Martin Luther and the Courage to Reform: Sermon for October 15, 2017

To read the previous sermon in this series, please click here.

Last week I ended with what I think was my first ever sermon cliffhanger, cutting off right as the action was about to happen. Maybe it wasn’t as dramatic as a tv show during sweeps, but the story I’m telling takes more than one week to tell, and that was the natural midpoint.

This is the second in a four week sermon series on the Protestant Reformation. The actual Reformation took decades to unfold, but we date the anniversary back to one event that happened 500 years ago this very month on October 31, 1517. That was the day that Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church.

And that’s what our cliffhanger was last week. Just to recap, last week’s sermon was about the young Martin Luther. We talked about how as a boy Luther was scared to death of breaking the rules. He came to see God as a scary and angry figure, as quick to punish as an irate school master. The young man grew up and became a law student, and one day he was caught in a thunderstorm that was so violent that he promised God he would become a monk if he survived.

Luther did survive, and he kept his promise and became a monk. It was in the monastery that he began to read the Bible himself, something that not many people in that day and age had a chance to do. And in the monastery Luther began trying to reconcile the God he knew in Scripture, and the grace and love of God, with what was being taught by the church of his day.

One of Luther’s greatest frustrations was the selling of indulgences. People could buy these for themselves, or for a loved one who had died. They were told that if they paid, their sins would be forgiven. You can imagine how these were abused. If you were scared to death of going to hell, church could sell you forgiveness. Or, if your mother had died, and you were worried she was stuck in purgatory, it was pretty easy to say “you know, if you really loved your mother, you’d pay a little to be sure she went to heaven”.

The church already had quite a bit of wealth, but back in Rome they were just breaking ground on a brand new cathedral, one we know today as St. Peter’s. The sale of indulgences funded that new cathedral’s construction. And so indulgence by indulgence, brick by brick, fearful believers were building a new basilica.

Martin Luther didn’t think this was right. More than that, he didn’t think it was faithful to Scripture and to who Jesus really was. And so he wrote his 95 Theses, his 95 statements about faith and the abuses he saw, and he posted it to the church door. And that’s where we left off last week.

This week we read a passage from 1 Timothy. It’s a letter from Paul, or at least someone who is speaking in Paul’s style, to another young man of faith. Timothy was a young pastor who was just learning what it meant to keep the faith and be courageous. Paul was his mentor. And the words in this letter are ones from a mentor to a timid student who is trying to figure out who they are. Timothy is told, “fight the good fight of faith”.
They are words that could have been said to the young Luther as well. He was now 34 years old, not so far removed from the timid and fearful young man he had been. And I don’t think he wanted to fight. But now he was in the fight of his life.

I use those words cautiously because I don’t like glorifying violence. But there are times when standing up for what we know as true means that others are going to want to fight against us. Being courageous does not mean wanting to fight. Being courageous means telling the truth when something is wrong, even if it means that we will have to enter a fight we’d rather not be a part of.

Luther could have stayed quietly in the monastery, keeping his new found knowledge of God’s love and grace to himself. But as he looked at what the church was doing, he knew he couldn’t be silent. And he knew that as soon as he spoke he would be in the fight of his life. He also knew that the odds were stacked against him.

But he posted the theses anyway. And after they were posted, more people kept reading them. They started to get around. And then the local bishop saw them, and he passed them on to the Pope. And the Pope was not happy, especially because they needed those indulgences Luther was railing on about to build St. Peters.

The next year, in 1518, Luther was charged with heresy. He found protection, for a few years, under a prince called Fredrick the Wise who was sympathetic to his ideas. In 1521, though, the Emperor called Luther to appear before him, and Luther had no choice. And so four years after he had posted those ideas to the church door, Luther was finally called to answer for them.

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Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms by von Warner

You might remember from your history classes an event called the “Diet of Worms”. Funny name aside, this is where Luther takes his stand in the good fight of faith. And there’s a popular version of this story, and then the more likely version. The popular one goes like this: Luther is called before the Emperor and asked to recant, and say he was wrong. Luther refuses to do so, and shouts out “Here I stand! I can do none other!”

It’s a great story. But historians tell us it might not be exactly true. That’s okay, though, because the more likely story is even more powerful. Historians say that on the first day of the Diet, Luther appeared before the council. His books and writings were laid before him, and he was asked a simple question: Did you write these?

The answer, of course, is “yes”. But Luther doesn’t say that. Instead he asks to be given time to reflect and pray. This is pretty far from “here I stand”. But the next day Luther comes back. And he’s asked again if he wrote these books. And this time he says yes. And he is asked whether he will recant. And he says no. In fact, he says this:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.

In other words, “Here I stand…I can do none other.”

Luther’s words only convince the council that he is a threat. He is declared an outlaw and heretic, which means that anyone was allowed to kill him. And as he leaves the council he is immediately kidnapped. Fortunately, his kidnappers were sent by the friendly Frederick the Wise. They keep him safe, and they bring him to a castle in Wartburg. He grows a beard and assumes the identity of a man named “Squire George”, and goes into hiding.

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Actual photo of Martin Luther translating the Gospels from Greek.

It’s in Wartburg that Luther does what might be the most radical thing of all. He takes the New Testament, a book that your average German has never heard in the German language, and he translates it from Greek. He translates it not into the scholarly Latin which can only be read by clergy and academics, but into German. And for the first time, your average person in the pews could hear the stories of God’s love and grace for themselves, and not just as the church wants for them to hear them.

Over time Luther started to find more public support. His ideas were spreading, and he kept writing and encouraging reformation. At one point Luther encouraged all the priests, monks, and nuns to leave their cloisters. One of those nuns who leaves, Katharina, goes on to be his wife. He even becomes a father, having six children. Eventually the Emperor got distracted by other pressing issues, and Luther was left alone. He kept writing and ministering until his death in 1546. And 500 years later, we still remember his life, and his legacy.

Because of Martin Luther, you and I are here today, doing church together in a very different way. We are a member of a Protestant denomination that seeks to understand the Scriptures in light of God’s grace and love. We explore the big questions of faith together, with the church and pastor as teacher, and not tyrant. We do not believe that we are saved by our good works, but that we do good works because God’s grace has already saved us.

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Katharina Luther by Cranach the Elder

And, like Luther, we take up the call to be courageous in our faith. We fight the good fight of faith in our daily lives, not by violence or aggression, but by standing fast in what we know and believe about God. We live out our faith in this world, gratefully serving others with love, because we know already that we are loved by God.

Today we are baptizing the newest member into the faith. They are about to start a journey of their own. Today we will be making vows to support them, and to help them to grow in this faith, so that one day, they too may be courageous. The line from Christ to this font has traveled through so many spiritual ancestors who have taught us what it means to live out the faith. Martin Luther is one of them.

And so, as we come to the font again today, we remember our own baptisms. We remember a God who loves us into courage. And with Luther and all of the others, we proclaim the good news of God’s love and grace saying “here we stand…we can do none other.”

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