On the 31st October 1517 one man climbed the steps of All Saints Church in Wittenberg clutching a hand-written parchment of 95 theses. Drawing confidence from his convictions he took a hammer and began nailing the parchment to the door, each blow echoing out across the square as if to announce the significance of the moment. Martin Luther’s objections to the teaching and practices of the Catholic Church drove him to transcribe what he believed to be the central truths of Christianity, and now they were nailed to the front of the church for all to see.
500 years ago that apparent act of disunity became the catalyst for centuries of Christian unity – the foundations established through the reformation have been the bedrock of evangelical faith ever since.
As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 objections unity is at threat more than ever. With fundamentalists and liberals pulling at either end of the scale, have we forgotten everything that binds us together? Are we focusing too much on the things that could pull us apart? This year arrives at the perfect time; remembering Luther’s legacy provides an opportunity to rediscover what Christian unity looks like amongst communities, churches, denominations and other religions. It’s an opportunity we can’t afford to miss.
Against a backdrop of political instability, nations dividing, bombs exploding and tensions rising we need to remember that unity looks like something – it’s not an abstract term. It’s an outstretched hand making up for past grievances. It’s a group of people sitting in a room forgetting their differences and sharing their dreams and purposes. It’s stopping to chat to a homeless man, not worried about what others think. It’s asking someone with opposing beliefs why they believe what they believe, without immediately wanting to deconstruct their worldview. It’s Baptists, Anglicans, Pentecostals, Methodists and others combining for the common goal of bringing the gospel to their communities.
Throughout history God has used the gift of unity to encourage and sustain us. In the 19th Century a group of Italians migrated to America from a small town called Rosetta tucked away in the rural hills south of Rome. Landing in New York, they eventually made their way to Pennsylvania sending word back home for people to join them in pursuit of the American dream. By 1960 over 2000 Italians we’re living in New Rosetta, Pennsylvania. It was at this point in their story that an outsider, Dr Wolf, observed something miraculous about this new community. The death rate was 33% lower than anywhere else in the US and no-one under the age of 65 suffered from heart disease. Wolf, a physician by trade, was determined to find out their secret and began collecting data. He started in the most obvious place, studying what they ate, but found their diet to contain less healthy food than their American counterparts – they cooked in lard and had swapped their wholesome Italian ingredients for unhealthy alternatives. They also exercised a lot less than your average American, smoked heavily and struggled with obesity. Wolf’s next thought was about genetics, but to his dismay he discovered relatives who had moved away and integrated with other US communities were more prone to heart disease and early deaths. Finally Wolf tried location – maybe it was something in the air – but neighbouring towns a few kilometres away didn’t share the Rosettans strong health.
Out of Wolf’s despair came the easiest of answers. What he began to realise, living and studying amongst the Rosettans, was that the secret wasn’t diet, exercise, genetics or location. It was unity. As he walked around the town he saw people stopping to chat, large groups gathering to eat together, three generations living under one roof, everybody on first name terms. He counted twenty-two separate civic organisations in a town of 2000 people.
He observed the unifying and calming effect of the church, as people gathered for mass. He picked up the egalitarian ethos of the community – no man was too wealthy, no man was too lost.
The cause of the Rosettan’s good health couldn’t be found in the hard data – diet, blood pressure, geography, DNA. It was found in the sharing of burdens, uniting across boundaries, looking out for those in need. It was found in learning how to foster relationships and encouraging people to grow. Health, love and happiness were the fruits that were born from the gift of unity.
A lot has changed since the 31st October 1517 (including the account of how Luther first presented his theses; it’s now commonly accepted that they weren’t nailed to a church door but copied and circulated across Europe) but one thing still rings true: we are called to pursue and accept the unifying gift God gives us. Through his Son we are all saved, seen as one community of people; no Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, but one in Christ Jesus. And when God’s gift of unity is joyfully received by his people we see the fruit it bares…
“How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity! It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down on the collar of his robe. It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion. For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore” ()