Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras Reformation Sunday
October 27, 2019
On April 17, 1521, Emperor Charles V, summoned Martin Luther to the imperial Diet that was to be held at the German city of Worms. Diet in English means assembly or in our context, the Congress. Johann Eck, a papal theologian, represented Pope Leo X to debate with Luther concerning his theology and writings. The Diet of Worms expected from Luther to renounce his faith and recant his writings. Luther’s response is often quoted:
“I cannot choose but adhere to the word of God, which has possession of my conscience; nor can I possibly, nor will I even make any recantation, since it is neither safe nor honest to act contrary to conscience! Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God! Amen.”
On May 25, 1521, as a result of Luther's refusal, Emperor Charles V issued an edict, well known as the Edict of Worms, condemning Luther for crimes of heresy and called to burn his books. Luther could not contradict the word of God. He firmly believed in what Jesus says: “if you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32).
The word of God is the foundation of our faith. It is enough to guide us and to help us to know God’s will for us. The word of God assisted Martin Luther to stand firm against the authority of Pope Leo X and the Emperor Charles V. The word of God inspired the Lutheran reformation and changed the course of religious and cultural history in the West. The word of God is very powerful. The word of God liberated the 16th-century Christians from the oppressing church that controlled every aspect of their life. The word of God gives hope to the hopeless and brings down tyrants from their thrones.
Luther relied on the word of God to challenge rulers and Pope Leo X to improve the state affair of the poor. Germans were hardly able to survive from day-to-day. They had to pay taxes, which were used to serve the pope’s projects and interests. Poor Germans found hope for their suffering and struggle through buying indulgences. As a result, Luther wrote his 95 theses to correct the theology of his time. The word of God inspired Martin Luther to spread his reform to reach all parts of the church and society, and to call everyone to action. For Luther, the gospel of the Lord aims to lift up Christians' life, not to abuse and take advantage of them.
Luther did not separate Christians' spiritual life from earthly life. He engaged in the world and encouraged Christians to engage, too. His reformation advocated for good education to children and women, welfare for the poor, and to improve public health services. The word of God relates and speaks to every aspect of our life here on earth.
Luther used the word of God to open the eyes of secular authorities and papacy to the dire situation of the poor Germans. His writings are filled with biblical counsel for rulers. For example, he sent a letter to Prince John Frederick, Duke of Saxony, introducing his commentary on the Magnificat, the song of Mary in the gospel of Luke. He explained that God cared about the destitute like virgin Mary. Luther used the Magnificat to encourage the prince to help the poor and to administer justice. Luther blamed economic and social disruption on the papacy and rulers’ injustice and called them to administrate justice; otherwise, they become beasts.
Lutheran theology and tradition are full of examples of Lutherans challenging unjust secular and religious authorities. The most famous Lutheran of the 20th century is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who opposed Nazi propaganda and criticized the church’s complicity in Nazism. He believed in the word of God that gives life to people. He relied on the word of God and the Lutheran tradition to resist Hitler. Bonhoeffer was executed because he refused to compromise with the evil that opposed the word of God.
Another example is the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. Do you know that Lutherans played an essential role in destroying the Berlin wall and resisting the Communists?
The peaceful protest moment began in a Lutheran gathering for “prayer and politics” in Leipzig. Faithfully assembling for worship, lingering after service for prayer and mutual support, and meeting again on Mondays, sometimes with only a few people present, to talk about things that matter, Lutheran worshipers created the space for the largest peaceful demonstration in German history to occur. After nearly a decade of small meetings, on the evening of October 9, 1989, eight thousand people flocked to the church, and between seventy thousand and one hundred thousand joined for a candle-lit walk through the city, in resistance to Communist tyranny and standing bravely for freedom at the risk of personal injury and imprisonment. The police “joined” the walk by not shooting a single shot. (Ryan P. Cumming. The Forgotten Luther II (pp. 28-29). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition).
Lutherans' act of resistance destroyed the Berlin wall. What shall I say more? I wish I have enough time to talk about Palestinian Lutherans resisting the Israeli military occupation of West Bank and Gaza. Or to speak about ELCA sending missionaries to war zones to help the oppressed and to provide shelter, food, and medicine to the victims of war. This is who Lutherans are. This is our Lutheran tradition that we should celebrate every single day, not once a year.