OK, so it’s five hundred years ago – a long long time ago, but a really interesting period in history. Here in Britain, Harry Tudor and his family had taken over in charge with a 1-0 win on Bosworth Field, and some strategic marriages in the victory celebrations had brought fighting between the York and Lancaster families to an end.
By 1509, Henry VIII was King, still very much married to Catherine of Aragon, a match very much made in diplomacy, at least for now.
There was only one Church; I don’t mean only one building, that would be a bit of a squeeze, but only one way of doing religion in our part of the world – Rome’s way, the Pope’s way.
But make no mistake, in Italy it was very much about family fighting too and at this point in history, it was the Medici Family from Florence who were in charge. Not ‘Royalty’ in the old sense, but ‘new money’. The Medicis were bankers and business men, and understood that money was power.
Pope Leo 10th was a Medici, who had become Pope in 1513. Leo had inherited a grand plan to rebuild St Peter’s Basilica in Rome – the biggest, the best, the undisputed centre of all Christendom. Ah, but that costs some money, and as rich as his family was, he didn’t want to stump up all the money himself did he?
So as part of the plan, he gave people all over the world – well, what they knew of it – a chance to be part of this building project. It was a little bit like selling shares in heaven – hand over a sum of money, and – so the Pope said – you’d get into heaven quicker. It was a clever plan, because, let’s be honest about it, most people were naughty at some point in their lives (they knew this because the church had told them that they were born naughty, and couldn’t help themselves). And most people were worried about dying, and not going to heaven, again, because the church told them that it was something to be worried about.
So the Pope sent his preachers around Europe, with a sermon to preach and a bag to collect the money at the end of the service. Everyone – event those who had very little money to spare – were encouraged to buy an indulgence.
In Germany, a monk called Martin Luther became a bit bothered by this. He scoured his Bible – he could read both Latin and Greek – and he could find no evidence to back up the Pope’s offer. In fact, Martin Luther thought that the Bible tells us the very opposite – that money is the very last thing needed to get into heaven.
Luther opposed the selling of indulgences publicly; he posted 95 objections on the door of the Cathedral at Wittenburg.
The discussions started, and very soon became serious arguments, not just about this money issues, but about the authority of the Pope full stop. After all, if the Pope was wrong about this, what else might he be wrong about?
And so, long story cut short, the church started to break up – Lutherans, Calvinists, the Church of England (Henry 8th had been a very good Catholic, but liked the idea of himself being Head of the Church, rather than the Pope, much more freedom, not to mention the money he could make from closing a monastery or two), Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals…..on and on…. Churches on one side of the street, chapels on another, quite literally sometimes (ahem!).
Martin Luther didn’t imagine any of this, of course. His concern was to get back to the basics and put an end to behaviour which didn’t line up with what the Bible said about Jesus. To help this in his own country, he translated the Bible into German, so that everyone could read what it said and think about it themselves. The Bible has now been translated into every language.
And we have to always think about what Jesus means to us today. The movement which Martin Luther started has been called the ‘Reformation’ – literally the ‘putting back together again’. It’s something which we continue to do today. Because that’s really what the people of God have always been like – changing, moving, taking apart – perhaps sometimes falling apart – and then putting back together again.