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My Original Reformation Sermon for 2012

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Reformation Sunday, 2012

Christ Lutheran Church in El Cerrito, CA

The Continuing Reformation

I just read a book that argued that the early Luther was part of a Catholic Reformation and then became a heretic by splitting the church, while the Catholic Church continued its reformation without him. Harm Klueting, who wrote this book had been a Lutheran pastor, who turned Catholic, after his wife had become a Carmelite nun six years before. Never mind that a more secular and worldly papacy never existed than at Luther’s time and it excommunicated Luther, which split the church. Luther may have provoked the schism, but it was initiated by Pope Leo X. Those in the Catholic Church of Luther’s day like the Medici Pope Leo, who fought against the Gospel as if it were a heresy, I submit, really split the church. One thing Harm Klueting did have right, Luther brought about a renewal movement, which to an extent – even reformed the Catholic Church.

Much is made of the religious wars that followed the Reformation and they were indeed a sorry affair. But before and during the Reformation, the popes started one war after another by playing off the French King Francis against the Emperor Charles V and using armies to expand the territories it ruled. Pope Julius II fought the bloody battle of Ravenna on Easter Day, April 11, 1512. The Patriarchy of Rome and the Papal States, a territory that ran from the city of Rome all the way to the north of Italy, were only taken away from the power of the Popes in 1860, when our American Civil War began and we were decimating the Indians in the West and driving those we didn’t kill onto the reservations. I was just at a conference last weekend where the European American Lutheran Association met with the Indian American, Alaskan Native Lutheran Association on a reservation in Minnesota.

Back in Italy, after the popes had lost their Papal States, they declared themselves to be the prisoners of the Vatican, which continued until the recent Pope John Paul II. They hoped that a Catholic army from France of Austria would liberate their territory from Italy once again. But Garibaldi, Mazzini, and King Victor Emanuel won the day and tried to circumscribe the Roman Catholic Papacy to the spiritual realm without having civil rule over the city of Rome and its Papal States. Luther had maintained that position over three years before.

Martin Luther was very radical in his day and we have domesticated him and made him a jolly-good fellow, just like one of us. Ah, but he wasn’t. He stood up for his free conscience to serve Christ in truth even before the Emperor and the Pope. Let’s face it, you and I stay pretty much in our comfort zones and we would not have followed, but rather condemned Luther. We would not have followed Christ way back in his day either. Who would follow someone who said we had to take up our cross, let the Roman occupation put that cross squarely on our shoulder blades, which really meant to carry the instrument of your own torture and death to the site where the powers and principalities were going to do it to you. Thus, we have to be KYRIE Christians: Lord, have mercy upon us! We have no place to stand, but on the mercy and grace of God.

When Luther was excommunicated by Pope Leo X and declared an outlaw by Emperor Charles V – that meant he was as free as a bird for anyone to kill, the people who followed him no longer dared to call themselves Martinists or Lutherans. His name had become too dangerous. They now called themselves New Believers as opposed to Old Believers.

Luther was no paragon of virtue and he did not pretend to be. He did not want followers to name themselves Lutherans after him. He said,

People [should] call themselves not Lutherans, but Christians. Who is this Luther? My teaching is not my own, nor have I been crucified for anyone. Why should it happen to me, miserable stinking bag of worms that I am, that the children of Christ should be called by my insignificant name? I am not anybody’s master, nor do I wish to be. With the one church I have in common the teaching of Christ who alone is our master.[1]

In one place he comically referred to himself as mouse dirt:

For as soon as the Word of God rises up inside you, the devil will track you down and afflict you. [This will] make a real doctor of you, by making you suffer such devilish assaults, [that it] will teach you to look for and love God’s word. For I myself (if I, mouse dirt that I am, might mingle myself with pepper) have a great deal to thank the papists for, because they beat, belted, pressed, and frightened me so…that they made a rather good theologian out of me.[2]

Still all those around Luther said, “The Word of God and Luther’s teaching will remain to eternity!” Just listen to how he describes faith:

Faith is a divine work in us. It changes us and makes us to be born anew of God (John 1). It kills the old Adam [and Eve] and makes altogether different people, in heart and spirit and mind and powers, and it brings with it the Holy Spirit.

Oh, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. And so it is impossible for it not to do good works incessantly. It does not ask whether there are good works to do, but before the question rises, it has already done them, and is always at the doing of them.

[Whoever] does not [do] these works is a faithless [person]. He [or she] gropes and looks about after faith and good works and knows neither what faith is nor what good works are, though [they] talk and talk, with many words about faith and good works.

Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a [person] would stake his [or her] life on it a thousand times. This confidence in God’s grace and knowledge of it makes [people] glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and all [God’s] creatures.

And this is the work of the Holy Spirit in faith. Hence a [person] is ready and glad, without compulsion, to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, in love and praise to God, who has shown him this grace[,who has shown her this grace].

And thus it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate burning and shining from fire. Beware, therefore, of your own false notions and of the idle talkers, who would be wise enough to make decisions about faith and good works, and yet are the greatest fools.

Therefore, pray to God to work faith in you. Else you will remain forever without faith, whatever you think or do.[3]

Yes faith is a living, busy, active, mighty thing. According to Luther it is a solid trust in God that allows God to work through us. “Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace,” so sure and certain that a person would stake his or her life on it – which, of course, Luther did, only that the protection of his prince, Frederick the Wise, prevented him from becoming a martyr.

Early on, the pope could have had Luther burnt at the stake, but they were playing politics at that crucial time, when they were trying to get Frederick the Wise of Ernestine Saxony elected the emperor over Charles V from the House of Hapsburg. The concern of the popes for political power overrode their religious concerns.

But what kind of a church burns people at the stake for heresy? That it was against the will of the Holy Spirit to burn a heretic at the stake was one of Luther’s statements that the pope declared heretical! What kind of a faith gets a person crucified for blasphemy? The Church would employ the civil government for the purpose and the Sanhedrin of Jesus’ day solicited the Romans. Burning a person at the stake is clearly the act of a bankrupt church, a bankrupt faith.

But we Lutherans today are not out front on justice issues, not like the Quakers have been or the Unitarians even. I thought that perhaps it was because Luther wrote about two kinds of righteousness that perhaps divided it and allowed our concern for justice to be overcome. I reread his pamphlet under the title of that name and found just the opposite. He argued that the spiritual righteousness of Christ in us was the source of our hunger and thirst for justice in our lives. Spiritual freedom is not an alternative to social, political, and outward freedom, but its source in freedom from sin as well as freedom for love and service of our neighbor.

In “Two Kinds of Righteousness” Luther wrote,

Through faith in Christ, therefore Christ’s righteousness becomes our righteousness and all that [Christ] has becomes ours; or rather, [Christ] himself becomes ours.[4]

Yes, the righteousness shall live by faith. The just shall live by faith. The righteousness of Christ

is an infinite righteousness and one that swallows up all sins in a moment, for it is impossible that sin should exist in Christ; on the contrary, [a person] who trusts in Christ exists in Christ; he [or she] is one with Christ, having the same righteousness as {Christ]. It is impossible that sin should remain [in such a person]. This righteousness is primary; it is the basis, the cause, the source of all our own actual righteousness.[5]

Luther always has justice proceed from Christian love. Faith becomes active in love and love hungers and thirsts for justice. Righteousness and justice was not separated in those days. Today righteousness usually revolves around personal and individual morality, which is very important, but justice and fairness involved in the systems we live in is crucial as well. Jesus Christ cannot be separated from the Kingdom of Heaven that he proclaimed. The Kingdom of Heaven will ultimately judge every earthly kingdom and that goes for our democracy as well. You cannot pour new wine into old wineskins: we have to devise fair and more just systems for the new persons who follow Christ.

So, really our sleepy Lutheran churches, which don’t work at the forefront of justice issues, do not follow Luther. Luther would have been a potato too hot for us to handle. Imagine a monk, who was ordained a priest marrying a run-a-way nun? Then they modeled a pastor’s family that gave refuge to students and hid away people that the government was hunting down to arrest. Carlstadt, Luther’s enemy, got into trouble in the Peasants’ War. Luther hid him and negotiated his safe passage to Switzerland.

Let’s jump to our time: A pastor in Pittsburg used Saul Alinski methods to help the workers in the steel mills that were closing down there. They put dead fish into the bank’s safe deposit boxes to make the point that what the banks were doing stank. The Lutheran bishop defrocked and excommunicated him for it. What do you think would happen to Luther in the Lutheran Church today? More to the point, what would happen to Christ?

Luther was very much a Christ-figure and Christ worked through him. But he had many failings and he was the first to say: “Follow Christ and his teachings, because you will be able to find real faults in me.” He was too harsh in his polemics. He gave back as good as he got. When the pope had his books burned, he burned their books as well as the canon law on December 10, 1520 undermining the two church court systems and the legislation of the papacy, which, according to Luther, did not belong with the proclamation of the Gospel. Luther was also too apocalyptic, when he named the pope the anti-Christ, not realizing that God could still bring about a gradual reformation of the Catholic Church, too. We Lutheran believe, however, that it still has a long way to go.

The church, however, always has to be ready to continue reforming itself in head and members. That goes for our Lutheran church, too. Because of the Internet, we stand in a very opportune place in that regard. The invention of the printing press was crucial for the great Reformation. It could be that the invention of the book played a role in the transition from the scrolls that are still used in the synagogue by Judaism. Of course, it was really Christ, but “Bible” is merely the word for “book” in Greek. The prolific Luther really used the printing press. More than a million of his pamphlets were in the homes of the people when his translation of the New Testament and then the whole Bible in German became available off the presses.  I hope that the invention of the Internet will provide the possibility of another wonderful Christian renewal.

Let me return to the sinful side of Luther. Luther taught that we are sinners and saints at one and the same time. Luther himself could be exhibit A for this teaching. In that sinner and saint tension, he sometimes went down into his sin instead of going up into a greater maturity in Christ. He condemned the peasants in their war, where the overwhelming violence was really perpetrated upon them. He blamed the victims, not realizing that his overturning the religious order of his day and replacing it with a new religious order should have included a new social and political order with a greater approximation of justice. Somehow he remained too socially and politically backward for that. Also when he became old he wrote some real anti-Semitic pieces that the NAZI’s republished ten years before they rounded up the Jews. His was not a racial and social Darwinist anti-Semitism, but a religious one. Even though in his younger days he wrote a conciliatory pamphlet called, “That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew,” in his old age some Jewish slander of Mary really having had Jesus as an illegitimate child, made him go off the deep end. “Burn down their synagogues!” he declared. And writing, which passes through time forever, was used for genocidal purposes. Never in his writings did he say to kill Jews, however.

At the time when he wrote “smite, stab, slay” the rebellious peasants, they really had the upper hand and they seemed to have won the day. But Luther’s pamphlet was published when they were defeated and the nobility with their mercenaries took their awful revenge on them.

Luther had his historical limitations as great a theologian and reformer as he was. We have our limitations as well. The rich people of our society and the CEO’s have overtaken the medieval nobility, who may have had incomes of 100 to 200 times that of the burghers and peasants. Today our rich people and CEO’s can make 400 to 1,000 times the income of ordinary workers. After slavery, the South found a way to use Jim Crow Laws to enslave Americans of African Descent again, and today in privatized prisons and the prison-industrial complex, they are being enslaved and used for unpaid labor again. We need to become anti-racist Lutherans.

Weekend last, our European American Lutheran Association met with the American Indian, Alaskan Native Lutheran Association in a reservation in Minnesota. What an enrichment to hear Native Americans speaking Navajo, Lakota, Jibwey, Cherokee, and other Native American languages. We like to forget the genocide we have perpetrated on them and the wretched way we have cut them off from their whole way of life and continue to control them through the reservation system. Our White European culture needs to stop destroying other cultures and languages, but affirm them and help them come and stay alive. We have 22 Native American Lutheran congregations! What a wonderful thing! I did not bring up our sorry history to give us guilt feelings, but to encourage us, so that we might together struggle for a more humane and just future, which includes their contribution.

You can see that we need another reformation of the church and you can see that you and I like Luther before us, have to take a deeper commitment to Jesus Christ our Lord, because that will ensure that we are on the way, full of truth, to a life pleasing to God. Yes, the just shall live by their faith and faith is a living, busy, active and mighty thing. It makes us come alive to God and die to sin. Yes, faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, upon which we stake our lives, put our bodies on the line. It makes us glad and bold and happy before God and all God’s creatures, rejoicing even in the faith that brings social, political, and even environmental renewal! Amen.

[2] Philip and Peter Krey, Luther’s Spirituality, (New York: Paulist Press, 2007), p. 123.

[3] Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans, Trans. J. Theodore Mueller (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1954), xvii.

[4] Timothy Lull, ed., Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), p. 156.

[5] Ibid.


Written by peterkrey

November 27, 2012 at 11:25 am

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