Jeremiah 31:31-34 – The days are coming when I will make a new covenant with Israel and Judah: law on their hearts.
Psalm 46 – The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold. (Ps. 46:4)
Romans 3:19-28 – No one will be justified by the law. Now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been revealed.
John 8:31-36 – You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.
The 500th Anniversary of the Reformation
As it says in From Conflict to Communion, “Every commemoration has its context.” This commemoration of the Reformation is being held in an age of Ecumenism and in an age of Globalization. Consequently, Lutherans and Catholics, after fifty years of bilateral dialogs, committed to commemorating this 500th anniversary together, with an eye toward the proclamation of the gospel.
Previous commemorations were characterized by Lutherans and Roman Catholics going to their separate corners, with festive attempts to justify their distinctive existence. Lutherans used the commemoration of the Reformation to criticize the Roman Catholic church. Catholics used it to criticize Luther and his movement for dividing the church. In 1917, at the 400th, Luther was portrayed as a German national hero.
Previous centennial commemorations of the Reformation took place in culturally homogenous lands, or at least in lands where there were a majority of Christians. Today’s pluralism presents a new challenge and a new opportunity for the church. If the goal is not to win the fight, or to promote our tribe, what is it? What if our ultimate goal is the proclamation of the gospel? What then? How do we recognize the truth of what happened in a way that proclaims Christ to the world?
What happened cannot be changed, but how we tell the story really matters. If my wife and I each recount an argument we had, you will hear two very different stories, even though we are describing the same events. We may even both be telling the truth. How you tell the story is shaped by what facts you choose to tell, and which facts you leave out. History notoriously left out the fact that Columbus pimped out young native girls to Spanish soldiers. It was an inconvenient truth. Lutherans might be prone to gloss over Luther’s anti-Semitism.
In chapter 3 of From Conflict to Communion, Lutheran and Catholic theologians together attempt to tell the story of the Reformation in a way that is true and honest, and in such a way that both Lutherans and Catholics can nod, and say, “Yeah, that’s what happened.” It is a sort of “no spin zone.” If you are going to preach the story of the Reformation, I would encourage you to read this carefully. Do not fall back on old vitriolic tropes. There has been an explosion of research on late Medieval society and context that merits a hard look before we channel Roland Bainton, or retell the story as our childhood pastors did.
Lutherans would do well to take a hard look at how very Roman Catholic Luther was, as regarded to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the saints, the Eucharist and so on. Another good read is Martin Luther: An Ecumenical Perspective, by Roman Catholic Cardinal Walter Kasper. This short book can be read in a couple of hours. It helps readers understand how the Roman Catholic view on Luther has evolved, and how A Mighty Fortress can be in the Catholic Hymnal.
There is nothing like a lot of good reading to dispel our simplistic ideas about Lutherans and Catholics today. This is not the 16th century. Bishops are no longer princes. The Eucharist is served in both kinds. Sermons and liturgy are done in the vernacular. The church has not burned anyone at the stake for some time. Lutheran and Catholic churches of today are not the church bodies of the Late Medieval Period.
Instead what we need to proclaim is the way of Jesus as the only hope for a world that seems bent on violence and self-destruction. The world needs the gospel today every bit as much as it did two thousand years ago. With politicians playing brinksmanship, with the largest global refugee crisis in world history, with our precious earth gasping for air, the cosmos is groaning for salvation. It is either the way of Jesus or it is lights out for the world. We can no longer afford to wage internecine ecclesiastical warfare. We must unite in faith, hope and love.
The mark of the true church will not be having the right dogma. Jesus said, “By this shall all people know you are my disciples, if you love one another.” I am a firm believer in justification by grace through faith. One of the first verses I was made to memorize as a child was Ephesians 2:8-9:
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast.
I just wish they had also had me memorize the very next verse with it, Ephesians 2:10:
10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
Of course we are saved by faith. And works are the natural byproduct of faith. We were created for good works. In other words, we are not saved by good works. We are saved for good works.
Luther understood this:
Thus it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire. (LW 35:371)
The whole salvation by faith or by works thing is a straw dog. Asked and answered. To present this as the pressing issue between Lutherans and Catholics today misses the mark. This is also made clear by Lutherans and Roman Catholics together in the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification:
By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping us and calling us to good works.
Our differences today are more around orders of ministry. Marriage of priests. Ordination of women. The authority of church hierarchy. This is not a time to harp on this. The world yawns. We have much more important work to do.
So I leave you with the challenge to use Reformation to proclaim the love of God revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Tell the story of his love for the world, his healing ministry and battle with the demonic forces of death and hell. And I will also leave you with two other areas for consideration: The Reformation and Justice, and a Trinitarian reflection on a hymn by Luther.
The Reformation and Justice
What does the Reformation have to do with justice? Everything. The Reformation began with an act of justice.
On October 31, 1517 an Augustinian brother, parish priest, professor of Scripture and chair of the department of theology at the University of Wittenberg, posted 95 theses for debate. These theses focused on the issue of Indulgences. By making a donation to the church, one could receive one of these indulgences, a piece of paper signed by the pope granting pardon from the earthly penalties for one’s sins.
50-60% of the population of Saxony was living in destitute poverty. Luther was concerned when he saw peasants who were barely able to feed their families, spending money on indulgences, because they believed they were rescuing their dead relatives from purgatory.
Listen to just a few of Luther’s 95 Theses:
27. They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.
28. It is certain that when money clinks in the money chest, greed and avarice can be increased; but when the church intercedes, the result is in the hands of God alone.
39. Christians are to be taught that whoever gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than one who buys indulgences.
44. Christians are to be taught that whoever sees a needy man and passes him by, yet gives his money for indulgences, does not buy papal indulgences but God’s wrath.
45. Christians are to be taught that, unless they have more than they need, they must reserve enough for their family needs and by no means squander it on indulgences.
If one can, with earthly wealth, purchase spiritual benefits, then where does this leave the poor? Samuel Torvend, a member of the Department of Religion at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, and a former Luther Leaguer in our former bishop, Paul Blom’s first parish, wrote a phenomenal book called Luther and the Hungry Poor. Torvend digs deep to help us understand the socio-economic realities of late Medieval Europe. Luther’s objection to the sale of indulgences, which spurred the 95 Theses and eventually the Reformation, was not just theological. Who but the wealthy could afford to purchase the paper indulgences that the Church said were necessary for eternal life, when 50-60% of the people were living on the edge of subsistence? Where did this leave the huge population of working poor, landless, destitute, and homeless who could never afford to endow churches, commission religious artwork, or even purchase an indulgence? That one’s place in heaven was determined by one’s wealth on earth was more than Luther could bear. It was unfair. Unjust.. “Now,” he wrote, “the church fishes for the wealth of men.” Widows, orphans and the hungry poor could not participate in the spiritual economy of the late Medieval Christianity.
The poor would spend money they didn’t have, buying themselves and their dead relatives out of purgatory. Furthermore, Luther was concerned that this spiritual economy actually perpetuated poverty, Torvend argues, by taking resources that could otherwise alleviate hunger and homelessness and funnelling it to finance the Church, which already had more wealth than ancient Rome. Some say the church owned 2/3 of the land in Europe.
The Church lifted up poverty as a virtue; Luther saw poverty as a something to be eliminated, not emulated. We must be concerned, even today, any time the church uses superstition to gain wealth. Luther felt poor Christians should not be using their meager financial resources to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The wealthy should redirect their resources to alleviate poverty as opposed to building mansions in heaven. Christians should be taught that it is better to give to the poor than to buy an indulgence. Those who ignore the poor, he says, and spend their money on church parchment, purchase nothing but the wrath of God.
Perhaps Luther, responding to his intense biblical studies, his conscience and his Anfechtung could not have foreseen that challenging the spiritual economy was also challenging market economy of his day and all who benefitted from it. Within a very short time, his ideas would be condemned by those in power. You don’t sock people in the wallet and get away with it.
Luther called for the sale of monastic, mendicant and ecclesial properties, so that the money could be kept in a common chest to be used for the poor. The chest was to be administered by a board of directors that consisted of two people from the parish congregation, two from city council, three town citizens and three peasant farmers. These orders were put in place in Wittenberg and Leisnig within six years of the 95 Theses.
Luther’s theology of the cross meant that God is revealed in the suffering Christ on the cross. God is present where least expected, in humility, shame, weakness, suffering and death. In Luther’s commentary on Matthew 25, Luther says Christ invites his followers to encounter him in the hungry, the stranger, the homeless. A church that wants to encounter God must be willing to encounter the suffering in their community.
Luther understood sin as people and communities encurvatus in se (turned in upon themselves). Self-centeredness was inbred, so we should not be surprised that greed usually wins the day, even in the church, since we’re all simul Justus et peccator.
Grace, however, at work in the life of the Christian has the power to turn people and communities outward (curvatus ad extram). Communities not outwardly focused are simply not Christian. Luther critiqued the fraternities of his day as being self-serving. I wonder how our congregations would fare under his scrutiny.
The Sacraments for Luther had socio-economic implications. Sharing one bread and one cup in the Eucharist meant being one body: becoming part of a community that has all things in common so that no one has need. He grieved that many gladly share in the benefits of the sacraments, but were not willing to share in the costs, like serving the poor, working for justice, especially at personal risk. “They are self-seeking persons, whom this sacrament does not benefit.” Luther linked sacramental practice and social welfare. “Learn that this is a sacrament of love.”
While Luther’s early theological writings have had much play (The Freedom of the Christian, Letter to the Christian Nobility, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church) during this same period Luther also published works on trade, international commerce, banking practices, state regulation of business and so on. Luther critiqued predatory lending, what he calls usury, loaning money at high interest rates, and asking payments that only cover only interest, not principle, so the poor are kept in perpetual poverty.
So, the Reformation was not about some abstract, hypothetical, theological controversy. It was a pastoral concern about real people living in real poverty. It was about economics and justice. It was about encountering Christ through feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, visiting the sick and in prison. It was then and it is today.
Today indulgences still exist, as a graceful proclamation of forgiveness, but they are not used in the same way that they were 500 years ago. Instead of harping on indulgences, we might look inward and ask: How are we addressing injustice today? How might we be guilty of using superstition to create a false economy, that perpetuates poverty? How might we overturn those schemes that promote predatory lending, and redirection of resources away from those who need them most?
We All Believe In One True God, ELW 411: A Hymn by Martin Luther
1 We all believe in one true God,
who created earth and heaven,
the Father, who to us in love
has the right of children given.
He in soul and body feeds us;
all we need his hand provides us;
through all snares and perils leads us,
watching that no harm betide us.
He cares for us day and night;
all things are governed by his might.
2 We all believe in Jesus Christ,
his own Son, our Lord, possessing
an equal Godhead, throne, and might,
source of ev’ry grace and blessing;
born of Mary, virgin mother,
by the power of the Spirit,
Word made flesh, our elder brother;
that the lost might life inherit,
was put to death on the cross,
and raised by God victorious.
3 We all confess the Holy Ghost
who, in highest heaven dwelling
with God the Father and the Son,
comforts us beyond all telling;
who the church, his own creation,
keeps in unity of spirit.
Here forgiveness and salvation
daily come through Jesus’ merit.
All flesh shall rise; we shall be
in bliss with God eternally. Amen.
Text: Martin Luther, 1483-1546; tr. composite
Text © 1941 Concordia Publishing House
Tune: WIR GLAUBEN ALL (see LBW #374)
BEFORE STANZA 1
We All Believe in One True God, WIr glauben all an einen Gott, is a paraphrase of the creed by Martin Luther, first published, as far as we know, in Johann Walther’s Eyn geystlich Gesangk Buchleyn.
The original text is the Creed of course. This is a Late Medieval paraphrase dated around 1524, set to a tune by Martin Luther that is an adaptation of a 14th century Latin Credo melody.
Think Luther the rapper. Would it surprise you to know that Luther wrote rhyming versions of the Creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer? He set the major parts of the catechism to meter and rhyme.
(Sing a stanza of Luther’s Ten Commandments Hymn, but not the sixth commandment.)
Sing a phrase of “Out of the Depths.” Written in 1523 and based on Psalm 130, this hymn was sung ON May 9, 1525, at the funeral of Luther’s friend and patron, Frederick the Wise, in the Castle Church in Wittenberg.
Luther believes the Christian motto, Lex orandi, lex credendi. What you pray you believe. What you sing leads to faith. Liturgy begets theology.
For years confirmation students would tell me they just couldn’t memorize the catechism, or the Scriptures. And yet I would listen to them highly complex lyrics of popular rap or hip hop tunes. There’s something about singing that taps into the brain’s memory capacity. (I wrote a song to teach kids the books of the Old Testament. Yeah, I’ll spare you that one.)
This was consistent with Luther’s desire for worship and theology to be in the language of the people. He wanted to teach the faith by singing the faith. He wanted to help people learn their faith through didactic songs.
Luther wrote his Small Catechism to teach the basics of the faith. Yogi Berra once said, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” For Luther, the main things were:
- Sacrament of the Altar
Let’s sing stanza one of “We All Believe in One True God.”
1 We all believe in one true God, who created earth and heaven,
the Father, who to us in love has the right of children given.
He in soul and body feeds us; all we need his hand provides us;
through all snares and perils leads us, watching that no harm betide us.
He cares for us day and night; all things are governed by his might.
BEFORE STANZA 2
Luther relied on an earlier medieval attempt to versify the Creed, but that poem tried to cover the entire creed in a single stanza. Luther expanded the structure to three stanzas to reflect the three parts of the Creed, one for each person of the Trinity. That larger structure required more material, and so he infused the hymn with sections of the Catechism. This we sing that God feeds body and soul. God guides and protects us.
And Moving away from the standard liturgical plainchant of his day, Luther writes this hymn in four parts, so that people can sing the part and enjoy a new style of music that will catch on. So he explained in a preface to a 1524 hymnal:
These songs were arranged in four parts to give the young – who should at any rate be trained in music and other fine arts – something to wean them away from love ballads and carnal songs and teach them something of value in their place.
Luther thought about hymns as a way of instilling the Word of God in people. What do you sing in your quiet moments? When you’re driving down the road? What melodies and texts are committed to your heart? Are the words holy? Do they reinforce a joyful, transformational, sacramental view of life?
The first stanza was on God the creator. The second is on Jesus Christ, God’s only Son our Lord, who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, buried and raised from the dead. Luther doesn’t have time in this stanza to hit every part of this longest article of the creed, but he hits the main points. He keeps the main thing the main thing, but still gets in some commentary, that Christ is our elder brother, and a source of every grace and blessing.
For Luther Our faith and Our hope is in Christ, and Christ alone. This is what we proclaim 500 years later. In this violent world hell-bent on self destruction, it is the way of Christ, or it is curtains for the world. Let us sing together stanza two.
2 We all believe in Jesus Christ, his own Son, our Lord, possessing
an equal Godhead, throne, and might, source of ev’ry grace and blessing;
born of Mary, virgin mother, by the power of the Spirit,
Word made flesh, our elder brother; that the lost might life inherit,
was put to death on the cross, and raised by God victorious.
BEFORE STANZA 3
The final stanza of the hymn is on the article of the Creed: God the Holy Spirit. The earliest versions of the Symbolum Apostolicum included these parts of the third article: The Spirit, the Church, forgiveness and the resurrection. Luther hits all four points in his third stanza.
The Spirit, the comforter, dwells with the Father and the Son. That spirit keeps the church, the Spirit’s creation, in the one true faith. In that church forgiveness is spoken and resurrection is proclaimed.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is not about reviving any ancient conflict. It is about proclaiming the one true faith of the apostles in the language of the people, in the purity of the Gospel. That is who we are. It is about announcing the unimaginable, God’s free grace, love and forgiveness for all, with the hope of salvation and the gift of eternal life.
Let us stand and sing together the final stanza of “We All Believe in One True God.”
3 We all confess the Holy Ghost who, in highest heaven dwelling
with God the Father and the Son, comforts us beyond all telling;
who the church, his own creation, keeps in unity of spirit.
Here forgiveness and salvation daily come through Jesus’ merit.
All flesh shall rise; we shall be in bliss with God eternally. Amen.