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As a theologian, I love the period of the Reformation. I did not know much about it until I began my theological education. That particular year, my seminary invited a Reformation scholar as a visiting professor. Unfortunately, not many students signed up for his class. Thus, the dean persuaded some students to enroll in this Reformation course. I was one of them. I was not sure what to expect, but the results, from then until now, have been bountiful.
My knowledge of the Reformation has helped me to understand many of the reasons why Christians and Protestants live and function in the way that they do today. In addition, my studies on the Reformation have kept on giving in my professional career. For example, I addressed this topic in one of my doctoral comprehensive examinations, I have preached and lectured many times on this topic, I have published different writings about it, and most recently I participated in a television interview on the Reformation alongside my dear colleague Raquel Contreras.
Given this background, I waited for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation with anticipation. The anniversary was last night! Five centuries ago, on Oct. 31, 1517, Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. Through this, Luther hoped to bring light to some of the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church of his time.
While the official church affirmed that, out of gratitude for their salvation, Christians should contribute to the church by buying indulgences. The popular belief was that by buying indulgences people could obtain forgiveness and salvation. For a long time, Luther struggled with the notion of salvation by works, and the image of a judgmental God who was hard to satisfy. One day, Luther discovered the verse that affirms: The righteous shall live by faith (Rom. 1:17). This discovery led Luther to recognize a God of love and mercy, who offers salvation by grace through faith, and not through works.
By posting his 95 theses, Luther hoped to challenge traditional beliefs regarding salvation and grace and the abuses that they produced among the people. Furthermore, Luther wanted the people to experience the new relationship that he had with a loving and merciful God. He was certain that once the official church became aware of the abuses that the regular people were experiencing, the church would change and reform itself from these inappropriate understandings and practices. Luther’s goal was not to start a new church, but to reform the existing one.
What happened next? Church history books narrate that eventually Luther was expelled from the Roman Catholic Church; thus he and his followers were pushed to start functioning as a new, alternative church. These and other events at that time eventually gave birth to the formation of the Protestant branch of Christianity.
This year, there were many opportunities to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation: Worship services, lectures, conferences and multiple books, blogs and columns. But now that the 500th anniversary of the Reformation has passed, what is next? Now what?
While there are many rich theological concepts that emanate from this period, right now I would like to concentrate on one goal championed by the reformers. Following insights from the humanist movement, the reformers wanted to reform the church’s theology and practice by returning to the original sources. By this, they meant returning to the writings of the Bible and Patristic times.
During the time of the Reformers, having access to the Scriptures (as an actual book that they could hold in their hands and read) was a novelty. Let’s remember that Gutenberg had just recently invented the printing press, and as a consequence, regular people had access to books. But more than holding the Scriptures in their hands, the goal was to reform the church by leading both clergy and lay people to think and live according to the basics of the gospel.
This insight is worth exploring. How would it look today?
This past weekend, I had the opportunity to return to the basics of the gospel. When various natural disasters (hurricanes and earthquakes) hit last August and September, I felt so powerless, and eager to do something more than write and speak/lecture about these events. Thus, I sent a message to the Latina Leadership Institute community to inquire if anybody was interested in participating in a hands-on mission trip. The response was positive. So this past weekend, these LLI sisters and I went to serve people affected by Hurricane Harvey in Houston.
Guided by Butch Green, a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel, we moved and rearranged almost 200 boxes of clothes and supplies to be distributed among the neediest people in the area. Then, we went to pack Mrs. C.’s belongings, or what was left of them. Due to Hurricane Harvey, she lost her house, and most of her belongings, but most tragic was the loss of her son. He was on dialysis, and because he was unable to get treatments for two weeks, his health declined and he did not survive.
When we finished our task, one of my sisters asked Mrs. C. if we could pray for her. She agreed. Immediately after, she offered a beautiful prayer for all of the team members. She concluded by saying: “I know, God, that you are so pleased with the actions of these sisters today.”
This sacred experience propelled me to continue asking myself: what else do we need to do to go back to the basics of the gospel in a way that we may please God?
Along with the reformers, I believe we must take seriously the need to keep reforming/transforming ourselves and our churches. We must do so to continue growing in our faithfulness and obedience to God’s calling. What is this calling? It is one that involves embracing the image of a compassionate God who desires abundant life for all of God’s children. It is immersing ourselves with promoting God’s project: the coming of God’s reign here on earth. It is a bold attempt to live according to the values and actions of Jesus, who challenged the oppressive structures of his time, and invested energy in the holistic development of the most vulnerable around him.
In summary, it is doing what brings glory to God, or in the words of my dear sister Alicia Zorzoli: “It is doing what makes God happy.”