Sunday, January 8, 2017

Time for a New Reformation?

“My God, what a sewer-stench is this! Who are you and what do you want?”

With those words, St. Peter greets Pope Julius II when he arrives at the gates of heaven in the 1514 satirical play, Julius Excluded.

In the play, written by the Christian scholar, priest and humanist Desiderius Erasmus, the Pope finds the gates of heaven closed to his entry after he dies.

“What the devil is this?” Julius asks.  The doors don’t open? Somebody must have changed the lock or broken it.”

After being told he brought the wrong key—the key of power, and not the key of wisdom to open the door to heaven—Julius loses his temper.

“Now I'm really getting mad,” he says. “I'll knock the doors down. Somebody come and open this door right away!”

St. Peter replies by saying “this is a fortress to be captured with good deeds, not ugly words.”

Reproved, Julius tries to make a case for entry. He proudly describes how much better the church is because of his work: Regal palaces, crowds of servants, well-trained troops, plenty of gold and so much money “there's not a king in the world who wouldn't appear base and poor.”

He also talks about his many political dealings, some of which resulted in wars across Europe.

“Madman!” St. Peter responds. “So far I have heard nothing but the words of a warlord, not a churchman . . .  you boast of having dissolved treaties, stirred up wars, and encouraged the slaughter of men. That is the power of Satan, not a pope. Anyone who becomes the vicar of Christ should try to follow as closely as possible the example provided by Christ.”

To which Julius replies: “He may find people to praise his example, but not to follow it, not in these days anyway.”

Thoughts about Erasmus and his play came to mind as I thought about how Christians will mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in 2017.

Although Martin Luther gets most of the credit for that Reformation, people like Erasmus laid much of the groundwork for the reforms that followed. In fact, it has been said “Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched.”

Like Luther, Erasmus was troubled by the materialism, power and political ambition of the institutional church of his time—themes he captured in the play.

As David Fink, assistant professor of the history of Christianity and Christian theology at Furman University wrote, “the picture of Julius in this exchange is a grotesque caricature, but the issues in dispute were real enough.

“They were the central planks in Erasmus’s reforming agenda: the importance of earnest faith and holy doctrine for the Christian life, along with contempt for the world and, above all, an imitation of the life of Christ.”

The result was a play that shows a church of that day that was wealthy and powerful, but unfit for heaven.

What about the church today? Is it due for a reformation? In 2009, author and theologian Phyllis Tickle published The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why. In the book, she wondered if the time hadn’t come for reform not unlike what happened in 1517.

In the book, Tickle posited that every 500 years the church has a garage sale—a time of upheaval and transition when it gets rid of things it no longer needs.

The last garage sale, she said, was the Great Reformation sparked by Luther. We are due for another one today, she suggested.

In an interview in 2009, she told me that during these times of rearrangement and upheaval, three things usually happen.

First, a new, more vital form of Christianity emerges. Second, the organized, institutional and dominant expression of Christianity is reconstituted into something new.

Finally, she said, “every time the incrustations of an overly established Christianity are broken open, the faith has spread dramatically, thereby increasing the range and depth of the church's reach.”

The challenges facing the church today are different from 500 years ago. But the world is still filled with poverty, war and injustice.

Maybe the 500th anniversary of the Great Reformation is a time to ponder if a new reformation is also upon us. 

lIIustration above: Julius II with the wrong key for the gates of heaven.

From the Jan. 6, 2017 Winnipeg Free Press.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, we need a new Reformation. But for this we need modern Erasmus.
    Genius Erasmus said: "What is a man away from craziness, he has less of life."