Reformation Sunday 29 October 2017

A sermon preached by the Reverend Dr Stephen J Plant
Dean and Chaplain of Trinity Hall, Cambridge
on Reformation Sunday 29 October 2017
in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, HM Tower of London

Matthew 22:13-14:
13  Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
14  For many are called, but few are chosen.

More than once, Jesus taught his disciples that big trees can grow from small seeds.  But can this also be true when the seed is no more than an idea, a thought in an individual’s mind?

On 31st October 1517 Martin Luther, a middle aged Augustinian Friar and Professor of Theology at the insignificant University of Wittenberg, nailed 95 theses to door of the Castle church.  The Church was dedicated to All Saints and this was the eve of the Feast of All Souls, which made this iconic act of rebellion especially appropriate.

Except that almost certainly it never happened. The earliest report that Luther hammered his theses to the church door was written after Luther’s death, by a man who wasn’t in Wittenberg in 1517. But perhaps we should not let so little a thing as a lack of historical evidence rob us of the myth. What we do know beyond doubt is that at the end of October Luther sent his 95 Theses on the sale of Indulgences to the Archbishop of Mainz, the leading churchman in the region. By January the following year they had been translated from Latin to German and were circulating widely. The stir they created set Europe alight, not only theologically but socially and politically as well.

We can get some notion of quite what a stir Luther created if we take note that at in 1500 a total of 40 books in the German language were printed. By 1523 there were 498 German books printed – a tenfold increase. A third were written by Martin Luther and a further third again written about his ideas. A conservative estimate tells us that, when he died in 1546, 3.1 million copies of books or pamphlets by Luther were in circulation.  Nor did the social and political reach of Luther’s thinking stop at the borders of the German speaking territories. Reach for a coin in your pocket and the letters after the Queen’s name – F.D. repeat the title Fidei Defensor – defender of the faith – awarded to Henry VIII in 1521 by Pope Leo X for his book denouncing Luther’s ideas.  About the same time several Fellows of Cambridge Colleges, including Thomas Cranmer whose prayers we say today, were discussing Luther’s teachings over beer at the White Horse pub in Cambridge.

So, what was so revolutionary, so inflammatory about Luther’s 95 theses and – as his thinking developed rapidly from 1517 onwards – about his radical new theology? In the miraculous way that a set lectionary often works, we can get some idea of the issues from our Gospel reading today. Indeed, one of the principles underpinning Luther’s thought was that theology and preaching should proceed on the basis of scripture alone.

In the parable of the wedding feast in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus sets our minds to thinking about what it takes to be in a right relationship with God.  A parable, like a good bit of political satire, is meant to be funny, but beyond the humour to provoke us to think a bit more deeply, about something that really matters. In the parable of the feast a king sends his servants to invite VIP guests to attend a feast. But the people he invites make light of the invitation, replying that they are too busy to come, that that night they plan to wash their hair.  In one case, they even beat up and kill the messengers the king has sent. Outraged, the king invites new people, people who will appreciate the invitation. The point? If those invited first don’t want to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, tough luck – God will invite others instead.

But Matthew adds one more thing. One guest insults his host by failing to dress appropriately for a feast. When the king sees it he’s tied up and turfed out. Why? Because  ‘many are called, but few are chosen’: [πολλοὶ γάρ εἰσιν κλητοὶ ὀλίγοι δὲ ἐκλεκτοί]!

In all his long years of monastic life, and in all his long years of rigorous theological study prior to 1517, Martin Luther knew he was called but did not know if he was chosen. He did everything he could to become sure he was in a right relationship with God. He become a monk. He prayed harder and harder. He studied more and more. He confessed. He beat himself up – sometimes literally.  But the more Luther tried to be at peace with God the further away he felt himself to be from Him.

And so when it came to the practice in which the Church gave  indulgences to those paying the right fee granting remission from the temporal penalties for their sins, Luther found himself to have a strong opinion. The idea of the Church was that, while God freely forgives sin through the redemptive grace of Christ, the repentant sinner still had to undertake acts of penance, in this life or after death in purgatory, to erase the penalties attaching to those sins. To do this, the Church had at its disposal a treasury of merits gained for it by Jesus and the saints that could be expended, for the proper fee, by the church for the sinner.

Luther saw all sorts of problems and, what’s more, he was a born communicator with a way of pointing out those problems that ordinary people could grasp and remember. Luther could see that using the fear of punishment as a way to extort money was a rotten practice: "the treasures of the gospel are nets with which one formerly fished for men of wealth. The treasures of indulgences are nets with which one now fishes for the wealth of men".

God alone has authority over sin. And if the Church is able to forgo any penalties it has set, it should do it freely as God too freely forgives. More importantly, to sell remission of penalties was to give gullible people a false sense of security. If they truly repent – genuinely asking forgiveness in their hearts, then an indulgence is meaningless. Buying an indulgence, Luther thought, lets unrepentant sinners think that they have been let off when their souls are in real danger. True peace of mind comes from following Christ, not through false security of indulgences.

As his breach with the Church deepened beyond repair, so too did Luther’s thinking. Luther saw that there was quite simply nothing he, or anyone else before or after him, could do that is able to restore relationship with God – not charity, not saying masses for the dead, not going on pilgrimage, not going on crusade, and not buying indulgences. There was nothing he or anyone else could do to be sure – really sure – that they are not only called but chosen. Then thank God, that God has already done for us in Jesus Christ what we are not able to do for ourselves.

Sometime between 1517 and 1519 while reading Paul’s letter to the Romans, Luther had a revelation that freed him from his religious anxiety. He read in Romans 1:17 that ‘the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith”.

Recalling this epiphany a few years later Luther wrote about his realization that salvation – our sense of a restored, peaceful, right and loving relationship with God, is given to us by faith alone:

Then I began to understand the righteousness of God as a righteousness by which a just man lives as by a gift of God, that means by faith. I realized that it was to be understood this way: the righteousness of God is revealed through the Gospel, namely the so-called “passive” righteousness we receive, through which God justifies us by faith through grace and mercy … Now I felt as if I had been born again: the gates had been opened and I had entered Paradise itself.

A Christian has no need to fear she may be wearing the wrong clothes at the wedding feast because Christ gives her the clothes to wear. A Christian need not fear he is not good enough to be chosen by God because Jesus was good enough, and by his goodness and grace does what we, because of our sins, cannot do for ourselves.

In this particular place of worship I need not spell out that the consequences of Luther’s Big Idea were not all positive.  Luther’s insistence that every Christian should obey her or his own conscience in making sense of God’s Word – and NOT the teaching of the Pope – or for that matter any Church leader – ended the consensus of Medieval Christendom. And once the freedom of the Christian had been established, clashes of opinion and violence followed on an apocalyptic scale. Yards from this Chapel, Roman Catholics tortured and killed Protestants and Protestants tortured and killed Roman Catholics in God’s name.

How much of that violence can be laid at Luther’s door? Not all of it, of course. But if his bold and courageous turn of phrase had the upside of being readily grasped, it had the downside that it could be taken as an incitement to hate. I defer to no one in my admiration for Luther as a theologian. In his return to Scripture, in his stunning translation of the Bible into vernacular German, and in his insistence that the grace of God is freely given and may be received by faith alone, Luther returned Christians to fundamental truths in the Good News of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, his legacy is mixed, and Luther’s intemperate and sometimes hate-filled language about Roman Catholics, about Anabapstists, about Moslems and – most reprehensibly of all – about the Jews, is shocking and inexcusable.

And to today as we mark this anniversary, we need finely tuned judgments able to see greys, as well as black and white. We need to heed the advice of the writer to the Church in Ephesus:

Ephesians 5:15-17 Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.

Amen