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!