A few days ago, my wife and I watched a documentary entitled “The Reluctant Revolutionary”. I wanted to share some thoughts about it. I found that it contained many types and shadows as well as incredible symbolism. Most of what I will share on this post is transcribed directly from the documentary.
In the documentary, it describes the world in confusion and darkness, however, there was one great consolation. a Church with a promise of heaven. This promise had made the Church the most powerful institution on earth. However, This empire would be brought into question by one man. This man who would stand up for his convictions, which would challenge this world-wide universal Church. This documentary chronicles the life of this man, a reluctant revolutionary.
He came from a city where the Church reigned supreme. The Church was the “only game in town”. It was the only major story that was allowed to be told and it was told systematically, and it was embedded into the culture and lifestyle of the people.
It’s churches lay scattered across the country. The Church’s power lay in the one great comfort it promised: If you followed its rules and performed its rituals, you would escape the horrors of this worlds and find eternal happiness in heaven. But the Church exerted as much control over life on earth as it did in heaven. It’s rules and laws permeated every aspect of daily life.
Like so many around him, this man embraced the Church. He served in the Church, even sang in the choir. The man was well educated and studied to become a lawyer. He was sent to the best schools in the area and received a Masters degree. At age 23, he was returning home after a visit with family members, when suddenly he was caught in a massive thunderstorm. No one knows exactly what happened to him that night, but it struck him to his very soul. Suddenly surrounded by the terror and agony of death, he felt constrained to vow himself to God. He struck a bargain with God. He turned his life over to God.
Two weeks after the night in the forest, he became a monk. But much to his surprise, this man’s new home was as much as business as a spiritual retreat. The abbot was running a thriving trade in dyeing cloth. In addition, the monks had a brewery, distilling a rather popular beer. While the monastery owned land across the neighborhood, making a tidy income off of rent and tithes. In addition to its multiple businesses, the Church had the power to levy tithes. And people, on the whole, were willing to pay those tithes, because they were taught so firmly, right from their earliest childhood, that if they did not have the services of the Church, their souls would be in peril.
This profiteering of the Church would ultimately outrage and disgust this man. But for now, he was concerned only with his soul. He was increasingly concerned that he might never please God., that he would never make it to heaven. The greater sense of his despair, the more this man threw himself into the rituals of the Church. He dearly cared about being reconciled to the Heavenly Father and doing what God willed him to do. For five years, this man labored without relief. In 1510, he was sent on a mission to Rome, one of the Church’s greatest pilgrimages. Rome was the capital of the Church, and indeed, from the Western perspective , it is the capital of Christendom.
Tens of thousands of pilgrims flocked to Rome every year, all hoping the journey would bring them closer to God. This man arrived in Rome just as the Renaissance was reaching its height. Michelangelo was painting the ceilings of the Sistine Chapel. Raphael was hard at work decorating the pope’s private apartments. To the young monk, the Roman (the Eternal City) was a revelation. When he first approached Rome and entered into the city, he seems to have been absolutely overwhelmed by the idea that here he was in the Holy City. But soon the gloss to wore off.
Among the palaces and great churches, this man would now discover a very earthly institution. For this city was a much about money as religion. The Church as an institution for gathering in cash was really kind of a huge sink for brining in money from throughout the world. The Church may have taught that money is at the root of all evil, and to lend it at interest, for example, is a mortal sin. But in reality, of course, the Church dealt in millions.
This man had entered in the headquarters of a world wide corporation. Supported on the profits of their many businesses and on the donations of the faithful. The most important thing to remember about the Church is that it has been, for a few hundreds of years already, it has been basically a state, a state with all the characteristics of a state. It has bureaucracy, it has palaces, it has magnificent buildings, shopping complexes and commerce. It has everything that a great Renaissance prince has.
The kind of people who floated to the top in the Church tended to be people who would be pretty rough-cut businessman. And the need to have these sort of powerful managers and politicians explains why the Church was a spiritual place full of a lot of unspiritual people. The disappointment in Church was absolutely devastating to this man.
One of the biggest money makers for the church was the selling what was called “indulgences, which for a fee released you from time in purgatory after death. The chance to buy time off from purgatory was an extremely attractive offer for the faithful. And very profitable for the Church. But as the man trekked from one pilgrimage site to another, desperate to find salvation, he was overtaken by a steadily mounting fear; could all this really bring him closer to God? Until finally, it is said that this man collapsed, questioning for the first time the teachings of the Church for which he had vowed his life. “Who knows if it is really so?”
This man was clearly very disillusioned by the Church in Rome, not simply by the spiritual superficiality, but also by the way in which he felt that Rome simply did not reflect Christianity as he understood it. His trip to Rome had brought only disillusionment and doubt. And life in the monastery now offered even less consolation that before. There is something about himself who felt that he never can quite do it, and yet he has to do it. He threw himself into the scriptures, studying not only the standard Latin texts of the Church but also reading them in new Greek and Hebrew editions. And as he pondered, noted and reasoned his way through his faith, this man was struck by a building revelation, a revelation that questioned everything he has been taught about his church. This man had been brought up to believe that the person who was saved is the person who went out and achieve salvation. He now began to realize that to receive salvation, you simply put out your empty, open hands and received this gift which God wanted you to receive. So what this man is saying is that you don’t need the intercession of priests, you don’t need these great papal ceremonies to get to heaven. This whole thing is not about you and the Church – it’s about you and God. It was a revolutionary moment.
For his whole life, this man believed that is was through the rituals of the Church that he would achieve salvation. But now he realized that salvation could only take place directly between God and the individual. No earthly institution could believe for you, atone for you, or stand between you and your God. He states “At this, I felt myself to have been born again and to have entered through open gates into heaven already.”
Seven years had passed since his visit to Rome. In that time, the previous Pope had died. He was succeed by a new pope, and this pope was a man devoted to the pleasures of the world. Within two years, this new pople had emptied the papal treasuries. He was forced to halt work on the Church’s greatest extravagance yet, the glorious basilica of St. Peter’s. One of the greatest building projects in European history, and all the great artists, sculptors and architects of the Italian Renaissance, without exception took part in this expansion. It just sucked in money, as building projects do suck in money.
To refill his treasuries, he turned to one of the Church’s most proven methods for raising money, charging the faithful for entry into heaven. This indulgence was basically a piece of paper sold for a very appropriate sum of money, incidentally adjusted to your means, which promised to pay the bearer on demand forgiveness of sins. You could buy one not just for yourself but also for your dead relatives. Here was salvation in exchanged for a sum. The new pope brought in a marvelous advertising executive named called Johann Tetzel who was gifted in promotional jingles and slogans. He almost invented the advertising jingle. He would say, “When the coin in His coffer rings, then the soul heavenward wings.”
The new pope waited for his empty coffers to fill with the donations of the faithful. But for the man, his moment of revelation had left him with one simple message. “Salvation was a gift from God, a gift received through faith. “ and that meant that Church had no right to sell redemption. The assurance given to the church members that they are saved because of their piece of paper, he thought was totally an illusion… and that they’re likely to be damned as a result of this. So for him, this is a very serious matter. He’s angry, because this really counts. Peoples’ lives are at stake. If they get this wrong, they can go to hell. This monk who had once been the Church’s most devoted servant, now turned on the institution to which he had vowed his life.
This man, this reluctant revolutionary, we all know come to know as Martin Luther.
On the evening of the 31st of October, 1517 Luther sat down and penned a furious litany of criticism – 95 stinging bullet points, or theses that lashed into the pope and the trade in indulgences. Then he nailed them to the door of Wittenberg’s Castle Church. It was a blistering attack on the greatest power of the day.
There is still much discussion of how much trouble Luther actually wanted to cause, since it was standard practice to pin texts for academic discussion to the church door. They weren’t intended to be published. They’re in Latin, They’re technical. They are difficult to understand in places. But at the same time, it’s hard not to think that he had at least the threat of going public in his mind. In the end, other people did it for him.
Luther was about to become one of the first widely read authors in history. Less than 70 years before, another German, Gutenberg, had perfected the world’s first printing press. Already printers were running off countless books and pamphlets. And now Luther’s outspoken work was copied down and set for printing.
The Theses would spread like wildfire across the country setting Luther and all Europe on a path no one could have anticipated. Luther really didn’t anticipate the consternation that this would arouse at the very highest level. But it was not for nothing that the Catholic Church had held power for over a thousand years. It had a name for people like Luther. They were apostate. (heretics). And the penalty for heresy was death. The stage had been set for the Church’s greatest conflict in its history. A battle between the most powerful institution on earth and one solitary monk.
To be continued…