FRANCIS ASBURY UNITED METHODIST CHURCH
BATON ROUGE, LA
OCTOBER 29, 2017
Reverend David Melville
This Tuesday, we not only celebrate Halloween – whatever that means. It increasingly seems odd to see All Hallows’ Eve and All Souls’ Day hijacked by scary, as well as non-scary costumes, a sugar feast and office/store hours changed. Is it a bank and postal holiday? Also on Tuesday, even though less known, we United Methodists and other Protestants should celebrate Reformation Day and Martin Luther’s part in the Reformation. But we rarely do. Let’s do so today, and let’s do so Tuesday.
Martin Luther was born November 10, 1483, in Germany, at a time when there was one church, the Roman Catholic Church, as had been the case since Jesus was crucified. Luther was born into an educated, middle-class family, who wanted their son to become a lawyer. Luther excelled in academics and started on that path, but quickly had a change of heart. Part of the change was ignited by almost being struck by lightning in a terrible storm. Very similar to the terrible storm at sea which our denomination’s founder, John Wesley, experienced and started him questioning his faith and lack of courage and peace, which some other Christians on the ship had in the same terrifying conditions. Maybe there were some spiritual transformations and “come to Jesus” moments born out of Hurricanes Katrina, Harvey, and Irma. Who knows?
I say “part of the change was ignited by Luther’s almost being struck by lightning” because I believe that Luther had already been searching for something which reason and intellect alone did not provide. At any rate, Luther made a bargain with God that if he survived the storm, he would become a monk. God did His part, and Luther did his, and did so in the manner of Francis of Assisi, who, you remember, exchanged his comfortable middle-class life as a student for the harsh, ascetic, masochistic life of a Medieval monk. Luther’s father couldn’t believe it, was furious and believed that his son was wasting the education he had received to that point.
As a Catholic monk, Luther did continue his education but studied theology rather than law. He became a professor of theology in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther was serving the church but was disappointed when the sale of indulgences came to his home province. Call it buying lottery tickets, or chits, or I.O.U. notes … or indulgences … call it what you want … but if as a good Catholic you paid such tribute, you could pay for forgiveness of sins for yourself or others … even those in purgatory. Additionally, part of the proceeds would go to building the massive, magnificent St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Luther and others became incensed at such practices, but it was Luther who had the courage and boldness to publicly and passionately oppose them. He started the discussion by posting 95 grievances, or questions, on the door of the Catholic Church in Wittenberg. (They didn’t have chat rooms or other social media platforms back then.)
With his questions and polemics, Martin Luther, a lowly monk, and professor, was challenging none other than Pope Leo X and Charles V, ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, about assumptions and premises active since the beginning of the church. Because he never recanted his challenges, Martin Luther was eventually ex-communicated, but at least he was not burned at the stake, as were other heretics who challenged authority. I believe the only reason he was not burned lay in Luther’s being protected by a local prince, whose political support was coveted by both Pope Leo X and Emperor Charles V. They could not afford to make Prince Frederick mad, so they did not kill Luther. Of course, ex-communication, which meant the destination of Hell, could be considered a pretty stiff punishment. Like burning the flag, your draft card or bra, Martin Luther burned the Pope’s ex-communication papers and called Pope Leo X the Antichrist.
What were the major notions that Martin Luther came to believe in, and the Catholic authorities did not?
First, that one could not buy or work one’s way into heaven; the only way and reason we make it to heaven is by the unmerited grace of God. This is called justification by faith, not works. The Catholic Church in the Middle Ages had taught that salvation was possible through good works, or works of righteousness. Martin Luther taught that salvation and eternal life are not earned by good deeds, but are received only as the free gift of God’s grace through belief in and faith in Jesus Christ as our redeemer from sin. Indeed, Luther argued that “every good work designed to attract God’s favor is a sin.” Darn it! We cannot achieve salvation by our own acts. And very importantly, forgiveness is God’s alone to grant … not a priest … not even the Pope.
Appreciating God’s gift of grace, rather than living under the pressure of pleasing God by your own efforts, brings a peace beyond all understanding. It brings a peace that I hope each of you have experienced, and are experiencing now. If you are not, let’s talk. Before Luther received that peace he felt deep, sorrowful despair. He said, “I lost touch with Christ the savior and comforter, and made him the jailor and hangman of my poor soul.”
John Wesley, appearing to be a fulfilled, happy priest for the Church of England, and like Luther, an esteemed university professor, was not at peace as he went to America for his one and only journey there. He groaned, “I went to save America, but, oh, who will save me?” As a “PK” (preacher’s kid), as a member of Oxford University’s “Holy Club,” which gave him daily practice and discipline at being and doing good, and as a priest who followed his priestly checklist, Mr. Wesley finally, at age 35, came to realize that all his good deeds and works would not save him or produce inner peace. And you remember what preceded that moment on May 24, 1738, when his heart was strangely warmed, and he entrusted his salvation to the grace of Jesus Christ alone: it was hearing someone reading Martin Luther’s preface to the Book of Romans. John Wesley and Martin Luther: related in many ways, though separated by centuries. Both great men of God learned the hard way that true repentance and forgiveness does not require self-inflicted punishment, but rather, a change of heart. Both great men of God had had their lives turned upside down by the same verse, Romans 1:17 … “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’”[Habakkuk 2:4]
So justification by faith in Jesus Christ alone was the first principal associated with Martin Luther and the Reformation. That doesn’t sound so radical today; back then it was.
Secondly, Luther challenged the Pope’s authority over revealing God. Luther came to believe that the Bible is the only source of divinely revealed knowledge from God. Revelation does not flow through an intermediary. Luther expressed, “I do not trust either the Pope or councils alone since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves.” [insert German for “ouch” here!]
In an effort to make holy scripture more important in revelation than one man, Luther translated the Bible into common German vernacular, thereby making God’s inspired writing accessible to more people. Thus he was a precursor to the English translations to come, which resulted in burning at the stake for some translators. Again, I guess you’d say Martin Luther led a charmed life because he was not burned at the stake for his translation.
Finally, Martin Luther considered all baptized Christians to be a holy priesthood. You and I are equal to the Pope. With that comes greater freedom, but also greater responsibility.
This controversial German monk left his imprint in several other ways. He wrote hymns which influenced development of singing in the now-called “Protestant” churches. Charles Wesley did as well many years later, but Martin Luther was first. We sang one of Luther’s great hymns, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” to open today’s service.
Another imprint from Luther was the new concept of married clergy. We can’t fully grasp the reality that for fourteen hundred years there had been none. When Luther was ex-communicated he was free to marry. For a while I guess he ascribed to St. Paul’s views on marriage and celibacy for religious vocations, and as Luther explained, for the longest time he thought he would be arrested, tried and martyred for heresy. Why put a wife though that? But in the end, he married a former nun, and by all accounts, he was a good husband, in contrast to John Wesley, who also married later in life, and was not the most affectionate, caring or considerate husband. At any rate, Melanie is very appreciative of that particular contribution by Martin Luther: married Protestant clergy.
One can agree to disagree with the Protestant legacies Martin Luther left us – millions upon millions of Catholics certainly have disagreed, and quite a few Popes through the years – but there is one legacy of Luther that I hope all — Protestants and Catholics — are united in renouncing: the scourge of anti-Semitism. For some reason, Luther had a disgusting antagonism toward Jews. He wrote that Jewish homes and synagogues should be destroyed, their money confiscated and their liberty curtailed. He simply had no use for Jews after seeing early in his ministry that they were not going to convert to Christianity, and he encouraged harm upon them. As Protestants, you need to acknowledge that you know this about Martin Luther. But as he himself asserted, do not believe blindly or exclusively in one man or woman, for they have often erred and contradicted themselves. Believe in the Bible alone.
Well, there you have it … but not completely. It is not enough to simply have a history lesson on one of the most significant demarcations in religious thought and action. And it certainly has not been my intention to bash another church — or as the Roman Catholics would call it – the Church. What is most important to reflect upon about the Protestant Reformation remains how it helps us to live each day, and how we are preparing for eternity each day.
Even though we may, through the Reformation, have freed ourselves from control by a complex hierarchy led by one person considered to be infallible, and by clergy who are considered to be literally Christ on earth, rather than as we believe, Christ’s representatives on earth; even though we may have freed ourselves from laws, rituals, and rites similar in scope to Judaic Law; and even though we have freed ourselves from work requirements for benefits, so to speak; let us never forget or forfeit the grace that has replaced whatever needed to be replaced by the Protestant Reformation. When we forget or fail to appreciate … take for granted … a free, undeserved gift, or the source of our gifts, it’s called “cheap” grace. Ironically, it took another German by the name of Bonhoeffer, hundreds of years after a German monk (who had his own need of grace to forgive his failures and shortcomings) to remind us that grace is certainly not cheap, and that Jesus Christ paid a heavy price for that grace in our lives. And that’s another sermon for another day: “Cheap Grace.”
As we sing our closing hymn, Amazing Grace, let us appreciate the five-hundred-year legacy of the Protestant Reformation, let us appreciate the free gift of God’s grace and what that means, but let us also pledge, in the process of enjoying our free gift, to not overlook all that Jesus is still asking of us in terms of our relationship with Him and with others. As Protestants, we are free in a lot of ways, but we are not free from love.
CLOSING HYMN: Amazing Grace