THE REFORMATION AT 500
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
October 29, 2017; Non-lectionary sermon
Habbakuk 2:1-4, Romans 1:16-18; Ephesians 2:1-10
“For by grace you have been saved through faith,
and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God…”
He was, by all accounts, a compliant young man. He did what his father said. What his father told him to do was to become a lawyer. So that’s what he did. He went off to college and took the sort of courses that would enable him to become a good lawyer.
But all was not well with the young man’s soul. He had dark moments, deep spiritual struggles. In his worst encounters with his dark side, he wondered if God really loved him.
The young man’s spiritual struggle came to a head one dark night, when he was on his way home from the university. A terrible thunderstorm came up. He was trapped on the open road.
It was a frightening storm, by all accounts. The wind howled. Thunder crashed. Bolts of lightning came nearer and nearer.
The young man was terrified. He thought the storm to be, quite literally, the wrath of God. He fell to the ground and cried out a desperate prayer: “Save me, St. Anne, and I will become a monk!”
The man, of course, was Martin Luther. And yes, he did become a monk — much to his father’s chagrin. But this is just the beginning of his story. Brother Martin did so much more than just enter a monastery. He started the Protestant Reformation. And it’s the 500th anniversary of that Reformation we celebrate today.
October 31, 1517 was the date Martin Luther sent a list of Ninety-Five Theses, or debating points, to Albert of Brandenberg, Archbishop of Mainz, Germany. Not long after that, he’s said to have nailed a copy of his document to the door of one or more parish churches in the city of Wittenberg, where he lived.
If you came into the church this morning through the main doors, you may have noticed a piece of paper tacked up there. It’s a facsimile of an early printed edition of the Ninety-Five Theses. If you saw it, you probably couldn’t have made much sense of it, because it’s written in Latin. We don’t know for sure if he ever actually nailed the list to the church door, but it’s become part of the Luther legend all the same.
Luther wrote the Ninety-Five Theses in response to one particular issue that was hotly debated in the church of his day. It was a fund-raising technique Pope Leo X was especially fond of. He used it to raise money to build the mightiest church building in all of Christendom, St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, that still stands to this day.
The fund-raising technique was the sale of indulgences: a certificate indicating that the sins of a departed loved one had been forgiven. Indulgences didn’t come cheap, but why should they? They were essentially a ticket to heaven, and were therefore of infinite value.
One of the most notorious purveyors of indulgences was a priest named Johann Tetzel, who was active in Germany in Luther’s time. Legend has it that Tetzel used a little rhyme, a sort of advertising jingle, to sell his wares. The rhyme went like this: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”
Well, Luther had been busy in the years since that stormy night when he committed his life to God. He’d become a student of the scriptures, learning the ancient biblical languages of Hebrew and Greek, as well as sharpening up his Latin skills. He’d become, by that time, the equivalent of a seminary professor.
Luther’s facility with the biblical languages led him into territory few other Christians of his day ever explored. Books were rare back then. Even though Johannes Gutenberg had invented movable type a couple generations earlier, and started printing out Bibles in Latin, almost no one outside the church hierarchy owned one. Most people couldn’t have read the Bible even if they did own one: for only priests, lawyers, and a few others who had been to university knew Latin at all.
Luther was one of only a very select group: people who could read not only Latin, but also Hebrew and Greek. These, of course are the original languages of the Bible. Luther could read the biblical texts as they’d originally been written.
It was in one of those Greek texts that he discovered a Bible passage that changed his life: that finally answered the dark questions he’d asked himself that stormy night, when he gave himself to God’s service.
I read it for you this morning: Romans 1:16-17. A portion of it goes like this:
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’”
For years, Luther had been struggling to accept the fact that he was indeed righteous, that he had been saved by Jesus Christ. The technical theological term for this self-awareness is justification: that his soul had been justified, or made right with God.
So much of what he’d been taught in the church of his day seemed to teach precisely the opposite: that no one was ever justified, except for those who had been awarded justification by the church. The way to get right with God, according to this view, was to go to church, confess your sins and receive the sacraments on a regular basis.
That was the long way. The short way was to die, and have your loved ones cough up a few silver coins to buy you an indulgence. Once that fee had been paid, your long-suffering soul was plucked out of purgatory and transported straight to Paradise.
Luther knew, from his study of the scriptures, this was not so. How could it be, when Paul had written to the Romans, “the one who is righteous will live by faith”?
Reflecting later on that breakthrough discovery in his own life, Luther wrote:
“Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the ‘justice of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love.”
No longer was Luther that guilt-wracked young man, terrified of a lighting-storm that he imagined to be the wrath of God. As he went on to write, “Those who see God as angry do not see him rightly but look only upon a curtain, as if a dark cloud had been drawn across his face.”
Luther was even more convinced of the gracious forgiveness of God after studying another biblical passage, Ephesians 2:1-10. We read that one this morning, too. Here’s what it says in verses 8 and 9 of that passage:
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”
There have always been some who oversimplify Luther’s great insight, seeing it as a battle of faith vs. works. The Roman Catholics, they say, believe in salvation through good works, while the Protestants believe in salvation through faith. That’s actually a huge misunderstanding of both sides, because in fact there are elements of both faith and works in both traditions. It’s a question of where you put the greater emphasis.
Someone has said that, for Luther, faith and works are like a pair of oars in a rowboat. Have you ever tried to row a boat using just one oar? If you have, you quickly discovered you can’t get very far! Try to row using one oar, and you’ll only go around in circles.
So, too, with faith and works. You need them both. It’s impossible to consistently perform good works without having that spiritual fire in the belly that is faith. By the same token, you can’t have faith — not a genuine faith, anyway — that doesn’t fill your heart with gratitude so you’re motivated to do good works. Good works are not so much a way of measuring up as they are a way of saying thanks.
That was Luther’s great insight, his “Aha!” moment, the light bulb flashing on over his head, illuminating a whole continent in spiritual revival.
Luther would go on to do many more things. For a time he was accused of heresy and had to flee for his life. He was rescued by a sympathetic nobleman — Frederick III, Elector of Saxony — who sent a squad of soldiers to arrest him (or, at least, to pretend to arrest him). Instead of turning him over to the Inquisition, they spirited him away to a high tower in Wartburg Castle, where he could study and write in safety.
It was there that Luther set to work on the greatest project of his life: translating the entire Bible from the Hebrew and the Greek not into Latin — which only a few could read — but into German, the language of the people. As today’s bulletin insert reminds us, Luther’s German Bible is considered by the people of Germany to be one of their greatest literary treasures. It ranks as highly in their estimation as the plays of Shakespeare are to the English.
Luther didn’t seem himself, at the beginning, as starting a new church. He desperately wanted to see the church he loved transform itself into a deeper spiritual community. Such a blessed community would serve not its rich and powerful bishops and cardinals and pope, but the common people, hungry to hear the good news of salvation.
At some point along the line, Luther realized that wasn’t going to happen. The forces of resistance were just too great. He decided to try to live by three radical, biblically-based principles: sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura. Those three Latin phrases translate into “grace along, faith alone, scripture alone.”
Along the way, he discarded the Roman Catholic teaching that there were seven sacraments: Baptism; Eucharist (or Communion); Confirmation; Confession; Anointing of the sick (or what they used to call extreme unction); Marriage; and Holy orders, or ordination. Only two of these, he found, had a clear mandate in the scriptures: where he could read of Jesus doing them, then saying to his followers “You do this, too.” Those were Baptism and Communion. They became the two sacraments of what came to be called the Lutheran church — and they are the two sacraments of the Presbyterian Church as well.
The other practices that used to be sacraments continued to be at the center of his church’s life: they just didn’t have that special designation. One of them, of course, was marriage. Again, studying the scriptures, Luther could find no evidence that those who are set apart by the church in holy orders — the priests and nuns of his day — should be forbidden from marrying. So, he abolished the requirement of priestly celibacy.
Luther was, by that time in his life, approaching middle age. He had no intention of marrying, himself — but then something happened that changed all that.
Way back in 1504, a five-year-old girl named Katharina von Bora — from an impoverished noble family — had been shipped off to a convent. The nuns there taught her to read, write, speak Latin and sing. Having no dowry, she had no marriage prospects: so, she became a nun herself.
Somewhere along the line she became aware of this revolutionary monk named Luther. She and a group of her sisters became convinced of his arguments. Somehow they sent a message to him, telling him they needed rescuing from their cloister.
At that time, removing a nun from her cloister was a crime punishable by death. But that didn’t stop Martin Luther. He arranged a daring nighttime rescue, sending a merchant friend of his to show up with a cartload of barrels. The nuns either climbed into the empty barrels — fragrant with the smell of pickled herring — or lay beside them, covered with a tarp. The fish merchant smuggled them out.
Each of the former nuns was married off to eligible bachelors from Luther’s town of Wittenberg — except for an older nun who found work as a teacher, and Katharina. She had her eye set on Luther himself.
In time, opened his heart to her affections, and they were married. Their marriage lasted 21 years, until Martin’s death, and produced six children. Katharina proved herself a brilliant businesswoman, running a large home that — with the ceaseless flow of visitors Martin received — was more like what we’d describe today as a conference center.
It’s hard for us to imagine this today, but it was Luther’s marriage — and to a former nun, at that — that seemed most scandalous in his own day. It also attracted even more attention to his reform movement. In fact, he could not have accomplished nearly as much as he did without his beloved Katie — who was a truly remarkable woman.
There’s one other thing that needs to be said about Martin Luther — and this is not in his favor. Like any human being, he had his flaws. He was not always correct in his interpretation of the scriptures.
Martin Luther was a medieval man — and, like most people in the Christian churches of his day, he accepted uncritically the hateful theology of anti-Semitism. He published a pamphlet, called On the Jews and Their Lies, that advocated the burning of synagogues. “This is to be done,” he wrote, “in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians.”
He went on to advise that Jewish homes be destroyed as well, that their Talmud and prayer books be taken from them, that rabbis be forbidden to teach, that Jewish gold be confiscated, that Jews be set to work at hard labor, and eventually be driven from the land.
You may well recognize in that polemic a blueprint for the Nazi Holocaust — and it was, in fact, Adolf Hitler himself who used the anti-Semitic writings of Luther as justification for his horrendous campaign of mass murder.
It just goes to show that there are none of us who are immune from sin. As brilliant and as godly a man as Luther was in most respects, there are aspects of his life none of us should seek to emulate.
But enough said on that account. We have a very significant anniversary before us: 500 years of the Protestant tradition. Luther’s reform shook the world of Christianity to its very foundations, and the echoes of his biblical interpretations are still reverberating throughout Christendom. They have led to the founding of a whole family of denominations, beginning with the Lutheran churches that bear his name, through our own Presbyterian and Reformed tradition, and beyond. Luther’s reform even looped around and impacted the Roman Catholic church, which eventually conceded a great many of his strongest points.
So, let us remember and celebrate Brother Martin, on this 500th anniversary of his Ninety-Five Theses, and the start of a religious movement that is still alive and well today!
I invite you now to turn to your bulletins and join me in the Unison Prayer for Reformation Day that you will find there.
In your church, O God,
that is reformed and ever reforming,
may we always celebrate the witness
of our forefathers and foremothers,
honoring their firm courage and steadfast conviction
that gave birth to the Reformation.
Teach us to honor the saints of God in ages past
as well as in our present day.
May the conviction of your grace written on their hearts
be one that continues to form our own faith.
Inspire us in the continuing reformation of the church.
Make us tolerant in working with fellow Christians
whose expression of faith differs from our own,
and be present to us in powerful ways
in word and sacrament, devotion and duty.
In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.
Copyright © 2017, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.
As quoted by Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Abingdon, 1950), pp. 49-50.