Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Opening of a Closed Book - Martin Luther at 500

Text of the Week: For the gospel reveals how God puts people right with himself: it is through faith from beginning to end. As the scripture says, “The person who is put right with God through faith shall live.” Romans 1:17

Welcome to our Services today and a special welcome to anyone worshipping with us for the first time. During today’s services we are going to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. It was on the 31st October, 1517 that Martin Luther is said to have nailed 95 propositions for discussion at the university in Wittenberg to the university church door. It sparked off discussions that have been going on ever since. Much that Luther did and much that he stood for we would not countenance today. But equally much that he did and much that he stood for go to the heart of our faith. I want to home in on three things that have meant the world to me and very much help to shape the person I am. Only by Grace was the title we gave to one of the song books we produced and have used at Highbury for many years. The modern worship song may not be by Luther but it goes to the heart of something that’s mean the world to me. It’s the fact that God reaches out to each of us in forgiving love that makes all the difference to me. The next thing that’s all important to me is the centrality of the Bible – that’s supremely where we can hear God’s Word for us today and that Word makes all the difference. But how we read the Bible is also crucial … and that’s the third of Luther’s insights that counts for me. At the heart of the whole of the Bible is Jesus Christ: how important it is to read the Bible through the eyes of Jesus.

Welcome and Call to Worship
124 Praise to the Lord the almighty
Prayer and the Lord’s Prayer
Luther’s Story

Reading; Romans 1:16-17
A Hy-Spirit Song
Activities for all over 3
Romans 5:1-5 – the Congregation
OBG 25 Only by Grace – Hy-Spirit
The Opening of a Closed Book

Hymn: Reforming Christ [Tune: Woodlands]
Reading: Romans 8:31-39
454 A safe stronghold
Prayers of Concern
112 God whose almighty word
Words of Blessing

At our evening service we explored Graham Adams' new hymn for the anniversary year
Reforming Christ!

The Opening of a Closed Book - Luther at 500

505 years ago in 1512 something remarkable happened in a small town 68 miles South West of the modern city of Berlin. though few people noticed at the time. A young monk who had been studying the Bible for seven years at the new university of Wittenberg and regularly delivering theology lectures was presented with a closed Bible. Holding it carefully he opened it. It was part of a solemn ceremony during which Martin Luther’s studies were recognised, he was awarded his Doctorate and was recognised as a ‘Doctor’, a Teacher who was able to teach. He was to teach the Bible and straightaway he began with lectures on the Book of Psalms. He had a way with words that moved all those who studied under him. The Bible he was presented with was a Latin bible. It was a translation that had been made from the original Hebrew and Greek in Bethlehem by Jerome 1200 years before. It was a translation that had stood the test of time. The second millennium of the Roman Empire had only just come to an end with the fall of Constantinople in 1493.  By 1512 Latin was still the common language of the church, of scholarship and of diplomacy throughout Europe.

There was something novel about that Bible, however. It was just like the Bible that was placed on the coffin of King Richard III at his burial in Leicester Cathedral in 2015. It was a printed Bible. It was only 57 years since Gutenberg produced the very first printed Bible. The invention of printing was the biggest breakthrough in communications since the invention of the alphabet and remained so until the intervention of the world wide web less than 25 years ago. It meant that new ideas could spread … and they did spread like wild fire.

Teachers at that new university of Witenberg were excited by the potential released by the printing press. Not only could they line the shelves of their library with printed editions of the ancient classics that were fast appearing, but they could also produce wonderful new handouts.

So over the next four years as Martin Luther worked methodically through the Book of Psalms and then turned to Paul’s letter to the Romans he called on the services of the local printing house to produce handouts. Large sheets of paper with a block of print containing the Latin text of first the Psalms and later Romans in roughly one third of the page with large gaps between the lines and very big margins to the side and to the bottom. His students would then take down at dictation speed his comments on the text and write them carefully between the lines. Then Luther would dictate a fuller exposition of the passage in those wide margins on the page.

 That young university lecturer had been on a pilgrimage of faith had already brought him a long way, but it was in many ways only just beginning.

Born on the 10th November 1483 in Eiselben and moving with his family to Mansfeld when only one year old, he was 14 when he went to school in Magdeburg and then a year later on to Eisenach. His family were proud of his achievements and had high hopes that he would become a lawyer and a wealthy man. The school year was shaped around the Christian year with its regular round of Mass and Vespers and colourful processions on those special holy days that were a regular feature of the calendar. Music was on the curriculum and Martin Luther, a fine singer, delighted in singing the Psalms, the Canticles, the Magnificat, the Benedictus, the Nunc Dimittis and those rich Latin hymns that were part of the church’s liturgy.

At 18 he began his studies at the traditional University in Erfurt. Steeped in the philosophical thinking of Aristotle and the great Medieval, his course had a large smattering of theology but was aimed at qualifying him for the law.

After one year he received he became a Bachelor in the Arts subjects he was studying and two and a half years later received his Masters. A high-flying student he was set to achieve great things as a lawyer when something happened that was to change his life.

Walking back to the University of Erfurth from his home late at night on 2nd July 1505 he was caught in an unimaginably violent thunderstorm. Fearing for his life, as he later recalled, he cried out to St Anne, “St Anne, help me and I will become a monk.”

The storm abated. Luther made it back to Erfurt safely. Something had happened  that brought him face to face with the reality of God in all his majesty and awe. A fearful God much to be feared. Within a fortnight he presented himself at the door of a strict Augustinian monastery in Erfurt and he became a monk. He now entered into a daily round of worship and prayer steeped in the Psalms and the Scriptures and shaped by the thinking of St Augustine. Presiding for the first time at Mass, he was drawn to a spirituality based on the imitation of Christ that had been popularised by Thomas a Kempis.

The community quickly recognised that he had a way with words and as part of their support of the fledgling university  in Wittenberg they arranged for him to teach a term at the university when he was only 25 in the winter of 1508.

It wasn’t long before he was back in the monastery at Erfurt. He jumped at the chance to visit Rome with a fellow Brother to represent the monastery in a dispute that had blown up. He was fully prepared to be inspired as he had the opportunity to meet with what he expected to be deeply devout priests in the heart of the world-wide church of Rome. He was strangely disappointed. He was shocked at the extravagant building projects, the untold wealth, the flippant way so many priests rushed through the daily round of services and the immorality he saw all around him. Nonetheless he sought a deep spiritual experience as he dragged himself up the steps of Pilate, saying the Lord’s Prayer, the Our Father, the Pater Noster once on each step. He reached the top and as he recalled later had a moment of questioning, asking “Who knows whether it is so?”

He returned to the monastery in Erfurt in April 1511 only to find himself transferred almost immediately to the Augustinian monastery in what was little more than a village of 2,500 people. It was to become the place he was to make his home for the rest of his life. Wittenberg. The one claim to fame it had was the brand new University that Frederick the Wise, the Elector of Saxony had founded only a few years before.

Luther had moments of deep depression … but there was someone in the Wittenberg monastery who was a saving grace for him. Johann von Staupitz. As a pray-er and spiritual director he made his mark on Luther, but he could also see the way Luther had with words. And so it was that Staupitz arranged for Martin Luther to study further at the university and acquire the status of Teacher, Doctor. And so it was on the 19th October 1512 (505 years ago to the day that I am writing these notes!) Martin Luther was presented with that Latin Bible that was closed and it was opened in his hands.

It was 1st August, 1513 that he began those lectures on the Psalms. Steeped in the great traditions of the church through the centuries he drew out the meaning in four ways, summed up in a little Latin verse he would quote

("The letter lets you know what happened, and allegory what you
must believe; the moral sense what you must do, and the mystical what you may hope for."

In the inner turmoil he often found himself in he sought refuge in the Tower Room – among the Psalms one great Psalm that spoke powerfully to him was Psalm 46.

Psalm 46

God is our refuge and strength,
   a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
   though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
   though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
   the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
   God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
   he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
   the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Come, behold the works of the Lord;
   see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
   he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
   he burns the shields with fire.

‘Be still, and know that I am God!
   I am exalted among the nations,
   I am exalted in the earth.’
The Lord of hosts is with us;
   the God of Jacob is our refuge.

18 months later in April 1515 he turned to the New Testament and to Paul’s letter to the Romans. It wasn’t long before he reached a passage that was to be for Martin Luther a turning point. The God he had got to know was a wrathful God who made great demands on those who followed him. But in the words of Paul he began to discover a quite different dimension to this God.

The passage that was to become such a seminal passage for him was in Romans 1:15-16

Once he had considered the righteousness of God to be something fearful. But now it began to dawn on him. The righteousness of God was something wonderful. Something warm. Something to draw us into the embrace of a God of love. It was not so much the righteousness of a wrathful God as the righteousness whereby God made us right with himself.

The Good News Bible captures in some ways what was slowly beginning to dawn on Martin Luther.

Romans 1:15f GNB

I have complete confidence in the gospel;
it is God's power to save all who believe,
first the Jews and also the Gentiles.

 For the gospel reveals
how God puts people right with himself:
it is through faith from beginning to end.

As the scripture says, “The person who is put right with God through faith shall live.”

By the beginning of March 1516 Luther had reached chapter 9 of Romans in his lectures when there was great excitement at the University. A dispatch rider arrived with a book that had just been published that was to revolutionise the study of the Bible and the translation of the Bible. It was the very first printed edition of the Greek New Testament prepared by Erasmus: Luther immediately began to make good use of it in his lectures.

Those lectures were never published by Luther but a number of his students kept the notes he dictated between the lines and in those large margins. It wasn’t until 1908 that they were re-discovered and published.

Something is happening in Luther’s heart as he reads Romans – all too conscious of his own inadequacies, his own failures, his own sinfulness it is in this letter of Paul that he discovers the mercy of God, the grace of God and the liberating realization that it is faith that releases that love of God in to the heart.

Let’s say together as a statement of that faith we share in reading together

Romans 5:1-5

Now that we have been put right with God through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2He has brought us by faith into this experience of God's grace, in which we now live. And so we boast of the hope we have of sharing God's glory! 3We also boast of our troubles, because we know that trouble produces endurance, 4endurance brings God's approval, and his approval creates hope. 5This hope does not disappoint us, for God has poured out his love into our hearts by means of the Holy Spirit, who is God's gift to us.

For me the worship song, Only by grace captures that insight that meant the world to Luther and means the world to us.

Only by grace

            Only by grace can we enter, 
            Only by grace can we stand; 
            Not by our human endeavour, 
            But by the blood of the Lamb. 
            Into Your presence You call us, 
            You call us to come. 
            Into Your presence You draw us, 
            And now by Your grace we come, 
            Now by Your grace we come.
            Lord, if You mark our transgressions, 
            Who would stand? 
            Thanks to Your grace we are cleansed 
            By the blood of the Lamb.
Gerrit Gustafson (born 1948) 
© 1990 Integrity Music/Adm. by Kingswaysongs, a division of David C Cook Used by  Permission. CCL Licence No. 3540

He was deeply troubled when he heard that a monk who was effectively a travelling salesman was selling bits of paper, beautifully printed that promised people they could get to heaven more quickly when they died – the more you paid the quicker you got there. Martin Luther was incensed at the way Tetzel was fleecing people – even more so when he learned that the proceeds of the sales were being sent back to Rome to pay for the escalating costs of one of those building projects he had seen for himself less than ten years before – the re-building of what has become the magnificent St Peter’s. To think that was being paid for out of the hard earned cash of people in Wittenberg who lived in poverty!

It was too much. And so it was Martin Luther drew up a detailed riposte to the whole idea of selling indulgences to get a short cut to heaven. He had printed 95 propositions, theses, explaining how wrong they were and, tradition has it, nailed them to the door of the castle church near the University.

It was the 31st October 1517.

Events unfolded after that very rapidly.

The young monk turned university lecturer was summoned to Augsburg where he was interrogated by an Italian Cardinal whose job at that time it was to troubleshoot problems for the Roman church. For three days they met. Prove to me from Scripture that I am wrong, said Luther and he would recant. Cajetan couldn’t. Luther faced the condemnation of Rome – sensing it was dangerous to stay in Augsburg he fled back to Wittenberg where he faced formal condemnation by Rome in what was known as a papal bull.

By now he was lecturing on Galatians and he was drawn to the freedom Paul spoke of

Galatians 5:1

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.

For we were called to freedom as brothers and sisters; we must not use our freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’

But it was a freedom that involved serving Christ and serving others.

The freedom of a Christian was one of three treatises Luther wrote explaining his views.

By now he was in outright opposition to Rome – Luther was summoned to Worms in 1521 for a council drawn together with representatives from all over the Roman Empire under its effective Emperor, Charles V. Luther again was challenged to recant. Here I stand – I can no other was his response as he stood his ground..

With the powers that be ranged against him, Luther found support in Saxony from the elector Frederick who had always been supportive of the university in Wittenberg and he gave Luther refuge in a castle in the Wartburg. He made the most of three months exile and set to translating the New Testament into modern German putting to good use Erasmus’s printed Greek New Testament together with his notes on the text and his modern Latin translation … It was published in September 1522.

In the preface to his Greek New Testament Erasmus described his vision – that people all over Europe would use the Greek text to translate the New Testament into the ordinary language of the people

Christ wishes his mysteries published as openly as possible. I would that even the lowliest women read the Gospels and the Pauline epistles. And I would that they were translated into all languages so that they could be read and understood not only by Scots and Irish but also by Turks and Saracens

…. Would that as a result, the farmer sing some portion of them at the plough, the weaver hum some parts of them to the movement of his shuttle, the traveller lighten the weariness of the journey with stories of this kind! Let all conversations of every Christian be drawn from this source.

People came to visit Luther and caught the vision – one of them was a young scholar who had been born here in Gloucestershire, William Tyndale. By 1524 Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament into English had been published.

It’s in reading the Bible in your own language that you hear the Word of God – and when reading the Bible, Luther suggested, you must always look for Christ – for Christ is at the heart of the Bible. Think of the Old Testament as the manger in which Christ was laid.

Luther had by now returned to Wittenberg which was to be his home for the next 25 years before he died.  There he broke with many of the traditions of the church and began shaping things very differently. The one time monk married Katherine Von Bora. He liked nothing better than to invite students and friends to his house where he was full of wit and fun. He loved singing, was an accomplished lute player and wrote hymns that explained his faith to the tunes popular in the taverns. His first collection of hymns was published in 1524 and soon after his most famous hymn based on that favourite Psalm of his, Psalm 46, Ein festeburg – a Safe Stronghold, our God is still. This was a troubling and troubled time – the hymn is full of lurid imagery – no matter what may befall yet Christ is with us and God is our safe stronghold still.

1          A safe stronghold our God is still,
            a trusty shield and weapon;
            he'll keep us clear from all the ill
            that hath us now o'ertaken.
            The ancient prince of hell
            hath risen with purpose fell;
            strong mail of craft and power
            he weareth in this hour;
            on earth is not his fellow.

2          With force of arms we nothing can,
            full soon were we down-ridden;
            but for us fights the proper Man
            whom God himself hath bidden.
            Ask ye, Who is this same?
            Christ Jesus is his name,
            the Lord Sabaoth's Son;'
            he, and no other one,
            shall conquer in the battle.

3          And were this world all devils o'er,
            and watching to devour us,
            we lay it not to heart so sore;
            not they can overpower us.
            And let the prince of ill
            look grim as e'er he will,
            he harms us not a whit;
            for why? his doom is writ;
            a word shall quickly slay him.

4          God's word, for all their craft and force,
            one moment will not linger,
            but, spite of hell, shall have its course;
            'tis written by his finger.
            And though they take our life,
            goods, honour, children, wife,
            yet is their profit small;
            these things shall vanish all:
            the City of God remaineth.

Martin Luther (1483-1546) tr Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881)
Psalm 46

Using the printing press his ideas were published and spread quickly in books and pamphlets.

It was a turbulent time – passions ran high. National feelings began to emerge. The Roman Empire was losing its hold across the peoples of Europe – nation states began to assert their independence from Rome, not least here in these islands.

Change was in the air … and somehow change was here to stay. Much about Luther is an inspiration – much is an abomination. The violence he unleashed, not least in the suppression of the peasants’ revolt and religious wars that tore Europe apart, his anti-semitism that played its awful part in a history that culminated in the holocaust.

What was it more than anything else that happened that makes me want to celebrate this 500th anniversary of the Reformation?

For me it is the opening of a closed book and the fulfilment of Erasmus’s vision that

The vision was Erasmus who published that Greek New Testament. That the ploughboy should be able to read the bible in his own language.

It was in those lectures on Psalms that Luther found great consolation and a God who was with him in the dark times – the God who is a safe stronghold still.

It was in Romans that Luther found the liberating power of God’s grace.

It was in Galatians that he found the wonder of freedom in Chrsit … a freedom that involves serving Christ and serving others.

It was in translating the Bible into German that he did for the German people what Tyndale, inspired by Luther, did for us in English.

It is as the Bible has at its focus Jesus Christ that it becomes for us the Word of God to shape our lives.

And that’s why change is here to stay. One watchword of the Reformation is that things are always in need of reform. You don’t reach a point at which all is perfect.

It is the responsibility of each of us to read that Word of God with Christ at its centre and then to do our bit in changing things to be in accordance with that word.

One final thought … the Bible is that common ground we share as Christians with each other and it is the common ground on which we can come more closely together.

The story of the Reformation is often told as the story of deep division and fracture for a once united church. I want to tell that story as a story of renewal that captures the rich diversity of a church truly rooted in the Scripture, centred on Christ that by the power of the Spirit knows God to be a safe stronghold in a troubled world.

The printing press had been only just been invented. The ideas of the reformation were spread in strongly worded pamphlets illustrated with what can only be described as blood curdling political cartoons.

We rarely get the opportunity to go behind the polemic – but just occasionally there’s an indication of much more listening and much more true dialogue going on.

The very first Cardinal to interrogate Luther at Augsburg was Cardinal Cajetan. In the first third of his life Tomasso de Vio had studied and written commentaries on Thomas Aquinas – Cajetan’s commentaries can still be found in the libraries of Monasteries to this day.

The second third of his life as a Cardinal he was a trouble-shooter for the Pope – he happened to be in Saxony at the time Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg and so he it was who was given the task of interrogating Luther. “Prove to me from the Bible that I am wrong,” Luther challenged, “and I will be convinced.”

Interestingly, within a couple of years Cajetan had written a small pocket book on the Psalms which he called a Little Breakfast in the Psalms. Then he turned to the study of the Scriptures and in the last third of his life he wrote a commentary on the New Testament and the Old Testament up to the book of Isaiah. It took seriously the Bible and approached it in much the same way as the reformers did as well.

From 1517 until 1542 there was a lot more dialogue than people sometimes imagine. Then the Pope and the powers that be in the church in Rome clamped down on things with the Council of Trent. That led to a close control over doctrine and the reading of the Bible. Indeed it wasn’t until the 2nd Vatican Council in the 1960’s that biblical scholarship was given a free hand and worship was conducted in the vernacular.

Where churches have come together in a closer spirit of co-operation it is where the Scriptures are recognized as that common ground on which we can take a stand together.

We finish with Graham Adams’ new hymn – which won the Congregational Federation’s hymn writing competition for this anniversary year.

Reforming Christ – God’s living, loving Word –      
the Scriptures cradle and attest to you;
speak to us now, shed tears and light again:
for you are making us and all things new!

Reforming Christ! Nail questions to our doors
to make us think again, to seek your ways;
for we neglect debate at truth’s expense –
so shake us out of each complacent haze.

Reforming Christ! Your faith enthrals my soul         
and forms the righteousness your word enfleshed.
Call me to work for justice in all realms,
till church and kingdoms make your will their guest.

Reforming Christ! Expose what we indulge –          
the things that seem to count, which miss the mark;
so help us see where faith is funding wealth,
and shake us to address the gap so stark.

Reforming Christ! Always reform your church!
Transform us till our minds conform to you –
Christ of the nails and faith that’s for the poor –
for you are making us and all things new!

Graham Adams (2017)
Suggested tune: Woodlands

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