One of the first lectures I attended at university was in History. The course was an overview – from the Reformation to the modern day (then the 1970s). I recall the lecturer beginning with Luther and describing him as ‘the right man in the right place at the right time’. The thesis was simple. Had Luther been born a decade or so before when he was born, he would have been executed; dec-ades after and he would be another voice in the revolution and not as significant. Had he been a lecturer at another university rather than Wittenberg then his life would have been infinitely more precarious and he would have been killed or his influence lessened. I don’t recall what the lecturer actually said about the ‘right man’ but I have an itch in my memory that the lecturer mentioned something about a storm and the Erfurt Augustinian com-munity shaping Luther and if not for them …
I recall my surprise that the lecturer didn’t say something about ‘Luther was God’s instrument to bring the Gospel back to the fore’ – the sort of things I had heard in church as I was growing up. I grew up in Sydney – very few Lutherans there – so I was used to people not knowing the Lutheran Church or about Martin Luther – but here was one of my first encounters with a version of Luther that didn’t have ‘God in it’. Fascinating.
In Wittenberg you can visit the Lutherhaus – the former Augustinian monastery and part of the Wittenberg University as well as being the home of Luther for a large portion of his life. It is now a museum – and worth a visit. I haven’t visited for a few years so I presume that much of the top floor still presents ‘Luther through the centuries’ – how Luther has been ‘claimed’ by others. I pre-sume there is still screening a compilation of the films about Luther all showing the ‘Here I stand’ scene. You’ve got to smile at all the versions – from fat to skinny Luthers, from shouting/spitting to quiet Luthers, from irenic to tortured Luthers. I suspect that we find the Luther we want to find (and he’s like us or what we aspire to). Then again I haven’t thought of him from a Roman Catholic point of view and that would be another range of views. All this will become more public as 2017 looms.
The Festival of the Reformation is really only observed by the Lutheran Church and we only started about 150 years after the event (so I believe). It is easy to see it as ‘ours’ – a milestone – a triumph. But since history is in the eyes of the beholder perhaps we should be cautious about be-ing too definitive about it. There will always be points of view about the past just as our denomina-tional divisions are part of the trajectory of it. Instead what we should be definitive about – nail it whenever we get the chance – is the message, the truth – that God comforts sinners, forgives them, and wants them to live in freedom to love and serve those around them. God doesn’t want terror and fear to consume us – though he may paradoxically use suffering and shame in our lives. God is active through words, water, bread and wine to bring life to people. Now this all didn’t just happen in 1517. God has always been faithful to his people. What a reformation does is challenge us and our organisational structures to go back, to keep in mind, and to live under … a cross. We’re always in danger of wanting glory. Only the cross is what God has given for us to know him and live with him. And if Luther, the Reformation history, or anything else takes us to the cross, then let them. — GS