The Rt Revd Paul Butler, Bishop of Durham’s sermon from the Reformation 500 service at Durham Cathedral on Sunday 29th October 2017.
Durham Cathedral – October 29th
Jeremiah 31.31-34; Psalm 46; Romans 3.19-28; John 8.31-36
‘They are now justified by his grace as a gift’.
For Martin Luther it was the question of how people can be right with God that lay at the heart of his agonised questioning. His conviction that justification – being put right with God – could only happen by grace through faith alone ultimately led to the whole of what came to be called The Reformation.
He had personally wrestled with his own deep sense of sin and inner anguish for many years. This was never assuaged by confession, penance and good works. He came to understand that ultimately being put right with God is a gift – a gift of, and from, God in Jesus Christ.
We need to remember this clearly for it reminds us that it is theology which lay at the heart of the Reformation. It was theology, that transformed and shaped Europe. Perhaps Europe as a whole, that is including the United Kingdom, might want to reflect on where theology, where God, might be worth considering afresh today. Perhaps rather than seeing theology as a matter for a select few we would do well to see that putting God at the heart of our thinking, and our vision for the world, might offer us fresh new possibilities today.
The Reformation scholar, James Atkinson, wrote of Martin Luther, “a genius of such stature, who committed the medieval world to its grave and who at the same time was midwife to the modern world, has significance for the historian, the linguist, the sociologist, the politician, the musician, and almost every researcher and student. Nevertheless, it must be firmly stated that Luther saw himself only as a theologian, a theologian called by God to bring the Church back from its secularism and materialism to the role God had intended for it in Christ, to restore its original charter and message, to offer re-formatio to that which had suffered de-formatio.”
THE DISTANCE WE HAVE TRAVELLED
Sadly much blood was subsequently spilt across Europe in power struggles that were in one way or another connected to the decisions made to become Protestant nations, or to remain loyal to the Roman Catholic Church.
For four centuries there remained a very deep divide. However in the past 50-60 years we have travelled a very long way. This has been signified in a range of ways, notably Pope Francis joint celebration of Luther with the Lutherans in Lund.
It has been graphically illustrated for me personally this past week at the installation of Archbishop Bernard Ntahoturi, from Burundi, as Director of the Anglican Centre in Rome and the Anglican Communion representative to the Holy See. The Centre came into existence in 1966 straight after the second Vatican Council. The installation this week was held in St Francis Oratorio church, known better as ‘del Caravita’, a Jesuit run church. It was an Anglican evensong. The preacher was His Eminence Paul Gallagher, former Papal Nuncio to Burundi and now Secretary for Relations with States in the Vatican. As part of the service Archbishop Bernard and Father Kevin Pecklers Director of the Caravita Community renewed the covenant between the Anglican centre and the Caravita Community. The blessing was said jointly by Archbishops Bernard, Justin and Paul. The whole was attended by Cardinal Koch head of the Pontifical Council for Christian unity. On the following day Archbishop Bernard was not only personally presented to Pope Francis but unusually also stayed for lunch.
It is a scene for which Martin Luther might well have longed and prayed for but could never dare dream at the end of his life of ever seeing.
When Luther ‘posted’ his 95 Theses on October 31st 1517 he was not anticipating anything like the storm that followed. Quite probably the image of him hammering his theses to the door of Wittenberg church is a mythical one (sorry if that disappoints you). He sent the theses with a letter to Albrecht, Archbishop of Magdeburg and Mainz, requesting a debate. The theses, which are robust, are basically the bullet points for such a debate. In the letter he writes,
“The Papal Indulgence for the rebuilding of St Peter’s in Rome is being carried through the land. I do not complain so much of the loud cry of the preacher of Indulgences, which I have not heard, but regret the false meaning which the simple folk attach to it, the poor souls believing that when they have purchased such letters they have secured their salvation, also, that the moment the money jingles in the box souls are delivered from purgatory, and that all sins will be forgiven through a letter of Indulgence.” He closes his letter, “If agreeable your Grace perhaps you would glance at my enclosed theses…” The University lecturer wanted to engage in debate. He also wanted the truth of the gospel to be upheld for ordinary people.
The reaction was very muted; in essence Luther was not taken seriously. He was just a small-time German friar who the authorities in Rome thought would simply go away. They very seriously miscalculated.
AS TIME MOVED ON
By the time Rome did begin to take Luther seriously he had already made a huge impression in many parts of Germany. He developed strong local political support. He also had time to further develop his own thinking, and became prolific in his writing. His works proved extremely popular, and spawned cartoons and comment in abundance.
For him it was the reality of God’s gracious gift of forgiveness and salvation for all people that gripped him. He was convinced that freedom, true freedom, was to be found in Christ alone. He was also ever more convinced that the Church as it was then functioning was hiding this truth not revealing or proclaiming it. So his critique of the Church of Rome became ever more vociferous. He could use some very strong and fruity language about it on occasions.
Ever increasingly important too was the individual from every walk of life grew. He was concerned for the poor and observed a church that seemed entirely unconcerned for them.
He had arrived at much of the thinking that led to the 95 theses and the works that followed from his studies first in the Psalms and then in Paul’s letter to the Romans. Later his further studies in Hebrews and Galatians strengthened his convictions. It was what the Scriptures said that must prevail. As he said at the Diet of Worms in 1521, “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture, or evident reason … I am bound by the scriptural authorities cited by me, and my conscience is captive to the Word of God…. Here I stand! I can do no other! God help me. Amen.”
This is why he was so passionate about translating the Bible into German; and why he developed the first ever printed Bible with illustrations aimed at younger readers.
He also saw music as a God given gift for expressing worship, and for conveying the truth of the Bible.
Luther was passionate about the Bible because within it the truth of God is found. This truth brings true freedom, for “you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.”
MARTIN LUTHER TODAY
Whilst Luther never set out to establish his own church, and disliked the term Lutheranism, he eventually accepted that a new church was inevitable. Across Europe as we know several Protestant churches emerged. These churches developed and spread over the next centuries.
The Roman Catholic Church pilloried Luther, and other Reformers over these centuries generally in the same terms that were used in the 16th century. But we all know that the situation is very different today. The Catholic reevaluation of Luther began in the middle of the last century. It was the Second Vatican Council that ended in 1965 which saw radical reform of which Luther would have been pleased; vernacular services and Bible; a recognition of the ministry of all the baptised;
And a renewed focus on grace were all amongst this.
So in beginning to draw to a close what are we to make of Martin Luther and the Reformation today? Was it all a big mistake? Well the Joint Statement on Justification by Faith by the Roman Catholic and Lutheran
Churches published in 1999 clearly does not believe it was. Indeed in essence that joint statement says that on the theology of justification by faith alone Luther was right. The Roman church leaders of his day should have listened to him. They should have heeded his critique and undertaken the serious reform for which he called. If they had European history might have looked quite different.The statement, which was also welcomed by the Anglican Communion Consultative Council is specifically about this key doctrine of God’s grace. It does not comment on everything about Luther’s teachings and life. Many areas of disagreement continue to exist. Nevertheless, it has healed a core division.
Luther’s core writings, like the Freedom of a Christian Man, and his writings on the Ecumenical Creeds continue to be a rich resource of reflection on the Scriptures; on engagement with other people’s thinking; on working out living for Christ in a world where we are all both sinner, because we still sin, and saints, because we are forgiven and members of God’s royal priesthood. So this 500th anniversary should get us re-reading some Martin Luther.
In revisiting Luther’s life with the help of the Roman Catholic writer Peter Stanford’s excellent new biography, Catholic Dissident, one thing has struck me above all else. This is Luther’s courage. This arose from his conviction that the Bible tells us God’s truth. It was his conviction that he was teaching and speaking the good news of God. So important for him was the reality of God’s gracious gift to us in Jesus Christ that even though he knew he would face severe opposition, and quite probably death, he could not but continue to speak and write.
As he put it in A Brief Explanation of God, “It should be noted that there are 2 ways of believing. One way is to believe about God …. The other way is to believe in God, as I do when I not only believe that what is said about him is true, but put my trust in Him, surrender myself to Him and make bold to deal with Him …. This faith which ventures it’s all on God, and dares to believe, in life or death, that God is what He is said to be …”
This anniversary should I believe inspire us all who name Jesus Christ as Lord and God, whether we be Anglican, Roman Catholic, Romanian Orthodox, Pentecostal or whatever, to renew our commitment to humbly and courageously follow Jesus whatever the cost. Giving ourselves to “cherish and teach good works as much as possible” as Luther wrote in Freedom of Christian Man. Then also as he wrote in that great piece, “Faith is the “Yes” of the heart, a conviction on which one wagers ones life, but it does not arise in or from us, it is wholly the gift of God.”
May God gift in us the faith that says “Yes” to God wagering our whole life and eternity on him.