Lutheran witness to the gospel has a crucial place in our 21st Century world. It is also true that occasions during 2017 will be celebratory in nature.


That said, why would I advocate for the thoughtful use of "commemoration" in connection with Reformation 500 events and themes rather than the use of the word of "celebration"? The Reformation involved, in part, a schism in the Western church, a sad break, for which forgiveness is asked and for which reconciliation is sought. Many of our congregations note this in referring to Reformation Sunday as Reconciliation Sunday.


Reformation anniversaries have been observed at various points in the past 500 years, and most of these occasions were triumphalist in nature. They celebrated our distinctiveness as a church, which was often in contrast to other churches, especially the Roman Catholic Church. But I would argue that this anniversary is quite different. This Reformation anniversary happens in the context of the rich ecumenical work undertaken in the last century, especially the past 50 years. These ecumenical efforts have resulted in our many full communion relationships.


Quite importantly, there is the significant progress in the past five decades specifically with the Roman Catholic Church, from which we were severed in the sad accidents of history (though Luther’s and the Reformers’ intent was not creating a new church). Concretely, Lutheran-Catholic progress is marked by the Joint Declaration on Justification, the document, "From Conflict to Communion," and Declaration on the Way, passed by our August 2016 Churchwide Assembly.


We are closer to being reunited with the Catholic church than many have ever dreamed to be possible. In fact, our Reformation 500 kick off coincides with Pope Francis’ historic visit to Lund, Sweden, to jointly observe the beginning of a year of Reformation observances.


We are closer to being reunited with the Catholic church than many have ever dreamed to be possible. In fact, our Reformation 500 kick off coincides with Pope Francis’ historic visit to Lund, Sweden, to jointly observe the beginning of a year of Reformation observances.


For these reasons in seeking reconciliation, and taking responsibility for actions that led to breaking relationships, we encourage you all to employ language of commemoration rather than celebration – even as there is plenty to celebrate in our reconciling efforts! Words have power in their meaning. For us the power we seek in the Spirit is that of reconciliation, deepening unity with partner churches who need each other in this season of mission. Commemorating together may serve those unifying ends better than celebrating.


Moreover, this language is in keeping with the sensibilities and intent of our ELCA Office for Ecumenical and Inter-religious Relationships along with the Lutheran World Federation. To share in the sensibilities of both churchwide and LWF expresses our interdependence as church together for the sake of the world!