Saturday, July 26, 2014

Pointing to a fourth

So Martin Luther straddled two worlds and helped shape a third (see my previous posts on this).  The third world he helped shape was produced at the intersection of the existing powers and structures within northern Europe, especially Germany, and the gospel Luther discovered in the Bible. As Luther teased out the implications of "salvation by grace alone through faith alone," he reevaluated the churches, government structures, and societal structures around him. He commented freely -- very freely -- about how things needed to change in order to be true to the biblical word. But he also recognized the need for order in society and he was not revolutionary enough to throw everything around him into chaos. Unlike so many revolutionaries, Luther realized that change takes time.

So, for example, when the Roman Catholic bishops would no longer ordain evangelical (meaning "gospel centered") pastors, Luther figured out a compromise: for the moment, while we figure out how to move forward in a better way, the princes in each area can serve as bishops, exercising a ministry of oversight and order on behalf of the churches.

That solution is a great example of how Luther's third world was shaped by the Bible but was also bound by the realities of his present situation. And, to complicate things, Luther's compromises often led to unintended consequences. That example for instance led more or less directly to the state churches of Europe, where each nation had an official church that was in league with -- and usually subordinate to -- the power of the state. Luther didn't really foresee this and would certainly have objected to it in some ways, but at the time he was making the decision, it seemed like the best possible compromise to give the power of bishops into the hands of the princes.

So the Reformation produced a sort of compromise situation where the truth of the gospel struggled with the new structures that had to be put in place to keep good order in the churches.  People often talk about the great reforms Martin Luther initiated, but they rarely recognize that so many of the changes that swept across Europe in the 1500's were compromises between Luther's idealism, borne of a close reading of the Bible's message, and his practicality, borne of his clear understanding of the needs of the turbulent society in which he lived.

A solid reading of Luther, then, should also look at this idealism. We should be careful to see not just what changes Luther initiated, but the goals behind the changes. What values did he embrace and then compromise? If we begin to understand this fourth world, the world of Luther's biblical idealism, we may also begin to see how we need reform in our own time, and what compromises we may have to allow in order to reform our own churches and our own society.

Let's take a look at one example: church life. The primary expression of the church's life is worship, of course, and Luther had plenty to say about it. He talked about the Latin Mass, and about the German Mass, and explained why we needed both of those. (One could argue that the Latin Mass might correspond loosely to a liturgical order of worship, and the German Mass could correspond roughly to contemporary forms of worship. I realize there are huge holes in those correlations, but let it go for now.) But then Luther also pointed ahead to a different form of worship. He was daydreaming about it, and he knew it, but he still pointed the way ahead.  Here's what Luther wrote next:

“The third kind of service should be a truly evangelical order and should not be held in a public place for all sorts of people. But those who want to be Christians in earnest and who profess the gospel with hand and mouth should sign their names and meet alone in a house somewhere to pray, to read, to baptize, to receive the sacrament, and to do other Christian work.  According to this order, those who do not lead Christian lives could be known, reproved, corrected, cast out, or excommunicated, according to the rule of Christ in Matthew 18.  Here one could also solicit benevolent gifts to be willingly given and distributed to the poor, according to St. Paul’s example in 2 Corinthians 9.  Here would be no need of much and elaborate singing.  Here one could set up a brief and neat order for baptism and the sacrament and center everything on the Word, prayer, and love.  Here one would need a good short catechism on the Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Our Father.  In short, if one had the kind of people and persons who wanted to be Christians in earnest, the rules and regulations would soon be ready.  But as yet, I neither can, nor desire to begin such a congregation...for I have not yet the people for it, nor do I see many who want it. But if I should be requested to do it and could not refuse with a good conscience, I should gladly do my part and help as best I can.  In the meanwhile the two above-mentioned orders of service must suffice … until Christians who earnestly love the Word find each other and join together.” 

Luther clearly understands here that he's looking ahead beyond society's current needs to a time when greater change will be possible.  This quote and others like it help us to begin to piece together Luther's desire for a "fourth world" -- a world that reflects the gospel more clearly, more purely, than the reforms he was instituting.

Perhaps our greatest task as we approach the 500th anniversary of Luther's Reformation should be to examine the biblical principles that drove him, to think along with him about what life might look like if the gospel shaped the church. Then, like Martin himself did, we must deal with the realities of our own time and begin to figure out where God might be calling us boldly forward and where he might be calling us to a temporary compromise.

A few more thoughts about that in my next post.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A third world

As I said in my last post, Luther straddled two worlds all his life -- first, the world of the lower-class Germans who worked hard and lived in a mix of superstition and Roman Catholic religion that, at the time, was little better, dominated by saints and sacraments and little biblical spirituality. Second, Luther was clawing his way into the world of the university, the world of the educated middle class, the world of the thinkers and the shapers. All his life Luther lived in these two worlds.

But uniquely, Martin Luther shaped a third world. It started like this: Luther was sent to teach Bible at the University of Wittenberg in Saxony, what is now eastern Germany. Teaching Bible in those days was not a prestigious post. Philosophy and many other disciplines were much more desirable, professionally speaking. Luther's mentor, Johann von Staupitz, ordered Luther to take up the post because Luther struggled mightily with his conscience, and Staupitz wanted him to know the love of God, the grace of God, in Jesus.

It worked. Shortly after Luther came to Wittenberg, around 1515 or so, he was preparing to lecture through the New Testament book of Romans. As he prepared for these lectures, Martin struggled and struggled with the phrase, "the righteousness of God." He read this phrase throughout the book of Romans and he could not make sense of why Paul seemed so thrilled about God's righteousness. To Martin, the righteousness of God meant that God was holy and righteous, and therefore had every right to smite sinners. Luther knew he was a sinner and so he lived in fear of the righteousness of God rather than love or gratitude.

Then one day as Luther was working through Romans chapter 1, he read verses 16 & 17, where Paul says, "I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and then for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, 'The righteous shall live by faith.'" Luther pondered these words.

Later he said it was like the windows opened up and the sun came out and a fresh breeze blew into the room of the tower where he sat studying. In a flash he realized that it was not simply God's own righteousness that was being described here, but that the good news of the gospel is that God gives righteousness to those who believe, those who have faith, those who trust in him. It is this free gift of righteousness, given to the believer because of what Jesus did at the cross, that makes up the very heart of the gospel.

This moment is the heart of the Protestant Reformation. I know we generally mark the anniversary of the Reformation on October 31, 1517, when Luther nailed the 95 Theses on the door of the University Church. However, Luther would never have written these 95 Theses -- could never have imagined them -- without this critical realization of what the gospel itself means. It is fascinating to read Luther's commentary on Romans, written while he prepared these lectures. In it you can see the implications of this realization beginning to work their way through his mind. In 1515 Luther's thinking was still very much in sync with the Roman Catholic Church, and he is only just beginning to start to think through how radical this new thought might be.

As he moves forward from this realization about the "righteousness of God," Luther becomes more and more radicalized. He moves more and more away from the self-reinforcing bureaucracy that had come to dominate the church of Rome at that time and begins to reimagine what a church based on the gospel might look like. To start with, you see him just starting to question some of the practices around him, especially in the Church to begin with. That was not unusual in those days; many people were calling for reform in various areas.

The reason Luther stands out from the crowd is that he became utterly committed to the truth that God saves us, not through a bureaucracy, but through his own work declaring us righteous. The church is not the agent of salvation but rather the result of it. So the church itself needs to be subject to scripture.

When Luther posted the 95 Theses on the church door, he was simply calling for a discussion about reform. But when the bureaucrats started to push back, Luther wouldn't back down like most people did. As his thinking and his writings grew, he called more and more clearly for a truly gospel-centered church, a church that lived out the plain words of the Bible in a simple, Jesus-centered way.

This is the third world that Luther helped create -- a word where the common person could read and interpret the Bible and hold the Church and her hierarchy accountable.   In the next post I'll show you a glimpse of yet a fourth world that Luther did not try to create, but certainly pointed toward.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The heart of the matter

What happened to Martin Luther, more than anything, was that he met Jesus.

To unpack that in our culture is more than a little difficult. We live under layer after layer of what we think it means to meet Jesus, and that changes how we hear such a statement. We live with the leftovers of Billy Graham crusades and evangelists walking us down the Romans Road or reciting the Four Spiritual Laws. We live under the unbelievable assumption that Christianity, at its heart, is about whether a person gets to heaven or not. We live with the belief that Jesus is primarily a religious figure and that religion is different from everyday life.

Luther predates all of those assumptions. He had his own assumptions, of course, but they were not the same as ours.

Luther was raised in a lower-becoming-middle-class household. The lower German classes lived in all kinds of spiritual fear in those days. Life was hard, and they externalized some of that difficulty through what may seem to us an odd mix of superstition and religion.  Kobolds and saints, demons and daily mass created a framework for the average German. Over all this mixture was The Church that made pronouncements and set expectations about what a person had to do to be right with God.

Being right with God was not primarily about getting to heaven, though of course it impacted that as well. Rather, being right with God meant being right with the Church, and if you were right with the Church then you could receive God's grace in day to day life. Culturally today we believe in sort of a deistic God who is distant from the everyday workings of things. We believe we can get out of bed, make breakfast, get to work, and take a break for lunch pretty much on our own strength. People in Luther's day believed that if you didn't have some kind of spiritual favor, none of that was going to happen. There were terrible demonic and natural forces set up to make your life difficult, dangerous, and deadly.

The way the Church preached it, though, God was vaguely displeased and distant. So you needed advocates. You needed a whole array of saints. You needed a collection of sacraments to funnel God's favor (grace) down to you so that you could survive daily life. In the context of outbreaks of plague, frequent wars and uprisings, famines, and a workload that killed manual laborers young, it was easy to believe you needed these resources, easy to believe that God was frowning from heaven.

On top of that layer of everyday superstition, Luther's family was clawing its way into the middle class. His father was a taciturn man given to angry outbursts and harsh discipline. Luther was sent to school because his father hoped he'd become a lawyer to advance the family's business interests, which involved a mining company. The schoolmasters were incredibly harsh by today's standards. Students who made mistakes were routinely mocked, beaten, and (occasionally) made to sit in the corner with an "assinus" -- a dunce cap made from a donkey's head -- over their own heads. Luther excelled in the schools and eventually worked his way up to the university.

Luther straddled the world of lower class superstition and the world of the university all his life. Many Germans in the 16th century were moving from lower to middle class, and Martin was among the brightest of a great crop of young men who were taking full advantage of their educational opportunities.

I'm going to interrupt this train of thought there for the moment; my next post will examine how Luther straddled those two worlds all his life, but then shaped a third world -- a world that quickly took Europe by storm and reshaped our present day realities more than we understand!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Getting ready for a party?

In 2017, the world will mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Like all anniversaries, this one is a little artificial. To date the Reformation from October 31, 1517, the date Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the door of the University Church in Wittenberg, Germany, is sort of like saying that my wife and I have been married 25 years next Tuesday. It's true, on the face of it, but the marriage starts long before the wedding day and you don't really figure out what it means to live in a covenant relationship until long after you say "I do." In similar fashion, the Reformation was building long before 1517 and didn't really take shape until long after Luther put his hammer away.

But anniversaries are important anyway as a way to mark the passage of time and influence.

Speaking of influence, in the year 2000 Life magazine featured the 100 most influential people of the last thousand years. A little presumptuous, maybe, but a good way to gain some perspective. First was Thomas Edison, and if you think for a few minutes you'll see why from our perspective that has to be the case. Second was Martin Luther.

Most people think of Luther as influential in the world of religion, and that's certainly true. However, Luther's thought, writing, and celebrity (yes, they had celebrities in the 16th century, and a cantankerous university professor was a likely candidate in those days) reached far into economics, family life, education, politics, vocation, and much more. I think Life got this one right, putting Luther just behind artificial light and recorded sound and just ahead of Chris Columbus in his impact on the world of the year 2000.

So what will the world do to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation? Like most things, I suspect it will take us a little bit by surprise. We'll wake up one day and it will be October of 2017 and we'll say, Huh. We should have some kind of a party.

That's tragic.

Lutheran churches at the very least (as well as many others) ought to be thinking ahead about this one, talking about it, anticipating it. We ought to be asking the question, What does Luther mean for us today? How do we translate his thought into post-modern, post-Christendom reality?  (By the way, this is the biggest danger for Lutherans and other hidebound traditionalists. We are so tempted just to import Luther into the present day without translating his thought and his context into our own time. Caution!)

Let me offer some suggestions as to how we might proceed.

First, it's worth getting to know Martin. If you haven't already, spend some time reading a good biography of Martin Luther. Roland Bainton's Here I Stand is one good place to start, though it's a little idealistic and a little scanty on details about the difficult later portion of Luther's life. Also, as long as you're at it, read some of Luther's own writing. The Large Catechism or the Smalcald Articles are good places to start. Also, find some of Luther's sermons. Read his sermons on the gospel of John. To spice things up, get a copy of Table Talk, which is a debatable collection of Luther's offhand comments around the table as his students were listening in after meals.

Second, churches (especially those that consider themselves to be part of Martin's tradition) ought to spend some time digging into his stuff. Do a series on the history of Luther and his impact on the present. Dig into the Small Catechism. At Calvary, we're considering preaching through Paul's letter to the Romans during 2015-2016 -- exactly 500 years after Luther lectured his way through it. By the way, it was in preparation for these lectures that Luther experienced what you probably have to call a "conversion" in his understanding of the grace of God. Everything he did later proceeded out of this conversion, this new understanding, and so you might say this is one of the deepest roots of the Reformation.

Third, Lutherans and other Protestants need to start now to think about what impact Luther's thought has on Christianity today. It's not enough to fire up the pipe organ and sing another chorus of "A Mighty Fortress." God created an amazing movement in the church and the world through the Reformation, and we need to be able to do the hard historical and philosophical work to think it through in the present. We will have a window -- probably a narrow, fleeting one -- to say something to the world in 2017. If we haven't thought through this stuff ahead of time, we'll miss our chance.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Pardon me, I was reminiscing

I have not taken much time lately for reminiscing.

That's a problem. I'm in the midst of massive transitions, relationally speaking. I've taken lots of time to look forward -- to plan, to pray, to vision. But I have not taken much time for looking back, giving thanks, remembering.

This morning I find myself in that odd place where I would gladly linger over coffee now that I've had some time in scripture and prayer, and remember. I think it's important sometimes to allow your heart to go soft, to think back.

Transitions. My older daughter gets married in a couple weeks. Yikes. That's a big one. But there are others as well, not so obvious. My younger daughter is living at home this summer, and I am thoroughly enjoying her delightful presence. Both of these have become such amazing young ladies that I am a bit in awe of them. It's fun to look back, fun to measure all the angst of bygone years and see now just how -- in spite of all my mistakes -- they are doing just fine. Much to be thankful for.

And all of that means that their parents are also in transition. This quasi-empty nest phase opens new possibilities, as well as new challenges. It's easy to get so focused on the new challenges and not look back much at the road that led us here.

So maybe a quiet, cloudy July morning is a good time to reflect. To give thanks. To remember. To have one more cup of coffee and live in the past for a few moments, in order to hopefully expand my ability to embrace the present.