The Famous Door in Wittenberg
Today I’m giving you a little Martin Luther history, but only a little, because I know you Lutherans out there already know all this information, and non-Lutherans may not be very interested. But every educated person should know at least a little about this German reformer who had great influence on Western culture and the history of Christianity.
Luther was…complicated. He was fiery, passionate, intellectual, and earthy, a man of courage and conviction. He was blessed with good friends who helped him at critical junctures in his life and he enjoyed a happy marriage to Katharina von Bora, a former nun with whom he had six children. He also had an unfortunate tendency to identify his enemies with the Anti-Christ (but who among us hasn’t done something similar?).
Born in 1483, Luther was the son of a miner. Originally he planned to be a lawyer, but on a summer night in 1505 he was caught in a terrible thunderstorm. Fearful of his life, he vowed to St. Anna that if he survived he would become a monk. Luther joined an Augustinian monastery in Erfurt (much to the disappointment of his father) and soon out-monked even the most zealous of monks. Luther was determined to save his soul through rigid discipline and penitence.
In 1510 he went to Rome. This wasn’t a good year to visit Rome if you were an idealistic monk, as the church was in the middle of building St. Peter’s Basilica and needed to raise a lot of money fast. The selling of indulgences—which were said to release a soul from purgatory—was the primary means of doing so. In addition to the selling of these worthless pieces of paper, Luther was appalled by the power, wealth, and corruption of the church hierarchy. (I also suspect that, unlike The Holy Rover, he wasn’t charmed by all the little statues of the Virgin Mary for sale.)
Back in Germany, Luther struggled with the role of the church in salvation, finally finding his answer in Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Through Paul’s words he came to understand that we are saved by faith, not works. Luther launched a campaign to reform the church, which included nailing his famous 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenberg. He didn’t intend to start a new church, but when the bishops and Pope opposed him, he turned on his former superiors with vehement passion. In return the Pope threatened to excommunicate him if he didn’t recant.
And then comes Luther’s finest moment. Any of us would be lucky to get something like this on our resume, for really it’s quite remarkable. Luther is brought before the authorities, who give him the chance to renounce what he has preached and published. If he refuses, he faces excommunication and death. Luther stands up and says this: “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”
And there, my friends, is a profile in courage. Regardless of what came after that, regardless of some pretty nasty things Luther said about the Jews and how he behaved during the Peasants Rebellion, what he did at that moment was remarkable. He stood up for the right of one person to claim a direct relationship with God. He stood in opposition to corruption and brute force. He claimed the primacy of conscience over political expediency. Here I stand. I can do no other.
Where do you stand? On what rock are you willing to stake your life? Interesting to ponder, isn’t it?
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