Scripture Readings: Jeremiah 31:31-34
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Sometimes the great figures from the past of the church- the Saints whom we remember at this time of year- can seem very remote. But not always.
Those who attend at St Stephen’s may perhaps remember a lovely lady named Renate Krebs, who died in 2010. She was a lovely, fascinating lady who had lived in Scotland for many years. Born in Germany in 1922, but went to live abroad during the Nazi era, marrying a Swiss gentleman. Later her home town was part of Communist East Germany, which made it hard to return home. A love of all things Celtic brought her to settle in Scotland. Renate was born in the town of Eisleben, and told me once that she had been baptised at the same font in the parish church as Eisleben’s most famous son, Martin Luther. How’s that for a link to history?
But in was in Wittenberg, some 100 kilometres from Berlin, that Martin Luther became famous. He was a monk in the Augustinian monastery there. It was actually a very well-run monastery, and Luther was a pious monk. But, according to the legend, on the eve of All Saints, 1517, Luther nailed a notice to the church door in Wittenberg. On it were a list of ninety-five theses- points for discussion, if you like. Pinning a notice to a church door was, back then, the way you got an academic argument going. But this particular theological controversy would shape Europe, and the world, for centuries to come. All of us are children of the Reformation of the church which Luther sparked. Even today’s Roman Catholic Church accepts that Luther had much truth to teach Christians, and has changed its doctrine in significant ways under Luther’s influence.
It was not that Brother Martin was the first person to attempt to reform the church. That had already happened in previous centuries, though more recent attempts hadn’t been quite so successful, and some reformers, such as William Tyndale (who produced the first English Bible) and Jan Hus (who attempted to reform the church in Bohemia) had been executed for making the attempt. Sadly Luther’s ideas eventually split the Western Church- but he did not set out to do so. He wanted to reform the Church.
You’ve probably heard that Church back then was racked with scandal and abuses. But there was a lot of very deep piety as well, and ordinary folk, and some of the gentry, were more and more concerned about the gap which they saw between the lifestyle of Jesus of Nazareth, and the lifestyles of the worst of the leaders of the church. For example, Julius II, pope from 1503- to 1513, was a warrior pope, arousing scorn for leading his armies into battle dressed in armour as he defended his territories and political interests in Italy.
And at the height of the Renaissance in Western art, the popes were also diverted by the being patrons of the arts. There was a decades-long project to rebuild the papal basilica of St Peter’s in Rome in the newest architectural style, and, as often happens with these prestige projects, the cost was enormous. So Pope Leo X decided to use a method of fundraising, which aroused Brother Martin’s anger.
And no, it wasn’t a raffle. It all depended in the church teaching of the day about salvation. Back then, the belief was that membership of the Catholic Church was essential to salvation. Anyone who was not in Communion with Rome was doomed to hell- outside the church is no salvation, as the saying went. But supposing you were baptised (and virtually everyone in Western Europe was baptised as a child) but you sinned later- surely you wouldn’t be good enough to get into heaven? Well, the theologians had come up with the idea of purgatory, a place a bit like hell, but you didn’t go there forever. Instead you were punished in fire until such times as your sins had been purged- and then, after how many thousand years depending on how bad you’d been- you’d get into heaven.
But by saying a prayer, or paying for mass to be said, or going on a pilgrimage, or doing good to the poor, you could obtain what was called an indulgence- a guarantee from the church that your loved one would get time off in purgatory for your good behaviour. Such ideas might seem fantastical to us nowadays, but for the people of Luther’s day, their fate in the afterlife was a pressing concern.
So, looking for ways to raise money for his new St Peter’s, Pope Leo proclaimed an indulgence that cut out the need for masses or good works. Instead, the message from the pope was, bluntly- give me money and I’ll ensure the souls in purgatory get some time off. And so ecclesiastical salesmen such as the Dominican preacher, Johannes Tetzel, appeared in Germany. Tetzel took things a bit too far, effectively promising all sorts of spiritual comfort in return for money. It was said that his advertising slogan was
As soon as coin in the coffer rings
The soul from purgatory springs!
This was overstating the official church doctrine a bit, but nevertheless people were scandalized by him. It looked as though you could buy salvation for money. And this led to Luther’s original protest.
To begin with, it wasn’t so much corruption and hypocrisy in the church Luther protested against, but rather, against the current doctrines of the Church. He began to doubt that the teaching of the Church on salvation was in accordance with the New Testament. And he also eventually rejected the idea that the pope should be head of the church and define what the doctrines of the church were, because the traditional teaching which the pope defended was not in agreement with the Bible. If indulgences and purgatory were not mentioned in the Bible, then the pope, said Luther, was teaching false doctrine. Luther’s academic disputation changed the face of Europe- and the world. It was almost as if a new age was awaiting a new religious message. For Europeans, the world was changing, expanding. Just 25 years before 1517, in 1492, Columbus had first visited America. And there was a powerful new communication tool had recently been developed in Germany. Around 1450, Johannes Gutenberg had developed printing with moveable text, and his Gutenberg Bible was the first bestseller of the new age of the printing press. Luther’s ideas were soon spread by books and pamphlets, as was his German translation of the Bible- a book as important to German language and culture as the King James Bible is to the English-speaking world. Printing was Martin Luther’s Twitter, allowing his ideas quickly spread around Germany and beyond, out of the control of bishops and princes.
So much for history- what about today? I’d like to suggest two of the words which come to mind when I think about Martin Luther- words which remind us he is relevant, not just for Lutherans or Protestants, but for the whole Christian church. The two words are ‘truth’ and ‘faith’.
Firstly: Luther wasn’t afraid to stand for the truth. In 1521, Luther was summoned to appear at the Imperial Assembly of Germany- the Diet, or Reichstag, as it was called- which gather at the city of Worms. Before that august body, he was challenged to renounce or reaffirm his views. He refused to do so, answering:
Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason… my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.
To which he may or may not have added the words ‘Here I stand, I can do no other’.
Our Gospel reading today finds Jesus in yet another dispute with the Pharisees- who if they were anything, were certainly religious traditionalists. Christ says that his disciples are those who obey his teachings, and that by obeying him people come to know the truth- a truth that sets us free. The Pharisees counter by claiming that they have the truth- centuries of traditional teaching- and that they have never felt they were anybody’s slaves. Are they not the descendants of Abraham? But Christ is bringing something new to birth- ‘If the Son sets you free, then you will be really free’.
Luther taught what he had come to realise- that forgiveness of sins and salvation is found in Christ alone. And if that truth meant that he had to defy centuries of Church tradition, and even the Pope himself- then so be it. For Christ came bringing truth- a truth that will set us free. And Christ’s truth stands over against any other source of truth, not matter how ancient and venerable.
Today, not just theological truth, but scientific and historical truths are under attack. Even the President of the United States is quite prepared to state blatant lies if he thinks it will help his cause, and, sadly, many people are taken in by him. For the truth is a dangerous thing. Al Gore made a film about global warming called ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. Even when the truth is inconvenient for some, Christians should stand firm for the truth. For if you know the truth, the truth will set you free.
And secondly: Luther changed the way we think about faith.
Our Old Testament reading contains a beautiful prophecy of Jeremiah:
God says: I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.
For the Pharisees- and, frankly, for many Christians, religion was a matter of keeping the law obeying the rules, doing the rituals. But Jeremiah speaks of the possibility that we might internalise our religion. The law becomes written on our hearts by God. Yes, faith is nurtured in community- that’s why we still have the church. But faith cannot be bought, or give to us by a religious institution. Faith is an individual relationship with God.
The old popes thought that it had been given to them to decide who was saved and damned, saint and sinner. But Luther came to understand that it was only when a person put their faith in Christ that salvation came to that person. There was no purgatory, and no-one could buy their salvation from the church. It is God alone who has the power to save us. We can’t do it. Nor can anyone else.
Oddly enough, some of the most enthusiastic Protestants around today seem to have forgotten about Luther’s first battle with the indulgence sellers. There is a movement, particularly in Pentecostalism, called ‘the prosperity Gospel’. It comes in different forms, but basically it usually involves telling people that God wants them to be wealthy- a message particularly potent for the poorest in society. And the way you get rich is to give the preacher lots of money. And so in huge churches around the world, on TV shows and radio stations, the prosperity preachers ask you to send them money, and all will be well with you.
The prosperity gospel works- for the preachers. Successful prosperity preachers tend to live in very comfortable circumstances- bit houses, swimming pools, even private jets. Some of them are advisors to Donald Trump– and you can see why he might like that kind of thing. I do wonder how they get away with it. Perhaps we need a new Martin Luther to unmask their hypocrisy and their patently false twisting of the Gospel. The Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head. The prosperity preacher in his million-dollar mansion is as far removed from Christ as Pope Julius II going into battle in his armour.
Luther stood for the truth, and the truth is, said he, that you can’t buy faith. And so he reformed Christianity for a new age. Five hundred years later, we are living in a world changing like never before. Our new information technologies can be used to spread lies- or bring truth that will set people free. We are tempted to buy our salvation; even if we don’t fall for the rogue preachers of prosperity, we half believe the lie that the consumer culture can make us happy. Where can we find salvation- for ourselves, for our broken world, even for our planet which is under threat as never before?
Martin Luther was lucky to be great friends with Lucas Cranach the Elder, one of the foremost artists of the German Renaissance. Cranach a painter, but also a master of the new technology of printing- his woodcuts and engravings were reproduced countless times by the new printing technology, so his art helped disseminate Lutheran ideas.
On the back of your bulletin you will see one of Cranach’s paintings; it hangs in the city church of Wittenberg. It is an allegorical painting. Martin Luther stands in the pulpit on the right, his congregation listens raptly on the left. And in the centre, Christ crucified, to whom Luther points as he preaches. It is a powerful image of the preacher’s task. I first saw that painting in Wittenberg over twenty years ago (on my honeymoon, believe it or not!) and had to buy a postcard of it, which is still above my desk in my study. It reminds me of the One whom I have to point you in my preaching:
Ask ye who is this same?
Christ Jesus is his name,
the Lord Saboath’s Son;
he, and no other one,
shall conquer in the battle.
Ascription of Praise
The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.
Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2017 Peter W Nimmo
 Alister McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction (Oxford, 1988)
 Michael Mullett, Luther (London, 1986)
 Ein’ feste Burg is unser Gott Martin Luther, tr Thomas Carlyle CH4 454