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Protestants celebrate their heritage, the Reformation

Times Staff Writer

On Sunday, about 70 million Lutherans around the world, joined by Christians of many Protestant denominations, will commemorate the Reformation.

This liturgical festival, marking Martin Luther’s 16th century challenge to papal authority by nailing 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, inspired the Protestant Reformation that changed the course of Western civilization.

Luther’s theses, challenging certain practices and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, ultimately led to the division of Europe into two camps and triggered religious wars that lasted decades.

“The Reformation was about the centrality of Christ in the life of the individual and centrality of the word of God in worship,” said the Rev. Nathan P. Feldmeth, an expert on medieval and Reformation history at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.

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At the heart of the Reformation is the doctrine of justification by faith -- meaning people are saved by God’s grace, through faith in Jesus Christ, not by good deeds, Feldmeth said.

Luther said works are important, but they are a natural outgrowth of salvation -- not crucial to earning it.

At the Lutheran Church of the Master, a small Westside congregation on Santa Monica Boulevard, the 11 a.m. worship service on Sunday will reflect its rich heritage.

The choir will sing German hymns, and the congregation will celebrate the 400th birthday of Lutheran hymn writer Paul Gerhardt and hear a presentation by theologian Madeleine Forell Marshall, a professor of religion and literature at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, who has translated Luther and Gerhardt’s hymns into contemporary English.

The cozy sanctuary, with its dark wood ceilings and exquisite stained-glass windows, will be decked out in red -- red altar cloths, red banners and red hangings, called paraments, from the altar, pulpit and lectern.

The Rev. John Rollefson, pastor of the church, donning a red chasuble, will deliver a sermon on the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.

As the Gospel of Luke tells the story, the Pharisee prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men -- robbers, evildoers, adulterers -- or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” But, the tax collector, overcome with his sinfulness, beat his chest and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

It was the tax collector, Jesus said, not the Pharisee who went home justified before God. Quoting Jesus, Luke wrote: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

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The parable is a “great text” for Reformation Sunday, Rollefson said, because so many religious people are self-righteous.

“Christians, particularly Christians in the American setting, tend to be quite self-congratulatory about their piety,” he said. “Jesus’ punch line is that he came to save sinners -- those who know their need of God, rather than those who think they’re doing God a favor.”

Rollefson said Lutherans are fond of saying that they are part of the ongoing reform movement of the church. “Christianity is all about reformation,” said California Lutheran University’s Marshall. “When you stop reforming, you become a Pharisee.”

Fuller’s Feldmeth said the Reformation has influenced “virtually every” Protestant denomination and the way believers worship, study the Bible and pray. He noted, for example, the Protestant emphasis on sermons and hymn singing.

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The sermon has become much more important and a longer part of the service since the Reformation, Feldmeth said, because it was used to expound upon biblical passages. Luther also introduced the idea of congregational singing.

“Luther was a terrific advocate of original hymns,” Marshall said. “He wrote many hymns himself -- set them to bar songs. These were popular, robust, energetic, fun-to-sing hymns that covered all the essentials of theology.”

One of Luther’s most famous hymns is “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” virtually a battle song of the Reformation. It will be sung at the close of the worship service Sunday at the Lutheran Church of the Master.

As for the red so visible on Reformation Sunday, it is steeped in symbolism. “Red is, of course, the color of the Holy Spirit and of divine power, as at Pentecost, but it also is the color of martyrdom and may be understood to honor the martyrs who died in the terrible religious struggles that followed the turn from Rome,” explained Marshall, whose husband, father, sister and daughter are Lutheran pastors. “In our day, we may honor both the Protestant and Roman Catholic saints who lost their lives for their faith.”

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Luther posted his theses on Oct. 31, 1517, to spark debate on his theological arguments against the use of indulgences -- sold to believers as the remission of temporal punishments for sins committed and confessed to a priest.

“He felt the church was corrupt and he wanted to correct it,” Feldmeth said. “He posted [the theses] in Latin so he wouldn’t disrupt everyday Christians.”

But they were quickly translated into German and, as Feldmeth put it, within two weeks “the cat was out of the bag. I don’t think it was his intent at first to call for reformation, but his ideas were pungent. They really caught on with people.”

Luther, a Roman Catholic priest, was excommunicated by the Catholic Church.

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In the late 1990s, Cardinal Edward Cassidy, then head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, acknowledged Luther’s contributions to Christianity. Luther spoke up during a “difficult time,” when the church was using indulgences to finance church building.

“At that historical moment, someone was needed to stress that it wasn’t by what we do that we are saved,” Cassidy said at the time. “Luther brought these things up in such a striking way that he made it clear we were in trouble.”

Luther has his share of critics. Historians have called him intolerant and anti-Semitic. Late in life, when he suffered from various ailments, he became short-tempered. “Dear husband, you are too rude,” his wife, runaway nun Katharina von Bora, was overheard saying.

But experts also say Luther’s translation of the Bible into the vernacular had a tremendous political impact on the church and on German culture.

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The translation furthered the development of a standard version of the German language and influenced the translation of the English King James Bible, according to experts. Some commentaries note that his marriage set a precedent for clerical marriage within Protestantism.

Luther was not the first “protestant,” Feldmeth said. “There were many Catholics before Luther who cried out for reform. But Luther was such a prophetic individual. Not only was he a great scholar, but he was politically savvy. He was courageous beyond most people’s expectations. He was the right man for the moment.”

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connie.kang@latimes.com

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