GOD’S STORY WRITTEN ON THE SOUL OF A GRUMPY MONK
500 years ago this October, a German monk with a newly discovered understanding of God’s grace and a growing dissatisfaction with the legalism of the institutional Church could not stay silent. While his initial hope might have been to start an honest debate and conversation, it quickly escalated into something more. His was not the first voice calling for a reformation of theology and policy, nor would it be the last. But his influence was undeniable. Even today, a poll of German people on the most popular person in Germany history chose Martin Luther second only to Konrad Adenauer, the man who helped Germany rebuild after the second world war. His influence not only led to a Reformation of the Church, it led to the development of German language, politics and culture. His belief that communities had a responsibility to care for the poor in their midst led him to pioneer the idea of “the community chest,” public education and literacy for all, and the understanding that every baptized child of God stands on a level playing field with priest, pope and prince in the eyes of God.
Martin Luther believed that the story that God had written on the world and the stories preserved for us in Scripture belonged to all. He translated the Bible into the language of the people despite the threats from church authorities who believed the only ‘sacred’ languages were Hebrew, Greek and Latin. A belief among the religious hierarchy that happened to be self-serving as the only ones who learned such languages were the priests and the privileged elites. Luther also believed music in worship was critical to bringing the Gospel story to life, saying “Next to the word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our hearts, minds and spirits. A person who does not regard music as a marvelous creation of God does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs!” He was known to be blunt and opinionated! He also pioneered the idea of equipping parents to teach the basics of faith to their children in the home through use of his “Small Catechism.”
To be sure, Martin Luther and those who came to be called Lutherans are far from perfect. Sadly, Luther bought into the cultural Anti-Semitism of his day and it continued to have ramifications throughout history. At times, there have been those among us who show remarkable intolerance and arrogance when considering other Christian and faith traditions. So, when we prepare for worship or for communion with a confession of sin, things we have done and left undone, it has and should have the powerful ring of truth. We are, as are all, grace-dependent, grace-saved, and grace-sent into the world. We are far from perfect, but we know God’s grace to be persistent and pervasive in its power to reform, renew and reshape us. That conviction, written on the soul of a grumpy monk named Martin, changed the world. That conviction also led the great Lutheran composer Johann Sebastian Bach to append his musical creations with the words, “Soli deo Gloria!” To God alone be the glory!
Luther and the Lutherans. Perfect or preeminent? Not a chance. But in this 500th anniversary year a little bit proud? Without a shadow of a doubt.