The ELCE’s Pastors’ Study Week has come and gone. So have the guests who joined us from Australia, Denmark, France, Ghana, Guatemala, Hong Kong and the United States – all of whom were so impressed that they said that they wanted to come again. (Or maybe they were just being polite?!) I am pleased I came back for it. The morning sessions were for pastors and focused on Luther and the Church and Ministry (which is quite ‘almost controversial’ these days with a variety of opinions around – largely because Luther wasn’t a systematician but wrote in response to situations – so it is difficult to ‘nail him’ at times on topics). The afternoon sessions were symposia for anyone and everyone on various topics such as comparing and contrasting the works of Dante and Luther, considering what is ‘Gift’ in Christian theology and Luther, and looking at faith and doubt and God and evil and more! These presentations were given by academics from around the UK. And yes, it was all fascinating and some of it too esoteric for me but all of it challenging.
For some of the morning sessions the pastors had to prepare a summary of some of Luther’s writings. I was assigned Part 2 of Luther’s book ‘On the Councils and the Church’ which he wrote in 1539. I had read it be-fore – about 35 years ago – and maybe at another time (I can’t remember). The reason I can remember 35 years ago or so is that I wrote an essay on it! (The tutor graded me rather kindly I thought! It was painful reading in places. Ugh, did I really say it that poorly?!) But when I was reading Luther again now, apart from the fact that I knew that I had read it in the past, I could-n’t recall much of the detail (except Luther’s ‘marks of the Church’). Why mention all this?
Because it occurred to me that this wouldn’t be a bad book to explore – like a book review or book reading club – reading Luther is certainly interesting … frustrating in places … intriguing … honest … coarse in places … and there is a directness (bluntness?) that we mightn’t ex-pect. Of course the Lutheran Church doesn’t worship Luther or venerate him uncritically but reading him over his lifetime you do get the impression – maybe I’m reading this into him but I don’t think so – of a man in his time and place (16th century Saxony) who is reacting to, re-sponding to the world around him and discovering again and again what the Gospel actually means. To be declared innocent by God knowing full well we’re not because of Jesus gives us an incredible freedom. And the question becomes ‘What do I do with that freedom?’ What do I do in this or that moment when aware that we are a walking ‘civil war’ of ‘sinner George and forgiven George’ (in my case) and who is going to prevail? And what do we do when the Gos-pel challenges us in the ‘Church organisation’ and in the ‘world organisation’? Luther was a person of his time and place. We shouldn’t transplant him into our time and place. But we can learn from him especially as he points to the one person who is found in all times and places – this carpenter from Nazareth, crucified in Jerusalem, whose grave is empty (says his followers … a claim the world disputes) and reveals God to us as one who serves!
Meeting this God through studies, symposia, worship, other people, or reading the Bible changes everything! GS