Less than a month ago, I stood, along with 19 other folks from Trinity, at “the doors.” That is, the doors to the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany. It was at these doors on October 31, 1517, that a priest and theology professor, Dr. Martin Luther, nailed the 95 theses up as a public condemnation of the practices of the church, and a call to debate. It was at these doors that the reformation was sparked. It was at these doors that the world began to change.
Our Trinity group was standing at the doors after 22 hours of travel, that included 3 flights, 4 airports, 2 bus rides and 3 really unpleasant hours in the Copenhagen airport where we were pretty sure we’d lost all of our luggage and our next flight.
After the last leg, a 90 minute bus trip from Berlin’s Tegel airport to Wittenberg, the bus stopped and an exhausted group emerged. To be honest, all we really wanted was dinner, a shower and a good night’s sleep. After the driver pulled our luggage out of the bay, I looked up to orient myself and I noticed where we had been dropped off. We had been dropped right at the foot of “the doors.” “Hey everyone,” I said. “Look. There are the doors…the ones where the 95 theses went.” The group’s response? “Oh yeah.” “Neat.” “That’s great.” “Which way to the hotel?”
You see, I’d envisioned some kind of a grand unveiling…a John Williams-like soundtrack, a curtain going up and our jaws dropping at the sight of the doors. Nope. Just 20 tired travelers and some luggage. The moment was just a tad anticlimactic.
But the rest of the week made up for it. The doors, during daylight, and when we were awake, were very cool to see. And the interior of the Castle Church, the Town Church, the rest of Wittenberg, the Wartburg Castle, Eisleben, Erfurt, Leipzig…it was all fantastic; life-changing, really.
And we heard and learned the story. The story of Luther, Melanchthon, Bugenhagen, Cranach, Katherine Von Bora Luther, and the other reformers. But this trip, what I was struck by, seeing the sights and hearing the stories again, was learning of how much of Martin Luther’s actions were motivated not by a sense of righteousness…not by indignance…not by seeking justice…but by fear. Fear.
Luther had Daddy issues. His father, Hans Luther was an imposing man. He had made his fortune in the copper mining business. He was demanding, and sometimes harsh. And he was determined that his son, Martin, was going to excel in school, and that he was going to become a lawyer…a noble and important profession.
And Martin complied. He revered his father; and he feared disappointing him.
But one night, something happened and Luther was swayed, again by fear. As he was traveling near the city of Erfurt, a terrible thunderstorm suddenly came up. The lightning and thunder were intense. And Luther was again overcome by fear for his life; terror, really. He fell to the ground, buried his head in his arms and shouted “Help me St. Anne, I shall become a monk.” And she did. And he did.
Two weeks later, Luther entered the Augustinian Monastery in Erfurt, where he applied to become a novice…a new student for the priesthood.
He chose the strictest monastery he could, because he carried his fears with him:
- Fear of inadequacy.
- Fear that he was unworthy.
- Fear of disappointing his teachers, and ultimately of disappointing God.
Luther had come to the monastery, fearing God’s wrath, judgment and anger. He was afraid that God would find him lacking. And so Luther followed every rule; and as penance for his sins, he would walk on his knees on the rough cobblestones until they bled. He would take a whip and strike his own back, until he’d nearly pass out from the pain.
Luther would be struck by fear when he would say the mass, and preside over Holy Communion. He was handling the body and blood of Christ. He worried: Was he even worthy? What if he made a mistake?
He could not work hard enough, pay enough penance, pray enough, worship enough, to make himself feel worthy.
Martin Luther was living life, scared…uncertain…insecure.
Then, something happened for Martin. Something simple, yet powerful happened. All of the novices were given a Bible when they entered the monastery, and Luther read the scriptures for the first time. In particular, Luther was affected by Paul’s letter to the Romans. And he read the words we heard this morning: “…there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…”
But wait…this isn’t what he had understood! This was different. God’s Word said that the Christian faith wasn’t just about rules, laws and judgment. No! All sin and fall short of the glory of God. And Luther discovered in the Holy Scriptures that God’s love comes not because of what he did…but rather because of what Jesus did.
And in that moment, everything changed. The fear that had been controlling Martin since he was a boy, that anxiety, lifted off of him.
To put it simply, Luther was set free.
And when Luther compared the practices of the church at the time, to what he read in scripture, and to this sense of freedom he was suddenly experiencing? Well, he wrote down his concerns, nailed them to that door, and that’s when things got interesting.
Sure, the reformation was an important historical event that quite literally changed our world. But it all started, because a simple, little, anxious monk living in a backwater town in northeast Germany, discovered in the scriptures that he didn’t need to be afraid anymore.
And today, we are inheritors of that legacy. Protestants all over the world, from somewhere around 9,000 different denominations, all celebrate the reformation this weekend. But as Lutherans, we claim Martin Luther as our own.
He wasn’t perfect. He was kind of profane, he had a bit of a temper; he said some terrible, hurtful things about both Jews and Muslims, and he had some lower gastro-intestinal issues that made him…shall we say…unpleasant to be around.
(For those of you who went to the Little Theater of Owatonna production this weekend or last, Luther was kind of the Shrek of the middle ages.)
But he was also brilliant, and he’s ours.
In our Gospel reading for today, Jesus tells us that “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”
But our Gospel reading also tells us that those who heard Jesus make this promise that “the truth shall set you free” were not excited by, or grateful for Jesus’ words. In fact, they were angered: They said: “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”
I think that by offering them freedom, Jesus was reminding them that they are not free…they are not in control. And no one likes to hear that. Those who heard Jesus’ words resisted because they were afraid; afraid of having their vulnerabilities named.
Their angry reaction is actually pretty absurd: “We are the descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.” Really? Did you somehow forget the Egyptians? Or the Assyrians? Or the Persians? Or, take a look around, folks! The Romans? Jesus was naming truth. For them, and if we are completely honest, for us as well.
My friends, are we really all that different? We too have our fears. We struggle with admitting our need, our hurt, and our brokenness. We don’t like admitting that we aren’t perfect, that our life isn’t perfect, and that there’s room within us for help, repentance, and forgiveness.
Admitting these things is not easy. Especially not today, when there is so much cultural pressure to act as if you’ve got it all together, with a great life, great job, great relationships, great future, and great…well… everything. I heard one person say: “I really wish my life was like my Facebook profile.”
In our own way, we play the same game as those who heard Jesus speak his words of freedom: “We are the descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.” We deny our need, our sin and our fear, and we resist Jesus’ promise of freedom because to acknowledge our need means we confess that our lives aren’t perfect. And that is hard…and it can be scary.
When I meet with Trinity’s new member classes, I talk about God’s vision for our lives. I talk about a friend who is a pastor, but is also an artist…a sculptor. He does these amazing works in ceramic. I watched him work once, and I remember asking him how he created these things. He said “I stare at the lump of clay for a long time, until I can see the thing that’s inside it….until I can see the finished product. That’s the hard part. Then I just carve and chip away at the clay until all that’s left it is the thing, the sculpture, that was inside it.”
I think that’s how it works for God and us as well. God has a vision for each of us. And life, is the process of carving and chipping away…of re-forming, and letting go of the fears, the insecurities and the hurts, and letting our lives draw as close to God’s vision for us as we can. Finding this vision and letting go of what hinders us…this is freedom! Freedom from sin. Freedom from false expectations. Freedom from fear.
This is what Luther experienced. And he discovered in the words of scripture and the promises of God, that this vision God has for each of our lives is based not on fear and judgment, but on grace and love. And it is a vision that lifts the weight and brings freedom.
So, this weekend, we gather to celebrate this important, 500th anniversary. And while that’s great, I’m actually more interested in year #501…and 502…and year 503. Perhaps the best way for us to celebrate the Reformation is to simply repeat it; To remember both halves of Paul’s mighty words, first the difficult truth that “all have sinned and fallen short.” And second, the Good news that “all are justified by God’s grace as a gift.” For here, indeed, is a truth that sets you free. And it is a truth that still has the capacity to reform lives, to reform the church, and indeed to reform the whole world.
Let’s not just celebrate the reformation. Let’s live the reformation.
Thanks be to God!