Sunday, October 25, 2015
We don't worship Luther. . .
The truth is that Lutherans do not worship Luther. Sometimes we are embarrassed by what he said or wrote. Most of the time we find in Luther a real person of faith, who loved the Church, and who was willing to risk all to restore Christ to the center of all things. Luther did not throw any books from the canon (although he did pull out the Apocrypha and bunch the books and pieces of books together between the testaments (pretty much like St. Jerome). He did complain about a few things in James (haven't we all) but he did not suggest it ought to be excised (though James has always had its critics).
Luther did complain about good works mixing in with the free gift of God in justification but he did not shrink from urging the people of God to do them as a fruit of God's life in them. Read Luther's sermons and you find in them a great deal of law, a great call to live holy, righteous, and upright lives. In fact, Luther preaches less Gospel in his surviving sermon corpus than most Lutherans are comfortable with -- try preaching one of Luther's Christmas sermons and see how many people complain you ruined Christmas for them! Nope, Luther wanted no talk of good works to tarnish the shine on what is Christ's work alone but he was pretty strident on the good works that flow from faith and prove that faith is genuine.
Luther did not reject statues or stained glass or ceremonies or ritual or elevation (within the Mass) or the Real Presence... and I could go on here. He was a conservative reformer who retained what the radical reformers refused to keep. He was a catholic man not particularly happy with the Roman stewardship of things. Luther was surely a man with faults, foibles, and failings. Many of them! But he was also a man who believed piously, lived sacrificially, and worshiped joyfully in Christ.
As we get on with Reformation this year, we Lutherans must admit that we are often less comfortable with Luther than some of our Roman cousins and that Luther has been blamed and credited for things he did not really say or do. But, all in all, I cannot even conceive what might have happened to the Church had not a voice arisen in the wilderness calling us to preach again Christ and Him crucified. Clearly the Church had come to a point where it could not muddle along as it had. Even Rome tacitly acknowledged this by calling the Council of Trent (not that this addressed every issue raised by Luther). Furthermore, there were certainly less churchly and less catholic voices for reform as we have seen within the Radical Reformation. Though Luther is blamed for them by those who believe if there had never been a Luther there would never have been a Karlstadt or Zwingli or Calvin, such is not certain or even likely. Finally, though Luther is the larger figure among the many reformers, the path to reform was complicated by the political structures and the strengths or weaknesses of the leaders within those structures.
Lutherans could do worse than to work through the churchly and catholic character of Luther and rediscover their own identity as we make our way to the 31st of October. I write this on the Sunday that most Lutherans will designate for the observance of the Reformation. For my part, we connect the catechumenate and our somewhat ambiguous Rite of Confirmation to this sturdy holy day as a way of reminding us of the penitential character of faith itself and that the renewal of the faith should not wait for a giant to come along once in a blue moon and we ought to be concerned for this every year as we honor the legacy and pass it on.