Monday, October 10, 2005

Celebrating Reformation (Part I)

The moment October arrives the Halloween displays appear. You may or may not notice them tucked into an obscure corner of the Christmas decorations at most retail stores (that’s another topic) but they are there. Many churches take the opportunity to rail against the evils of Halloween. Others provide alternative “harvest parties” as a means of keeping youngsters from mischief. But October is an extremely significant month for Protestant churches and we miss an incredible teaching opportunity by focusing our attention in an “anti-Halloween” manner. In fact, October 31 is one of the most significant dates in the history of the Church. We should seize a golden opportunity and focus our attention backwards to that date in the year 1517 …

The Pope of the Roman Catholic Church was Leo X. He wanted to build the grandest cathedral ever constructed and dedicate it to the apostle Peter. Money was an issue. So he authorized the selling of indulgences to help fund his project.

Now, it was a Roman Catholic belief that the good deeds performed by the Saints was more than enough to secure their places in heaven. The good deeds they performed over and above those necessary to get them into heaven were stored in a “treasury of merit” held in trust by the Church. An indulgence was a document issued to a member of the Church whereby some of the merit held in trust in the treasury was credited to them or to a loved one. This merit would reduce the time they or their loved one had to spend in purgatory. The indulgence pictured above reads, “By the authority of all the saints, and in mercy towards you, I absolve you from all sins and misdeeds and remit all punishments for ten days.”

Pope Leo X authorized the sale of a special indulgence (pictured at left), one that would allow the buyer to forego purgatory altogether. He sent representatives out to sell the indulgences to raise the money necessary for building St. Peter’s Cathedral. One of his most effective salesmen was a man named John Tetzel. Tetzel played on the sympathies of church members. He told them they had an opportunity to free their loved ones from purgatory immediately. “When the coin in the coffer rings,” he would say, “The soul from purgatory springs.”

All of this shameless salesmanship and bartering with God’s grace caught the attention of a young Augustinian Monk who intended to speak against the practice. His name was Martin Luther.

(Continued in Part II)

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