46They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 48Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 49 Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” 50So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” 52 Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
(Mark 10:46-52, NRSV)
As you know today is Reformation Sunday. It was on this date 489 years ago that Martin Luther inadvertently began the Protestant Reformation by tacking his 95 Theses on the church door at Wittenberg. The theses were a series of debate questions largely about the issue of indulgences, for indulgences had become a way for people to simply buy their way into heaven. Pious but gullible people placed money in a coffer and receive a slip of paper that reduced the time that they would spend in purgatory. Or they would buy that slip of paper for a relative. One of the less scrupulous purveyors of indulgences invented a little jingle to help sell his wares:
When the coin the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs.
Luther was a very conscientious person who had already rethought much of his faith by the time the indulgence controversy arose in 1517. Still, this kind of abuse of simple people angered Luther and led him to continue to reexamine the fundamental tenets of his faith. It finally led him to reject the authority of the Catholic Church and to find the authority for faith solely in the Bible. He famously said:
Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do other wise. God help me. Amen.
(I have a friend in the ministry who visited Wittenberg some years ago and he came back with a pair of socks that they sell to the tourists that said, “Here I stand.” I mentioned this to a German friend, tweaking him on the fact that the Germans would sell such things. But he turned it around on me, saying that these were things that only Americans would buy.)
The lectionary reading today is the story of Bartimaeus. And I don't think that it is an accident that this reading appears on Reformation Day, for Luther and Bartimaeus had some important things in common. Bartimaeus was physically blind, but Luther in his young adult years knew that he was spiritually blind. Both men, when they knew that Jesus was near, began to make a commotion. Bartimaeus shouted, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” I imagine that Luther, in his great distress, prayed a very similar prayer. Both men experienced the rebuke of the crowd that tried to silence them. But they would not be silenced, for both were desperate men. And finally Jesus stopped. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked Bartimaeus. “Rabbi,” he said, “I want to see.” “Lord,” said Martin Luther, “I want to see!” And Jesus granted sight to them both.
Sketch of the life of Martin Luther
Luther was born in 1483. This was about 30 years after Gutenberg had invented the printing press. It was two years before the first Tudor king reigned in England. It was about the time when the Renaissance was finally reaching northern Europe. Luther was born into a well-to-do family. His father was a strong-willed peasant who had made money as a mine operator/owner, and so was able to send his son to the University of Erfurt.
When Luther had finished his BA and MA, he then had to make the choice to get his terminal degree in either the law or theology. His father wanted him to study the law, but Luther was drawn to theology. So Luther was torn between the call of his heavenly father and the demands of an earthly father. He went to visit old Hans Luther, and apparently Martin failed to tell him that he was not interested in the law. When he was on the road back to Erfurt a thunderstorm rose up, and lightening struck very near him, knocking him to the ground. Then in terror he cried out to St. Anne, the patron saint of miners (remember his father was a miner): “St. Anne, help me! I will become a monk!”
Monasticism was seen as a very difficult and demanding form of Christian vocation. But it was also considered the safest and highest road to heaven. Even St. Thomas Aquinas believed that by taking the cowl the monk received a second baptism, which restored the sinner to a state of innocence.
Luther took his vows as a monk seriously. He remained a monk for 13 years, until the Augustinians released from him his vow. But even then he continued to wear the cowl for another 3 years, until his excommunication by the Catholic Church in 1521.
Luther was scrupulous in his observance of monkish practices. He said of himself:
I was a good monk, and I kept the rule of my order so strictly that I may say that if ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery it was I … if I had kept on any longer, I should have killed myself with vigils, prayers, readings, and other work.
Luther was consumed with the idea that God was angry at him, and that he was alienated from God. Therefore he used every resource of the medieval Catholic Church that he could find to make his peace with God. But each in turned seemed inadequate. He tried doing a multitude of Good Works, but he could never do enough. He tried the intercession of the saints. He concentrated on 21 saints, three for each day of the week. But what good are saints if God is truly angry. He tried mysticism. Instead of striving after God, the mystics surrendered to God and his love. Luther tried this, and at time he felt lifted up, but eventually the feeling of alienation from God would return. He tried the Sacrament of Penance. Luther used it continuously, often daily, and once for as long as 6 hours. Luther found the sacrament inadequate because all one's sins must be confessed to be forgiven. But after 6 hours confessing he could leave the confessional and then remember one more. He realized that we don't often recognize the sins that we do. (Perhaps, he thought, the problem is not the individual sins, but our sinful nature itself.)
Luther's spiritual adviser was a very wise and insightful man who worked with Luther through all of this. He recognized Luther's intelligence and sincerity and finally concluded that the solution for Luther was to undertake preaching and teaching. He thought that if Luther was responsible for teaching and preaching the grace and goodness of God to others, he might discover it for himself. And so Luther continued his studies at Erfurt, received his Ph.D. in theology, and then began teaching at the newly opened University of Wittenberg.
Luther probably began to have some doubts about the claims of the Catholic Church when he visited Rome in 1510. Rome was the greatest pilgrimage center for indulgences, because one could find more relics there than anywhere else in the world. But Luther was disturbed and disillusioned by the Italian priests he found. They seemed ignorant and frivolous. Many of them also led immoral lives. A popular expression of the time summed up the feelings of many: “If there is a hell, then Rome is built on it.”
As a professor in the four years leading up to the Reformation, Luther lectured on the Bible: specially the Psalms, and Paul's letters to the Romans and the Galatians.
In Psalm 22 he found that even Jesus was at one time estranged from God. He was estranged because he took on himself our humanity, identifying himself with us, and suffering with and for us. In contemplating Jesus on the cross, Luther discovered that Jesus and he had the same experience—alienation from God: “My God, my God, why hast thou abandoned me?” Therefore in Luther's mind Jesus no longer seemed so distant—the harsh and distant judge of the last day. Rather, Jesus was one with us.
Next, Luther studied the Apostle Paul, especially his letter to the Romans. The Catholic Church had largely lost its understanding of Paul's doctrine of free grace—that we are justified by God's grace through faith. So Luther struggled with Paul, using the original Greek texts. He was particularly confused by the Greek word for justice and justification, which is the same word. When Paul spoke of the justice of God, Luther took him to mean that God was just in punishing the unjust. But he persisted until he understood Paul's doctrine of “justification by faith.” He describes his quest in his way:
Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that “the just shall live by his faith.” Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justified us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the “justice of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven…
Luther had gained these essential insights about grace and faith and the importance of Scripture more than a year before the Indulgence controversy that rocked the church that launched the Reformation. In the years to come, he was simply working out the implications of his thoughts from this early period. Soon he was attacking indulgences, the relics of the saints, and the rather mechanical ideas by which the church understood the doctrine of salvation. Then he moved on to attacking the popes and councils that had so badly misled the church and refused to reform. Finally he attacked the sacramental system of theology, much of which was either badly understood or simply human inventions. He denied the existence of Purgatory because it is not taught in the Scriptures. He emptied the monasteries and convents of Germany when he convincingly explained that the chastity, seclusion and otherworldliness of the monks and nuns were a misunderstanding of the Gospel that commands us to be in the world but not of it.
G.K. Chesterton, who was no fan of Luther, once begrudged him this compliment: “He was one of those great elemental barbarians to whom indeed it is given to change the world.” Luther was like a great wrecking ball that leveled much of the medieval past. But he was also a very positive force as well. He translated the Bible from the Greek and Hebrew into German for the first time, helping to create the modern German language. He wrote a number of tracts explaining his new doctrines that were translated and made available throughout Europe. He reformed the liturgy of the church and put it into the vernacular. He also made preaching the center of the service, and he was the first to emphasize congregational singing. He collected hymnals and wrote a number of hymns for the congregation. His most famous hymn became the anthem of the Reformation: “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” He was a talented writer whose commentaries on the Bible, collected sermons and tracts constitute many volumes. He wrote memorable and long lived catechisms for children as well as adults. Finally, he was a very fine leader who moderated and wisely guided the reform movement in Germany.
Luther was far from being a perfect man. He was a very emotional man, and sometimes his anger got away from him. Also, he held many of the prejudices of his day. He wrote, for example, some terribly anti-Semitic tracts, and during the Peasants Revolt of 1525 he wrote viciously against the murdering, thieving peasants. He also wrote against the Anabaptists and urged that they be banished.
Still, Luther was a tremendously gifted, energetic and brilliant man. A religious genius who did the work of many men. Listen to the encomium from his biographer Roland Baiton:
If no Englishman occupies a similar place in the religious life of his people, it is because no Englishman had anything like Luther's range. The bible translation in England was the work of Tyndale, the prayer book of Cranmer, the catechism of the Westminster divines. The sermonic style stemmed from Latimer; the hymnbook came from Watts. And not all of these lived in the one century. Luther did the work of more than five men. And for sheer richness and exuberance of vocabulary and mastery of style his is to be compared only with Shakespeare.
Ongoing Importance of Luther
On this Reformation Day it is certainly appropriate to talk about Martin Luther. But, of course, he was not alone in carrying out the Reformation. There were a number of precursors to the Reformation. And the Reformation as a movement was a huge undertaking that took many forms, produced many leaders, and continued for well over a century. It also has to be said that in many ways Luther was a very conservative revolutionary. Subsequently leaders went far beyond him in their efforts to reform the Christian churches—such as John Calvin.
Still, Luther was the father of them all. He opened up the gospel of grace and shed more light on the New Testament than any man since ancient times. For Protestants of whatever stripe, aside from the writers and figures of the Bible, there is probably no other more important figure.
And he continues to be tremendously influential for Christian writers and thinkers, for ministers and lay people alike. Biographies continue to be written about him and movies made about him. Mostly, I think, we feel his influence indirectly, because so much of what we read about theology and scripture has been influenced by him.
In my own faith journey, discovering Martin Luther was a major milestone. As many of you know, I was raised a Roman Catholic and by the time I had finished up college I was genuinely confused about my faith. Reading Martin Luther's biography was not only inspiring but it also answered a number of questions that I had about the nature of my faith. And then I went on to read his Three Treatises, which further clarified things for me.
Now I have to say that Luther's writings are not for everyone. He wrote in a 16th century style that most will not be comfortable with. Also he is very direct. He doesn't hesitate to denounce things in the harshest possible language if he thinks he has to. Also he sometimes used barnyard language that you might think is unsuitable for a serious theologian. Yet that too was often the style of the day. The best thing that can be said for his style is that it is very clear; it leaves no room for doubt and ambiguity.
One thing that I would like you to take away with you this Reformation Sunday morning is that we are part of a wonderful tradition. In our modern society, where we can often feel so disconnected from the past and those around us, it is important to remember that we are not a people isolated in either time or space. We are part of a community of faith that stretches around the world and reaches back millennia.
Our faith begins with Abraham, who probably lived about 2000 years before Christ. It runs through the prophets and apostles of the Bible. And it doesn't stop there: it continues though the long history of the church. Martin Luther did not create the Protestant Faith. Luther inherited most of his beliefs and traditions. But he lived in a new historical era, the Renaissance, and so he had to rediscover, clarify and reform the faith that he had received to make it vital for the people of his time. This is what it means to be a part of a living tradition. And since Luther's time, that tradition has continued to change and develop to keep up with the modern world. The motto of the Presbyterian Church expresses this idea beautifully:
We are a reformed church, always reforming.
This is the paradox of inheriting a tradition. In order to keep it you have to be willing to modify it. Not to do so is to betray all those who have gone before, who have also faced new and challenging situations, as we do today.
Ironically, Luther was the savior of the Catholic tradition because he took it seriously and made it vital again. We have to talk about a Protestant Reformation because there was also a Catholic Reformation in the 16th century that was given its impetus by Martin Luther. The Catholic Church today recognizes how very Catholic Luther was, and there is even talk in Germany that he should be canonized.
Bartimaeus and Martin Luther stood on the side of the road, one literally, the other figuratively. They were blind men. And when the Master walked by they shouted, and no one could shut them up. Finally Jesus said, “Call him.” And then he asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind men responded, “Rabbi, I want to see.”
These two men are models of discipleship for us today. Both men were passionate. They knew they were blind and they wanted to see. Both men were persistent. The crowd could not silence them. Both were men of faith. Bartimaeus flung off his cloak with no thought of returning to it, so confident was he that Jesus was going to heal him. Luther, despite his many difficulties, never stopped believing. Bartimaeus was loyal. When he received his sight, he followed Jesus. Luther was courageous. He believed that calling for reform in the church was a death sentence, as it had been for all the would-be reformers before him for 150 years. Yet he too followed Jesus … the one who continues to give sight to the blind of this world, to those who seek him with all their hearts.
For all his brilliance and exuberance of personality, Luther points away from himself and from the church and back toward Jesus, the true author and finisher of our faith, the one who makes the blind to see.
The foregoing sermon was given by Rev. Michael Parker on October 31, 2006
© 2006 Michael T. Parker