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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Luther was born with a hypersensitive spirituality woven into his DNA.  He had a shepherd’s heart and a litigator’s mind.  His father considered ministry a folly.  Luther’s dad, a hardened businessman, pressed his young son hard to go after a prestigious career in law.  The idea that his son might pursue the priesthood filled him with angst.  The two debated vigorously and long; sharpening young Martin’s razor edged mind, deepening his conviction.

In a horrifying thunderstorm, Martin’s raw fear of the flashes of lightening bolts and pelting rain and rolling thunder transformed from terror into an irresistible sense of call.  He believed God had something much greater for him than a predictable, mundane life in an isolated courtroom.  Over his father’s vociferous objections, Martin Luther enrolled in the seminary.

Maybe those verbal battles at home deepened his resolve.  A new world opened up as the 1400s CE turned to 1500s CE.  The printing press made literature and texts available on a whole new scale.  Libraries filled up with ideas and history and the clash of worldviews.  Luther devoured the books.  He became a monk, living much of the day in isolation with his thoughts.  He battled the forces of evil in his own heart.  He felt unworthy.  His mastery of language and appetite for learning earned him a place in graduate school.  He earned a doctorate of divinity.

And along the way, he traveled to Rome on foot.  A pilgrimage.  He believed it would be the pinnacle of his monastic experience.  He followed orders.  He purchased an indulgence.  He climbed the steps on his knees.  He begged for God’s mercy.  But all he saw was sleazy corruption.  All around.  It was the deepest disappointment of his life.

He learned about the Pope’s concubines and illegitimate children and unlimited power.  He heard the pitch of the priests in the streets, eager young clerics peddling salvation.  He recognized it as a race to meet Leo X’s quotas to rush toward the completion of the staggering, outrageous dome crowned St. Peter’s Basilica.  With his own eyes, he saw the harried construction.  He calculated the outrageous cost.  He recognized it more as a conspicuous display of unbridled power and opulent wealth; not a sanctuary for ordinary folks to find grace.  Ordinary folks, on the contrary, were targets of illicit, shameful fundraising practices: promises of heaven and an escape from hell all for a few coins.  If you cared to negotiate, you could shorten the stay in purgatory for yourself and those loved ones who are already pining there eager for an escape.  All of this guaranteed and in writing; a take-home indulgence signed, sealed and delivered.  Young Martin, almost a lawyer, now an ordained priest, was appalled.

So when he went home, he sketched out some bullet points.  He did not set out to be a revolutionary, or even a reformer.  He believed in the office of the papacy, and he wanted to protect its reputation and true purpose; to restore its dignity.  He began writing.  Almost without taking a break, Martin Luther poured out ninety-five salient theological points.

Tradition has it that Luther walked into the town square and over to the heavy arched door of the All Saints Cathedral in Wittenberg where he pounded in a nail to post his 95 Theses.  Our guide felt the need to offer a qualifier.  Historians are not certain that the story (offered by Luther’s friend and confidant, Philip Melanchthon) is accurate, even though it was a common thing for students to post their ideas in public on that same door.  No matter.  No one disputes Luther’s authorship.  The list of grievances, targeting the sale of indulgences, made its way to the local printing press where thousands of copies were distributed all over Germany and beyond.

The Dominican Friar, Johann Tetzel, was a particularly odious offender and salesman.  Luther exposed him.  By this time, people all over Germany were looking for an excuse to free themselves from the oppressive grip of the Roman Church.  Luther’s incisive critique provided just that impetus.  Not even Luther could have anticipated the response.  The resentment of the populous was unleashed.  The Peasant War commenced.  It got ugly.  People died.  Property destroyed.

The Pope, after an interrogation of the young preacher in Worms, excommunicated Luther and ordered that all the works of the now deemed outlaw be destroyed.  There were book-burnings all over Europe.  Luther was whisked away into hiding at the imposing Castle at Wartburg.  There, while waiting for the violence to subside, he translated the New Testament from Greek into common, conversational German.  Soon, Germans were reading the Bible for themselves.  Rome would never recover.

It would be difficult to overstate the impact of this Reformation on the Western world.  Luther’s contribution profoundly, radically changed politics, theology, ministry and society in ways that linger into our new millennium.

But the famed reformer had his shortcomings.  I first learned about Luther’s blatant anti-Semitism while touring the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC some years ago.  The guide there seemed intent on shattering our protestant image of the great reformer by pointing to his tirades against the Germany’s Jewish population that emerged in print in his later years.  I was in denial, until I did some of my own research.  Sadly, the guide in DC was right.  He did not overstate the case.  In fact, hundreds of years later, long after Luther was buried, Adolph Hitler would justify his indefensible Arian policies by quoting Luther’s works, attempting to Christianize his “final solution.”  It is a sad addendum to an otherwise worthy career.

But as a young priest, with his words Luther broke the Roman chains that bound up nations and enslaved the masses to a corrupt version of religion.  He shifted the lines of authority from a depraved church, to the words of Scripture (sola scriptura) and defined salvation in biblical rather than ecclesiastical terms – salvation by faith alone (sola fide).

As I sat for a while in the same room at the Wartburg Castle where Luther wrote, I contemplated the power of the written word: Ninety-Five bullet points that changed the world.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2010

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