Luther and the Gospel

Rev. Doug Floyd
Luther and the Gospel
Pentecost 21A

I’m running as fast as my legs will carry me. I’m running for my life. I’m running from my grandma’s house to the school that I’ve been attending for the past school year. I had just walked home from school, but when I got to my grandma’s house no one was there. Suddenly the leisurely walk became terror. Holy terror.

We moved to Tennessee at the beginning of the school year because my father had been transferred from New York City to his hometown of Knoxville, TN. While my parents looked for a home, we lived with my grandma near the Standard Knitting Mills in downtown. My parents enrolled us in a private Christian school just a few blocks away on Magnolia Avenue.

For the past six months, I had been immersed in a culture that talked continuously about the rapture and the horrors of being left behind. At the same time, we would regularly hear testimonies of people who thought they were saved but later came to realize they were only “playing the game” of Christianity. This steady of diet of testimonies took away any assurance I had of salvation. After we were treated to the rapture film and song, “I wish we’d all been ready,” I developed a terror of the impending rapture. As it turns out, my fears were common for many young people in the 1970s.

Hope of salvation was illusive and I was terrified of being left behind. I was terrified of being abandoned: by family and by God. When no one was home at my grandma’s house, I feared the worst and ran as fast I could to get back to school, hoping to see someone that I knew was a Christian. I was hoping to find some assurance that I hadn’t been abandoned.

Years later, I would read Roland Bainton’s biography “Here I Stand” and discover a friend and encourager in Martin Luther. He brought me back to the simple message of faith in Jesus Christ of my early childhood.

In his own holy terror of God, Luther would eventually meet the grace of God in the cross of Jesus Christ and spark a fire that reshaped Europe and played a vital role in shaping the modern world. This coming Tuesday will mark the 500th anniversary of his posting the 95 theses to the door in Wittenberg. These disputations were simply a call for debate but they took flight and became a spark in the wind. They would play a role in a series of events that would lead to a break from the Roman Catholic church and a Reforming revolution across Europe.

As we reflect on the Gospel’s call to love God and neighbor, I thought I would take a few moments to rehearse Martin Luther’s encounter with the Gospel. Every week we rehearse Jesus commands from today’s Gospel: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”[1] We also carry these two commands into our confession of sin as we admit to the Lord that “We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.” We fall short.

We see the command to love all through the law. In today’s Psalm, we hear the call meditate day and night on the law. Psalm 1 stands at the head of the Psalms. It is the fountain so to speak from which all the Psalms flow. It has been given the first and chief position. According to Nahum Sarna, this Psalm establishes Torah or the Law as first and foremost in the devotional life of God’s people. This pattern of establishing Torah at the head is a pattern that is repeated through the Old Testament.

The book of Joshua begins a new section of Scripture after the Pentateuch. The Jews refer to this book as the beginning of the “Former Prophets.” In chapter Joshua 1:7-8, we are reminded that obedience to Torah must be central to the life of God’s people. Isaiah begins the Later Prophets and in Isaiah 1:10 we are reminded to give ear to Torah. Thus in the opening of the Poetic Books, Torah stands as preeminent in the life of God’s people.

Each of these sections “echoes” the call of God to his people to walk in the way of life, in the way of truth. This law is brought to fullness in Jesus Christ who reiterates the heart of the law in today’s Gospel. This call is but the call to bear the image of God as integrated of lovers of God in heart, soul, mind and strength and out from this integration of love throughout our whole person to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Psalms 1:1 tells us that the one who follows this law is blessed or happy. This word for blessed is deep-rooted and “penetrates to the very depths of one’s being” and it is “serious and enduring.”[2] This is a deep joy that integrates the human person and brings unity within and without. It is the deep satisfaction of fulfilling the purpose of my existence. It is the joy of a rose in full bloom, a butterfly unfolding it’s glory, an eagle in flight.

This joy, this happiness, this state of blessedness is completely dependent upon YHWH and is only given in the fulfillment of His Commandments. To live in this state of joy we must avoid walking in the counsel of the wicked, standing in the way of sinners or sitting in the seat of scoffers. Why?

Their very condition is in opposition to this joy. They stand in direct resistance and rebellion to this joy. They could not bear this joy. They shun this joy as darkness shuns light. So for us to dwell in their dark camps is to run from the source of this joy.

But alas, if we are honest, we must confess that we ourselves have spoken wicked words, walked in the way of sin, dwell in the seat of scoffing. We find ourselves in the very condition that Psalmist denounces. This is the great realization of the disciples at the end of the Gospels. They have failed and denied God. They abandoned the way.

This is the real awakening for St. Augustine. He cannot behold the light of God’s glory because his sinfulness drags him back to earth. This is the overwhelming realization for Martin Luther the devote Augustinian monk.

As a young man, Martin demonstrated a high level of intelligence, “earn[ing] both his baccalaureate and master’s degrees in the shortest time allowed by the statutes of the University of Erfurt.”[3] His father had great plans for this young genius to become a lawyer. After a terrifying encounter with a lightning bolt in the middle of a thunderstorm, Luther made a vow to leave behind his law career.

Against his family’s wishes, he became a monk. He abandoned everything he owned and joined a severe Augustinian order. James Kittelson writes, “He did not simply engage in prayer, fasts, and ascetic practices (such as going without sleep, enduring bone-chilling cold without a blanket, and flagellating himself), he pursued them earnestly. As he later commented, “If anyone could have earned heaven by the life of a monk, it was I.”[4]

His intensity failed to overcome his own deep sense of sinfulness. He experienced what he would call, Anfechtung.[5] Difficult to translate simply, this word carries the sense of dereliction, trials, temptations, afflictions. It is the feeling of being tempted by the evil one. It is facing my own condemnation before a holy God. It is the suffering that comes be realizing my utter inability to be righteous in God’s eye. Thus it also being terrified by God.

For Luther, no technique or method could relieve this utter sense of condemnation. No amount of confession, penance, or priestly benediction could relieve this torment of soul. Luther confessed his sins so often that his superior Johann von Staupitz said,  “You want to be without sin, but you don’t have any real sins anyway … the murder of one’s parents, public vices, blasphemy, adultery, and the like. These are sins.… You must not inflate your halting, artificial sins out of proportion!”[6]

This offered absolutely no comfort for Luther realized that even minor sins are cause for condemnation. Staupitz decides that Luther’s overactive mind might find relief in teaching, so he orders Luther to take his doctorate and become a professor of the Bible. Against Luther’s wishes, he is sent to Wittenberg University. As he immerses himself into study and teaching of Scripture, Luther encounters God’s grace. Simple faith in Christ opens the way for the sinner to be made right with God. In this midst of Luther’s weakness, he encounters the heart of the cross.

He finds hope, peace, joy only in the cross of Christ.

Luther scholar Martin Marty suggests, that repentance remains at the heart of Luther’s understanding of Christian faith. He quotes Luther, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matthew 4: 17), he intended the entire life of believers to be repentance.”[7] His experience of anfechtung or holy terror created a existential crisis, a holy terror, which eventually drove into the depths of the cross where he encountered the grace of God in Christ. The whole of life becomes a turning, a daily turning to the mercy of God revealed in the cross of Christ.

With this in mind, faith must be worked out in the common, the ordinary of daily existence. Monasticism does not make a man closer to God. For Luther, monasticism was a way of controlling how we encounter the cross of Christ. Instead, we must live our lives and allow God to impose the cross in whatever way he chooses. In the dailyness of existence, we face challenge, we go through seasons of anxiety of struggle, we face our brokenness and our need for redemption again and again. We live in response to Christ by turning afresh to the mercy and grace of God. Luther does not reject holy living or even spiritual discipline, but the idea that we can find forgiveness or grace in anything outside of the cross.[8]

We follow Christ into the way of the cross. Just as Christ emptied himself and took the form of a servant, humbling himself even to death on a cross, we follow suit. Rowan Williams comments on Luther’s theology, “The Christian must make the whole of his life Christlike, internally and externally. So, although he is free internally, he must be ready to be ‘bound’ for Christ’s sake, to take on gratuitous observances of discipline so as not to despise others.”[9] “The essence of Christian freedom is that the believer ‘lives not in himself, but in Christ and his neighbour’”[10]

Reading his instructions on daily prayer and meditation upon the Apostles Creed and the Ten Commandments reveal his ongoing commitment to a life submitted to holiness. But this holiness is not limited to the pastor and the monk who serve Lord in holy orders. All God’s people are priests. Once again, quoting Rowan Williams’ reflections on Luther, “It is always the call to serve God where you are, in whatever state of life you may be. Any job may be a vocation to the extent that we see it as a possible place for response to God: what makes it so is not any ‘religious’ quality in the work itself, but the selfless faith and love of the person performing it.”[11]

In his personal struggle, Luther comes to articulate the Gospel of Christ in the simplicity of living for every person: the scholar and the worker, the father and the mother, the frail, the weak, and the weary could find hope in the cross of Christ, in a life of turning to God and to one another in love. He translates Scripture into the language of the common people. He works with the printers to get texts and teachings into the hands of the people.

This Good News is the good news of repentance, of simple faith in Jesus Christ, of lives that find peace with God through the work of Jesus Christ in the cross. Later developments would lead Luther and the Reformers to break with the Roman Catholic church and even with one another. The Reformation would bring both Over the last 40 plus years, there has been a renewed effort for Christians

Today we still struggle the issues of Luther’s day. New spiritual techniques come and go. Trends come and go. Sometimes pet theologies or popular culture idolatries cloud our understanding of God’s grace and mercy in Christ. Our day to day lives often betray the very wisdom of Psalm 1, as we sometimes still follow unwise counsel, love weakly, betray God and neighbor. Just as Luther and the early Reformers feel prey to culture prejudices, we still fall prey to unfair prejudices against neighbors near and far.

But I pray that our lives might be characterized by a turning. A great and regular to the cross of Christ, and a regular humbling ourselves to walk in the way of the cross, in the way of the serving, in the way of Love.

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Mt 22:37–40.
[2] According to Sarna, the particular word “ashrei” is in plural form denoting intensity of happiness. The word baruk (blessing) is not used indicating that we cannot offer this state of happiness to another. Ashrei is a state that comes only from God.
[3] James M. Kittelson, “The Accidental Revolutionary,” Christian History Magazine-Issue 34: Martin Luther: The Reformer’s Early Years (Carol Stream, IL: Christianity Today, 1992)
[4] Kittelson.
[5] Williams, Rowan. The Wound of Knowledge (Kindle Location 2742). Darton,Longman & Todd Ltd. Kindle Edition.
[6] Kittelson.
[7] Marty, Martin. October 31, 1517: Martin Luther and the Day that Changed the World (Kindle Locations 112-113). Paraclete Press. Kindle Edition.
[8] (ibid.). No work, then, is to be done for the sake of earning salvation; but this does not mean the overthrow of discipline or of Christian service. Faith must grow. A person may be entirely and finally justified in his or her soul, but there is more to the person than the soul. Since we are material beings in a material world, holiness must be worked out in the body, in public and social life, assimilating the historical, developing life of the body to the already existing state of the soul. Williams, Rowan. The Wound of Knowledge (Kindle Locations 2793-2796). Darton,Longman & Todd Ltd. Kindle Edition.
[9] Williams, 2798-2799.
[10] Williams, 2807.
[11] Williams, 2826-2828.

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