Former Lutheran Pastor on the Reformation
Christ the King / Latin / 29 October 2017
If I were still a Lutheran pastor, I would be wearing red vestments and celebrating the Festival of the Reformation today. Some thoughtful folks in the Lutheran world have suggested that perhaps the red vestments are a bit over the top, suggesting as they do that Luther’s Reformation was equivalent to a second Pentecost. Be that is it may, this month does mark the 500th Anniversary of the posting of the 95 Theses, the event that kicked off the Reformation and led to the schism and multiple divisions of the Church in the West as we experience them to this day.
Recent research has suggested that the posting may not have involved the customary picture of Luther defiantly nailing the Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. He may have posted them in a much less dramatic manner, that is, by putting them in the campus mail and also mailing a copy to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz, who was responsible for the indulgence selling that Luther felt was leading his flock into spiritual presumption. People were assuming that their purchase of an indulgence had freed them from much in the way of faith and works – contrary to the proper theology of indulgences as a remission of penitential satisfactions rather than a suspension of Christian responsibility.
The Theses themselves were unexceptionable and entirely Catholic. Many other Catholic theologians at the time debated the misuse of indulgences, and these concerns went back as far as the Fourth Lateran Council three centuries earlier. [It is good to remember that it can take a long time to settle turbulent issues in the life of the Church.]
Thoughtful Protestants realize that this 500th Anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation is not something to be celebrated excessively. The last century or so has brought to both sides an awareness of the tragedy of Church division and of the sins and human errors that have brought us to this day. In addition, serious Protestants along with Catholics increasingly recognize that the forces unleashed by the Reformation led to many of the woes that have erupted in the modern world since then. This has led one scholar, Brad Gregory of Notre Dame, to entitle his very fine account of the period “The Unintended Reformation.”
The image of Martin Luther posting the theses defiantly has tragically – and inaccurately – coopted the Reformation in service of the modern, assertive imperial self. Luther is portrayed as the rebel, the heroic individual standing against tyranny – the granddaddy of the French Revolution and modern individualism and the collapse of the authority of throne and altar, liberating us to be just whatever we want to be. Luther, who famously asserted at the Diet of Worms before the Holy Roman Emperor that his conscience was captive to the Word of God, would be appalled that the Reformation has led to the modern notion that the conscience is captive only to itself. But Luther’s position held an additional irony that led to unintended results. For when it is the individual conscience that is held captive by the Word of God, the individual still gets the last word on what the Word of God is. From there to the contemporary idea that I can make up my own truth is, sadly, a short and inevitable route.
Luther’s actions thus materially contributed to a world he would not recognize and that he would deplore. Many other forces have gone into making our world, but the Protestant Reformation’s role was very important and the icon of Luther with the hammer at the door of the church undergirds much of the illusion that we inhabit a brave new world where you are most authentic when you defy authority and strike out audaciously on your own, singing with Sammy Davis, Jr. “I gotta be me.”
Jesus did not do that before Pilate, even though he really was a King. In the powerful words of the hymn in Philippians 2 he did not count equality with God as something to be seized and held on to. He humbled himself. The true humanity that he took in the womb of the Blessed Virgin was not just a matter of flesh and blood and DNA; his true humanity is revealed also in his obedience, his willingness to stand before Pilate and suffer, to make no defense, as he accepted the Father’s will.
Today’s Epistle also includes a hymn that predates the writing of St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians. It announces that Christ holds the primacy because he is the one who shed his blood for us. His Kingship comes from his faithful exercise of his power.
Christ is King and Lord of the universe because contrary to all the pretenses and pomps of human powers he did not elevate himself above the limitations of obedience and flesh and blood. Therefore, as the hymn in Philippians continues, God exalted him. In turn, only a King who would reign from a cross is worthy of our devotion, our sacrifice, and our obedience.
For Jesus, to be himself was to be obedient to his Father; likewise, we cannot authentically be ourselves unless we strive to align our wills and consciences with God, attuning our lives and actions so that we use the talents God has given us for him and for our neighbors. Such is the truth to which Jesus testifies before Pilate.
The greatest freedom is not the freedom of self-assertion or the freedom to get whatever your little heart desires. The greatest freedom is the freedom from sin, the freedom from the enslaving power of the ego, the freedom for God and all things good.
With Christ we come to learn that our glory is not in presuming to be king but rather in submitting ourselves to his rule as he submitted himself to his Father’s. We tell and believe a different story from that which dominates the world around us. We are subjects, and therefore we are free.
It is a daring profession we make: that the King of the universe, the one who will judge all peoples, is a crucified Jew, who lived and died in relative obscurity and who made his resurrection know to and through a handful of humble men and women. But that testimony about such a King as that has brought light, beauty and resurrection to the world, for he is, as the Epistle says, the first fruits of the dead. First fruits references the Passover celebration in the early spring, a feast that points ahead to the bounty to come. We are the subjects of the King who gave his life for his people, indeed for the whole world. He is the King who gives true freedom. For that, we adore him this day.