October 29th, 2017

“The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of grace.”  (Martin Luther)

Ephesians 2:1-10


A terrorized life

The story I’m about to tell is true. Some of you know it well; to others most of it will be new. It’s one of the most important stories for Christians outside the Bible.

The story is about a boy I’ll call Marty, the oldest of nine children born to a couple of modest means. Marty’s parents were household servants, cleaning and cooking and doing whatever else needed to be done for wealthy people. Seeking a better life, Marty’s dad moved his family to a town where he got a job working in the copper mines. It was dirty and dangerous work underground, but soon he rose to management and then ownership of several copper mines and processing plants.

Marty’s parents pushed him hard, because hard work and discipline could bring a better life. Impulsive and probably hyperactive, he was beaten by both his parents to excess when he didn’t conform. His father so raged out of control on one occasion that he had to ask Marty’s forgiveness.

Marty not only had to work hard to please his parents, he felt he had to work hard to please God. His parents were very superstitious and fearful. They had Marty baptized at one day old, not taking any chances. They believed the woman next door was a witch. They believed in spiritual warfare. Devils were all around, and were behind most of the evil that happened. To combat them, they prayed to the saints – Christians who had died and could help them from heaven. The patron saint of miners was Anne, the mother of Mary, Jesus’ mother. When they felt spiritually oppressed, they prayed to Anne for help.

Age 13:  One of Marty’s best assets was his mind. He was smart. He learned reading, writing, and math early. Recognizing his potential, his father paid good money to send him to boarding school. There he learned Latin, the language of scholars. For the first time, he was able to read the Bible for himself, discovering stories he never knew were in there. His best friend went to the same school and later became very wealthy in the mining business. Marty did not. Away at school, Marty was frustrated because he was smarter and more disciplined than his teachers. They were also harsh, and he was once beaten fifteen times in a single morning. Even though his father was paying for his education, Marty had to beg for food by singing and playing the lute (kind of like a guitar) to entertain the townsfolk.

Age 16:  Marty went on to university, where sex and alcohol seemed as much a part of the “curriculum” as study. He started out as an average student, but soon something triggered his desire to learn, and in four years he had earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree, the first in his family to go that far. He was now “Master Martin,” and addressed with respect and pride by his father. Dad then wanted him to study law, because a lawyer could come back to the town and continue to make the whole family more prosperous and powerful. The financial investment his father had made in him was so worth it.

Age 20:  In addition to graduating with his master’s, three events altered his life – and the lives of almost everyone else who’s lived in Europe or America since. First, a fellow student and friend died, and Marty sunk into depression. Second, he managed to injure himself with his sword. The bleeding at first and then the swelling made him fearful that he would die, and he prayed – not to Jesus, but to Jesus’ mother, Mary. Third, he found himself caught in a terrible storm, the kind that makes you think lightning could strike you dead at any moment. In his superstitious world, he believed that storms were caused by the devil or witches. This time he prayed to Jesus’ grandmother, Anne, whom he had learned early to call on because she was the patron saint of precious metals. Terrified, he promised that if St. Anne would get him out of the storm alive, he would become a monk.

He did just that, which disappointed and infuriated his father, who thought the devil had sent the storm to frighten Martin off the path he was destined for. Hans Luther believed this was an act of disobedience, and that his considerable investment in his older son’s education had been wasted. There would be no grandchildren for Martin’s parents – not through him, anyway, and no brilliant lawyer to take the family business to another level. Martin gave away all his possessions – his lute, his books, his clothes, and his right to run his own life. Chastity, poverty, and obedience would be his rules of life. The monastery put him through a month of examination by his conscience and his superiors before allowing him to take his vows.

Brother Martin was as driven as a monk as he had been as a student. He later said, “If anyone could earn heaven but monkery, it was I.” Away from the need to please his earthly father, he felt an even wider gap between him and his heavenly father. Instead of discipline from his dad or his school master, he was disciplined by the monastery and by God. He prayed and honored the rigid schedule, even though he was naturally a spontaneous person. He confessed his sins often and thoroughly, and so specifically that his superior told him to stop it. “Go out and sin so you’ll have something to confess!”

Age 22:  Martin became a priest, but Father Martin was still tyrannized by fear. The first time he celebrated mass, as he said the words, “To you, eternal and true God,” his hands trembled so much that he almost dropped the cup and the bread. He literally tried to run away. From that point, his superiors observed his superior intellect, and ordered him to study theology. As he did so, he became even more afraid of God’s wrath. He knew God was righteous, meaning God always does the right thing. What’s the right thing to do with sinners who keep sinning? Damn them to hell, of course. Didn’t Jesus say to be perfect as God is perfect? He knew he wasn’t!

From the dumps to the heights

Age 25:  Father Martin was sent to the relatively new university at Wittenberg to continue learning and also to start lecturing. The town was a construction zone, with church and civic and university buildings expanding rapidly, and mud and mess everywhere. Two years later his monastic order sent him on a visit to Rome, which required walking 1000 miles each way. He was humbled by the grand buildings and saints, past and future, but also confused by the hypocrisy. People struggling with their sins were processed like cattle – give your money, say your prayers, bow your heads, look at the relics, get moving so others can have their chance.

Age 27:  He became Dr. Luther, complete with a grand ceremony.

Sometime during the next few years (nobody knows exactly when), Martin Luther experienced a spiritual breakthrough. He described himself as being “in the dumps,” which could mean he was depressed or he was “taking a dump” in the bathroom. He was thinking about the righteousness of God that condemns sinners, and this is what he wrote:  “Meditating day and night and by the mercy of God, I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that through which the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith. Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through gates that had been flung open.” Luther felt that he no longer had to drive himself to do more to please God. Jesus had already done it.

Age 33:  Shortly before or after that experience, a preacher named John Tetzel came to Wittenberg. He was trying to raise money to rebuild St. Peter’s Church in Rome. Michelangelo was already painting the Sistine Chapel. The essence of Tetzel’s message was that those who gave to Capital Campaign, even a coin, could buy forgiveness for themselves or loved ones who had died. It was the teaching of the church that Jesus, the apostles, and the saints did more good than they had to in order to get directly into heaven, and the church had control over this “treasury of merit” – spiritual extra credit. They could sell you a certificate that guaranteed your loved ones who were already suffering in the afterlife could spring right from the fires of purgatory into heaven if you would just buy them an indulgence.

All Saints Day (November 1) was drawing close. Wittenberg hosted an annual festival then. Pilgrims would come from all around to pay money to view the impressive collection of relics housed in the chapel like a museum. It was a fund raiser for the university (which means it helped fund Dr. Luther’s position), but viewing relics was another way to knock off a few years from Purgatory. Relics housed in the church included five particles of the Virgin Mary’s milk, a piece of Jesus’ diaper, five pieces of the Last Supper table, one piece of the nail driven through Jesus’ hands and feet, 25 pieces of the cross, and so on – more than 5,000 pieces in all, framed elaborately and displayed in beautiful cases. Tetzel probably chose this festival atmosphere with all the tourists to bring the indulgence sale to Wittenberg.

The spectacle infuriated Dr. Luther. He decided to hold an open debate in the university town. He wrote out his 95 debate propositions, called theses, and fastened them to Wittenberg’s chapel door on All Hallows Eve. “If you can’t come in person,” he added, “do it in writing.” The debate was never held.

The 95 theses were and are difficult to read and boring for most people, especially today. The bottom line is that popes and preachers who sell indulgences are sending people to hell, not heaven. Why is the pope raising money from the poor to build this great church when he’s rich enough to build it himself? My favorite thesis is #62, “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.” In other words, the church has no “treasure” to give out to people except the treasure that God gives through Jesus Christ. For Luther, the entire system was a kind of religious terrorism. The offer to debate was a rather humble one by a relatively unknown monk, priest, and scholar, but the debate was never held. Without Dr. Luther’s knowledge or permission, the 95 theses were printed and distributed all across Germany and beyond. Before long, Luther was a celebrity, and began writing other books to directly assault the political and religious system that had terrorized him.

This set in motion what we call the “Protestant Reformation” – a series of events and people in the sixteenth century that changed almost everything in western Europe and, as a result, for you and me. I asked my Confirmands last week if they knew what a “Protestant” is. They correctly guessed it has something to do with “protest.” Then I asked them if any of them know any Protestants. No hands went up at first, then finally one of them raised her hand and said, “I think my mom….” I interrupted, “Your mom’s a Protestant?” “No, I think my mom knows a Protestant.”  I have work to do in Confirmation class.

“Protestant” is just another way to say “Christian, but not Catholic.” It’s not that we’re anti-Catholic. We’ve gotten over that, I hope. And the Catholic church has been reforming itself since the time of Martin Luther.

Dead, Grace, Faith

All this month, Pastor Paul and I have been focusing on the five solas of the Protestant Reformation – so far Sola Scriptura (scripture alone is our authority), Soli Deo Gloria (to God alone be glory), and Solus Christus (Christ alone). Today we finish the series on Reformation Sunday with Sola Fide (faith alone) and Sola Gratia (grace alone).  There’s no better Scripture passage to unpack what Luther called “the true treasure of the church” than Ephesians 2:1-10. And there’s no better illustration of what Paul says than Marty, aka Martin Luther.

We can divide the text easily into three paragraphs.

Paragraph 1 (vv. 1-3):  “Dead.” There are two ways to be spiritually dead, and Paul exposes them with pronouns. Paul starts, “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins.” Why? Because “you followed the ways of this world.” The ways of the world were different in first century Ephesus and the Roman empire than they are in 21st century Hickory and America. But whenever we decide to do our own thing, we think we are chasing freedom but we’re catching death. Luther had a taste of that kind of freedom when he went off to school at age 13 and stayed away for eight years. The pursuit of sex, drugs, alcohol, power, money, pleasure, whatever – it leads to death.

Paul switches the pronoun in verse 3. “All of us,” he says, now apparently referring to Jews, “also lived that way, gratifying our flesh cravings.” Here’s the second way to be dead – religion. Paul’s system was full of rules and rituals, and he not only kept them – he enforced them in others. The problem is that nobody else is ever as good as you are, and you’re never as good as you should be, so you’re still dead. Martin Luther thought if he didn’t follow the ways of the world, he would become alive. But the church can kill you as much as the world. The problem Luther couldn’t solve is that he wanted to be somebody by pleasing somebody – his mom, his dad, his younger siblings, his friends, his academic peers, his professors, his superiors, God… somebody. He worked hard to make other people think he was significant, worthy, valued.

Paragraph 2 (vv. 4-7):  “Grace.” I don’t like how the New International Version translates verse 4: “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy….” The first two words of this paragraph in Greek are “But God….” God’s the only One who can do anything about “Dead.”

Paul says why God does something about you being dead – “because of his great love for us,” and because he “is rich in mercy” (4). So he could show “the incomparable riches of his grace” and “his kindness to us in Christ Jesus” (7). This has nothing at all to do with the worthiness of “you” or “us.” It has only to do with the grace of him. If it’s about “grace alone,” it’s not about grace at all. Grace plus my effort is not grace – it’s works.

Paul also says what God did – he “raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms.” That’s not only about position, it’s about intimacy. It’s a picture of welcome, of connection, of authority. You and I didn’t have to perform to become somebody. He said, “You come on up here and sit next to me. I choose to make you someone.” When Martin Luther realized this had already been done for him by God through Christ, he became a new man. He was finally free of the need to prove himself worthy. He knew he was fully righteous in Christ.

Paragraph 3 (vv. 8-10):  “Faith.” What’s remarkable here is that even the faith is “not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” This is the problem with many approaches to the Christian faith and to evangelism. “You have to believe.” Sometimes it’s hard to believe, hard to find the faith. The point is not that if you can’t believe it’s God’s fault; the point is that when you believe you give him the credit for it. How can a dead person – regardless of why he or she is dead – respond to God? It has to be a God-thing. Luther went from death to life not because he was smart or disciplined or stubborn – though he was all of those things. It’s because God gave him faith.

If it’s not about faith alone, it’s not about faith at all. Faith plus my accomplishments is not faith. When we preach grace alone by faith alone, people inevitably ask, “Isn’t that risky?” The sixteenth century Catholic church thought it was risky. Catholics today – along with many Protestants – think it’s risky. Of course it’s risky. God is a risk-taking God. He just knows if you ever get it through your head and heart that you were dead in transgressions and sins because you thought you had to please God and everyone else, and then you become alive just because he loves you, it will change everything.

You are God’s “handiwork,” Paul says in verse 10, his special creative project. You are his work in progress. All the broken and twisted pieces of your dead life he will use to prepare you do good works. That’s what he did for Luther. This keeps me going as a pastor when I talk to addicts – sex addicts, drug addicts, work addicts, religion addicts, grief addicts, bitterness addicts – and I tell them, “You’re worth the investment. This doesn’t have to be the last chapter in your story. God is preparing you for good works. You’re his special project.”

We will not fear

Age 37:  Martin Luther was quickly recognized as an immense threat to the powers that be, and they came after him with a vengeance. Eventually even the Catholic church reformed itself and continues to do so, but at first, they were determined to silence him, even if it meant killing him. Four years after posting the theses, he was brought before the most powerful political and church leaders in Germany who insisted he recant his writings. That means, “Admit you were wrong and say you’re sorry.” In words that are far more famous than the 95 theses, he declared, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant. It is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. Here I stand; I can do no other.”

There’s much more to Martin Luther’s life, of course. He translated the Bible into German so everyone could read it in their own language. He married a nun and fathered six children. (He said he married “to spite the devil,” which is hardly the most romantic reason for a proposal.) He and his wife Katarina, a former nun, opened their home as a model for hospitality. Luther continued to lead a movement that would endure well past his own years.

Many people are troubled by Luther’s later life, and for good reason. He never did really exorcise the demons of fear and pride and hatred. Luther was very much a “for me or against me” kind of guy. His strongest words were reserved for the Pope and the papal system, and Luther used words I can’t repeat in church to attack them.[1] He could also use intimidation and venom toward other reformers who didn’t agree with him. His most infamous diatribes were against the Jews, and it’s well-known that Adolf Hitler used Luther’s writings as justification for the Holocaust. Luther called for Jewish homes and synagogues to be destroyed, for money to be taken from them, and for their rabbis and writings to be silenced.

It’s not that Luther was mentally ill. Nor did he blame his father or his school masters for his temper. He was certainly a product of his age. But here’s how I see it: Luther is a perfect model for salvation by grace alone through faith alone. Precisely because of his blind spots, we know that God doesn’t save people because of their worth – nor does he turn them into models of perfection. Luther teaches me that “grace alone” is not just something I apply to myself, but that I apply to you and hope you will apply to me. Can I see people through the lens of their own brokenness and just love them – welcome them to sit next to me as God does, and let their lives be changed by grace?

Age 43:  1527 was perhaps the worst year of Luther’s life. He knew himself to be the enemy of Rome. He was angry and depressed. He was also feeling physical symptoms – dizziness, ringing in the ears. He thought he was going to die. He would later write that he had “spent more than a week in death and hell.” The plague had come to Wittenberg, and many people died. His wife was pregnant, but his home was turned into a hospital. Still, on the tenth anniversary of his 95 theses, Luther’s reflection produced the greatest hymn he ever wrote:  “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing. Our helper he, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing…. And though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us.” Amen.


[1] As just one example (one I couldn’t repeat in a church service), Luther said of the pope’s lust for power, “All of this is sealed with the Devil’s own dirt, and written with the ass-pope’s farts.”  (Quoted in Martin Luther, by Lyndal Roper, p. 372)

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