Some Random Pastorla Ponderings
At the end of this month, we will celebrate a pivotal event and a pivotal time in the history of the church…and of the world. We remember a faithful monk who, in the depths of a fierce struggle with his own unworthiness in God’s eyes, composed a list of 95 propositions…or theses…for debate among the theological scholars…and nailed them to the door of the castle church at Wittenberg. Luther didn’t intend this to be any sort of radical act. It was simply a plea for help with his spiritual struggle.
The questions centered on the differences he found between the doctrines of his beloved church and what he read in the Scriptures. He had no idea of the uproar he would cause. His innocent act ignited a powder keg that exploded into a conflict which resulted in reform in the church that continues to this day…a continual process of re-forming our idea of who we are and the nature of our relationship with God.
In Luther’s time, people were a lot more concerned about what would happen to them after they died. The church had begun to take advantage of those fears. Heaven was the goal of life. Hell was portrayed as a miserable place of agony filled with fire and all sorts of mean and ugly creatures. In an effort to promote morality, the leaders of the church developed doctrines that encouraged keeping the commandments and doing good works of service for one’s neighbor and community. Living a “good” and righteous life by keeping the commandments and following what was understood to be God’s will would ensure you a place in heaven.
But, as Luther was studying the apostle Paul’s writings in Romans in preparation for a Bible class, he read:
“There is no distinction since all have sinned and fall short of the glory
of God; they are now justified by His grace as a gift, through the
redemption that is in Christ Jesus”. (Romans 3:22-24)
Luther discovered that, because of our bondage to sin, any chance of us being saved and getting into heaven depends not on us…but on God. This is the most important discovery of the Reformation…the re-forming of our understanding of who is responsible for our salvation…not us… but God!
Forgiveness, and our salvation, are gifts of pure grace…a wonderful, unimaginable, free gift that we do not and could not ever earn. And the only way we are able to believe and trust in this gift is through another incredible, free gift…the gift of faith.
This amazing claim seems too good to be true! And you know what they say about things that seem too good to be true. Yet this is the truth Luther discovered…the truth that caused such an upheaval in the church of his day. It is such a revolutionary idea that we still have trouble accepting it today. Even as Lutherans, we seem to have this idea that yes, it’s all about God’s grace…but… And as soon as we add the “but”, it isn’t grace anymore!
The message of the Reformation is that, through Jesus Christ, God accepts us just as we are. God welcomes each and every one of us into His kingdom with all our imperfections, our flaws, and our failings, in all our sinfulness. We don’t earn such love and acceptance. God does this…freely and without conditions…simply because He loves us…all of us! This is the miracle of grace!
Luther and the other reformers help us to see that the Bible talks of a God who descends into this world and joins us where we are in the muck and mire of our broken and sinful lives and says, “I love you. I forgive your shortcomings…your petty hatreds…your manic desire to dominate and conquer one another…your selfish desires…and your unwillingness to love and forgive others as I have loved and forgiven you.”
Then God asks us, “Please, please, please, be kind to one another. Care for one another. Love one another. Have compassion for one another…friend or foe. Imitate the love and forgiveness I have shown you…not for your own good…but for the well-being and benefit of all my people. I don’t want you to be slaves to sin and selfishness. I want you to be free…free to enjoy the abundant life I have created for you.”
This is the truth the reformers discovered. This is the amazing truth we are still trying to wrap our minds around today because it still seems to be too good to be true. But it is the only truth that will set us free! May the Holy Spirit enable us, through faith, to embrace and live in this truth today and always.
Music to Our Ears
Each month we plan to include a little article about a favorite hymn. If you have a favorite hymn you would like featured in this space, please send your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you would like, you could include a little story explaining why this is your favorite hymn.
This month’s hymn is A Mighty Fortress by Martin Luther.
We think of Martin Luther as a great reformer, Biblical scholar and translator, political leader, fiery preacher, and theologian. But he was also a musician, having been born in an area of Germany known for its music. There in his little Thuringian village, young Martin grew up listening to his mother sing. He joined a boy’s choir that sang at weddings and funerals. He became proficient with the flute (recorder), and his volcanic emotions often erupted in song.
When the Protestant Reformation began, Luther was determined to restore worship to the German Church. He worked with skilled musicians to create new music for Christians to be sung in the ordinary language of the people. He helped revive congregational singing and wrote a number of hymns.
He often “borrowed” popular secular melodies for his hymns. Occasionally a tune brought criticism, and he was “compelled to let the devil have it back” because it was too closely associated with bars and taverns.
In the forward of a book, Luther wrote, “Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our thoughts, minds, hearts, 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.”
Luther’s most famous hymn, which is often considered to be the battle song of the Reformation, is “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”. Based on Psalm 46 and set to a bar tune, it reflects Luther’s awareness of our intense struggle with Satan. In difficulty and danger, Luther would often resort to this song, saying to his associate, Philipp Melanchthon, “Come, Phillip, let us sing the 46th Psalm”.
This hymn brought Luther much comfort, strength, and hope during the tumultuous days of the Reformation. In challenging the church of his day, Luther often wondered if he was doing the right thing. The words of Psalm 46 were an assurance to him that God was with him in the midst of the struggle. As we seek to be faithful to God’s will in the midst of the tumultuous days of our own time, may we find a similar comfort, hope, and the strength to keep up the fight against the “devil who threatens to devour us”.