One of the best costume ideas for Halloween that I’ve seen on Facebook this year was someone planning to dress up as Martin Luther and pass out “95 Reese’s” (if you don’t get his joke, keep reading!). This man’s observance of Halloween reflects what we all know about Reformation Day: it occurs on October 31, the day most people we know associate with Halloween. Reformation Day occurs on October 31, because 500 years ago, Martin Luther, knowing that “All Saints’ Church” in Wittenberg would be full the next day (All Saints’ Day, November 1), nailed his "95 Theses" on that church’s door. Since then, October 31 or “All Saints’ Eve” in Europe and the U. S. has taken on aspects of pagan beliefs about the dead and various aspects of our popular culture. In 2016 alone, sales of products associated with Halloween in the United States were estimated to be higher than ever: 8.4 billion dollars. It’s safe to say that more people around us today recognize Reese’s peanut butter cups than they do Martin Luther.
Reformation Day has little in common with Halloween. But you might say it got started as reaction to fear about death and the afterlife that haunted people 500 years ago...even as it continues to speak to the anxieties about life that bedevil people today. In 1517, a professor of theology named Martin Luther wanted to start an academic discussion over the church’s sale of plenary indulgences, documents that promised to release the people who bought them (and those they loved) from a place called “purgatory.” Purgatory was thought to be an intermediate state between heaven and hell where the dead underwent "purification," to pay the price, as it were, for their sins. Luther deplored the sale of indulgences because their salesmen promised they could purchase God’s forgiveness. But that wasn’t all. Indulgences discouraged Christians from works of mercy on behalf of the poor. They played upon the fears of people and allowed the church to get rich, as a result. Luther’s writing of his 95 Theses became the seminal event that began his struggle with church leadership of his day, resulting in his excommunication and his championing the Word of God over “popes and councils alone.”
Only the Word of God, Luther would come to know, could comfort and relieve troubled consciences. That is why "SOLA SCRIPTURA" (Holy Scripture Alone) is the last of our Reformation Anniversary "SOLA"s. Only Jesus Christ and the unmerited love of God revealed through the Son of God for sinners could set the burdened heart free and send the earthbound spirit soaring. Or as the hymn we sing on Reformation Sunday has it, “Though devils all the world should fill, all eager to devour us, we tremble not, we fear no ill; they shall not overpow’r us. This world’s prince may still scowl fierce as he will, he can harm us none. He’s judged; the deed is done. One little word subdues him” (“A Mighty Fortress,” st. 3). Jesus himself is that Word. Jesus promised that the Son of the household can set the slave to sin free (8:38). Is there anything better than the promise of Jesus and the Reformation on this Halloween? Is there anything more reassuring for our anxious and troubled hearts than the one little word: "Jesus"?