Sunday, February 19, 2012

We are beggars, this is true!

Sermon preached for the Commemoration of Philip Melancthon and Martin Luther, preached at the Circuit Pastoral Conference (Winkel) at the weekly parish Eucharist at Grace on Thursday, February 16, 2012.

Today, oddly enough, we remember with but a commemoration Philip Melancthon.  Saturday we turn to Luther.  So this is a big week for Lutherans, given the two major heros of the Reformation – or is it revolution?  Born on November 10, 1483, Martin Luther died in the same city where he was born, February 18, 1546.  Since few of us will observe the day, I have taken the liberty to move the feast to this day.  It is far too important not to celebrate. 

Though we always observe Reformation Day, that day is not so much about Luther but the movement that was certainly sparked by Luther but has endured nearly 500 years.  Today we shall remember Luther, jumping the gun to recall the 466th anniversary of that fateful day when Luther breathed no more and bequeathed to another generation the cause for which he has given his all.

It has been said that after Jesus, Luther had the biggest impact upon the world – a presumptuous claim that Luther himself would certainly deny but one not far off from the truth of his great impact and legacy.  He was certainly a renaissance man – a scholar, liguist, theologian, exegete, preacher, teacher, musician, and shaper of history.  Who woulda thunk it?  The little babe held in his mother’s arms and baptized on St. Martin of Tours Day, from which he got his name... The beginning of his story could have hardly foreshadowed the grand ending!  It just goes to show you the potential of any lump of clay into which the Lord breathes His life!

As great as he was, Luther was just a man.  In the 1941 hymnal is a great hymn title: All Men Living Are But Mortal.  Luther was just that.  He was a mortal man.  He was no god-like hero but a flawed man like you and me.  He was a sinner.  We say that not in judgment against him but to echo his own confession.

Luther's eloquence was not in the well crafted phrase of the learned but in the earthy wisdom of a common man.  He said once that if you felt the devil near, you could chase him away with a fart.  You gotta love a man like that.  He took God ever so seriously but not himself.  Only days away from his death, Luther quipped "When I get home to Wittenberg, I will lie down in my coffin and give the worms a fat doctor to feast on."  The only thing about himself that Luther took seriously was his sinfulness.

He had gone to Eisleben to mediate a dispute within the church.  He was not feeling well but he went.  When they found him dead, they also found a scrap of paper on which this great man had scribbled just before he died, "We all beggars this is true..."  His last thoughts were the same as the thoughts that began the Luther story.  We are sinners.  Period.

We spend much of our lives trying to hide or cover up our sins.  Nothing can put the fear of God into a Lutheran like the prospect of private confession in which you admit to specific sins in front of your Pastor.  But to understand Luther you have to understand his confession.  We are beggars this is true...

He was not saying this as some perfunctory word you say put away all the unpleasantness and get to happier things of God.  It is the only way to get to the Gospel – to forge through this confession.  We are not only sinners when we make confession of what we have done or left undone in thoughts, words, and deed.  We are sinners until the final breath of this body be taken.  We are sinners when we hear the voice of mercy read and preached to us.  We are sinners when we are marked with baptismal gift and promise.  We are sinners when we are given a place at His table.  We are sinners when He gives us the privilege of receiving our song of praise and our grateful offering of time, talent, and treasure.  Jesus comes only for sinners.  When we stop seeing ourselves as sinners, Jesus is gone to us.

In the words that touched off the flame of reformation, Luther began by saying "when ou r Lord Jesus Christ said ‘repent' He willed that the whole life of the believer should be one of repentance."  Right up to the last breath of this mortal body.  We are beggars this is true...

We have forgotten Luther's wisdom and witness in this.  We have made repentance into some sort of preliminary thing you get out of the way before getting to the real stuff of abundant life and blessing.  There are no bigger or better things than repentance.  Repentance is the shape of Christian life.  It is the mark of the Spirit's entry and it is the living legacy of great and small Christian people.  With that small scrap of paper and his dying scribble, Luther ends his life where it all began: with repentance.

For us as well.  Our lives begin with the gracious call of God to repent, with the promise of grace that empowers this repentance.  Our lives end in the same place.  With the repentance worked by the Spirit in us and the grace that bids us come, for Jesus has come for sinners.  I don't know if there will ever be another Luther.  But there will always be the call to repentance and the promise that Jesus has come for sinners and beggars... like Martin Luther.... like you and me.  Amen!


Anonymous said...

"’We all beggars this is true...’ His last thoughts were the same as the thoughts that began the Luther story. We are sinners. Period.”

Why does the word “beggar” evoke the image of “sinner”? Probably because that is the idea we want to proclaim, but actually the two have very little in common. A beggar has nothing; nothing can be expected from him; he has nothing to fall back on. To Luther this was the joyful realization that we cannot give anything to God in return for his saving grace. If it were not so, then we could never be certain of our salvation, because there would always be the gnawing doubt that maybe we have not given something we should have. But nobody expects anything from a beggar.

A sinner, on the other hand, can be found in all economic strata. Many can be relied on to give to worthy causes, and many have enough to feel secure about their future.

Luther wrote the 95 Theses in 1517. At that time he did not fully understand the Gospel as he did after the “Tower Experience” of 1519. For this reason most of his earlier works, such as the 95 Theses, contain theological errors. Actually, some of his later ones do too. The idea that “the whole life should be one of repentance” was part of the Roman Catholic doctrine by which man earned grace.

No doubt Luther saw many beggars and refugees on his last journey. My guess is that in his last moments it was part of a joyful realization that in this regard all of us are equal before the Lord.

Luther referred to his “Tower Experience” as his conversion. But much later he would make it clear that Repentance and conversion take place in Baptism. Whatever “repentance” takes place after that is not the same as the μετάνοια of conversion. The noun, μετάνοια, is used 24 times in the New Testament, every time referring to the one time Repentance that brings a sinner into the Kingdom of God. We should not confuse it with the daily repentance a Christian may or may not practice. Our Lord put it in perspective, when He taught us to pray, “and forgive us our trespasses.”

Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart

Anonymous said...

Beggar before the grace of God? Sinners who need and who benefit from the largess of God's mercy to the undeserved and unworthy?

Janis Williams said...

Fr. Peters,

Thank you for posting your sermon. I missed it because of a meeting. I greatly missed communion afterward.

C'mon, anonymi! This isn't about social justice, it's about spiritual condition! Beggar isn't about financial situation, not even for Luther. Try to sort language and variances in word meaning/definitions. Consider the source, and be charitable.