The evangelist Matthew reports that Jesus sends disciples into the world. Their job is to tell people about faith and he gives them some practical tips on how to behave. But he also makes it clear that they will run into trouble. So he encourages them not to be afraid but to profess faith in God. Let us listen to the passage set for this Reformation Day, which is so special.
Reading from the Gospel of Matthew, chap. 10, verses 26b to 33.
The passage contains three topics I would like to bring out.
First: Wrestling for truth.
Sometimes now we could despair at all the hype about “fake news”. Is what Donald Trump has tweeted true or is what a congressman says true? Is it true that the VW managers knew of the diesel scam long before the scandal, or were they as surprised as the deceived car-buyers? More and more frequently I hear people say: I don’t believe those at the top anymore! Or: the papers only write what they want.
It sounds very reassuring when Jesus states in these Bible verses: “nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known”! Yes, of course, by that he means faith. The disciples are to be encouraged to believe something that will be shown at the end of time: faith in Jesus is the right way to God. Jesus lets us recognize the truth about God. Jesus encourages those who want to follow him to stand by it, to profess this faith even if it brings problems in life.
The Reformer Martin Luther was concerned about such truth in faith questions, 500 years ago. As he read the Bible intensively for his lectures it became clearer and clearer: what his church had claimed was simply not true. The church cannot shorten the punishment for sins in purgatory if you pay it money. He found nothing like that in the Bible. Luther wanted to discuss this. And that is why he drafted the 95 Theses and nailed them on the door of the church building that stood here at the time. Or perhaps he only sent the theses in a letter, that may be. We have neither photos nor a Youtube video of the situation. But whether nailed, or posted up in some other way - or not at all – the theses created a sensation. How could an unknown professor from Wittenberg dare to doubt the teaching of the church?
Accordingly, truth became a question of power. Because, despite all resistance, Luther went further: What about celibacy? None of that is in the Bible either! Or: if Christ is present among us, why do we need a pope to represent him? Why should life in a monastery be a better life before God than in the midst of the world, in the family, as a craftsman? Where is all that written down? With such questions Luther kicked off a conflict that was to change the church, the whole of Europe, indeed, the world.
In all this, he wanted everyone to be able to participate in the dispute about the truth. That is why he translated the Bible into German and called for schools for all. Truth is never a possession that I have – instead, each and every one of us, also as a community has to struggle for the truth. Our Protestant church is therefore one in which decisions about right and wrong are not taken by a bishop, a pastor or a congregation of the faith. No, we discuss things all together. Protestant synods, for example, are made up of men and women, young and old, ordained and lay people. Each one has the same right to speak. And it may happen that someone stands up and says: I see things differently. That is good, that is important. Our congregations are not silent but can, may, and should participate.
That is not always so easy to put up with. Sometimes people write to me, that now someone should really say what’s what. There are so many opinions, now someone should just say Basta! But truth is clarified by my orienting my conscience anew to the Bible. That was Luther‘s principle. And so the Bible is at the centre of our faith. We bring it into a dialogue with our context every time and try to discern guidance for our lives.
Second: Faith fosters testimony
Over the last hundred years people in Germany have time and again confessed their Christian faith. I think, for example, of a man in the Christian resistance to the Hitler regime: Friedrich Weissler. He was the office manager of the Confessing Church. In 1936 he passed on a critical text, telling friends in the ecumenical movement about anti-Semitism, oppression of the church, and concentration camps. It was published in the New York Herald Tribune. That did not suit the Nazi regime since it wanted to impress the world with the Olympic Games in Berlin. Weissler was arrested, receiving little support from his church. His wife and children remained without protection or assistance. A little later it was different for Martin Niemöller, who experienced great solidarity. Was it because his family was of Jewish origin? Did that play a part in the Confessing Church? In 1937, 80 years ago, Wessler was taken to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp and beaten to death as a “Jew” in the most brutal way by the SS, who said they thought they were allowed to beat up a „Jew“. Weissler‘s father had converted to Christianity…
We can also think of many a fate in the period of the German Democratic Republic. Confirmation or Jugendweihe (youth initiation)? That could decide on whether someone was allowed to go to university, or get a job. A difficult question that split many families. In the West it was a lot easier to live with Christian faith.
Today there is religious freedom in a purely legal sense. But some people have trouble saying they are Christians because that seems almost embarrassing. People then say: Do you need that? We live in an age in which science can explain everything. A bit of spirituality, yes, God as such, okay, perhaps. But actual faith in Jesus Christ, perhaps even becoming a church member? Well I don’t know, that is a bit too narrow for me.
Over the past year I have often been asked: What would Martin Luther say about this? I often can’t reply! He had no idea about fracking, homosexual partnerships or embryo research. But he would be shocked to hear how little people speak of faith in our country. He would probably shout from this pulpit: “Open your mouth! Take a stand!” He would not understand that we are sometimes so silent, because for him the questions of life were always connected to faith. Luther finally changed the churches and the world, but his first and foremost concern was about faith. People were supposed to argue about that!
That is all the more true since we live in a country in which every person is free in matters of faith. Yes, I know that the creeping new anti-Semitism sometimes casts doubt on this freedom of faith. And yes, Islam has advanced to become a bone of contention in home affairs; Muslims are abused. And there is also disagreement on where Christians should stand politically on the refugee issue. But our law guarantees freedom to believe, to believe differently and not to believe. That is why we must also fight for this freedom. And if we believe in Jesus Christ, we must not hide it! Christians in Egypt risk their lives when they attend a church service. Hindus in India try to make conversion to another faith a punishable offence. In Saudi Arabia or Iran Christians are threatened with death for their faith.
In short: In our country a confession of Christian faith is not an act of heroism. We should feel all the more encouraged not to hide it, however much others disparage or even insult us for it. That also applies when, e.g. Herr Hampel, federal board member of the Alternative for Germany calls on people to leave the church along with his jeering party members. Basically, such a phenomenon makes it clear that Christians in Germany today have to know where they stand. We know that the people of God does not depend on origin or national identity. It exists as a community of brothers and sisters across national borders. “Free confession” is called for today.
That was just what we experienced here this summer, making the Reformation anniversary in Wittenberg such a festival. Christians from Tanzania and Brazil, Korea and the Philippines, from Mexico and the USA and from all over Europe celebrated with us. They were all enthusiastic about the hospitality of the people of Wittenberg – no one was excluded. The 2017 anniversary thereby set a completely different tone than the German-nationalist centennials of 1817 or 1917. And that is a very special, very clear signal in a time in which backward-looking nationalists want to set up new borders. It links up with the legacy of the Protestant churches in the GDR, who advocated for openness, freedom of opinion and nonviolence.
And third: the Reformation is ongoing, even five hundred years after Luther‘s 95 Theses.
This last year I have often been asked, where exactly the Reformation is continuing. What are the issues today?
One issue is certainly the passing on of faith. In eastern Germany Christians are in the minority but this has long been true in many parts of western Germany, too. In my view, we tried out good models here this summer. Just think of the evening prayers on the Market Square. At first there always only four of five people present, sometimes ten. At the end there were 250 to 300. One man said to me that he no longer wanted to end the day without the song “Everyone needs an angel”. Perhaps that is the way forward: small-scale public forms of spirituality.
Or I think of the meeting places. In the Denk-Bar, or over Maultaschen (a kind of ravioli) at the Württemberg centre. Im Gasthaus Ökumene people came to eat and drink together and talked about “God and the world” (everything under the sun) – that is low-threshold, and perhaps the best way of being missional in our time and society. Because, I learned, being missional means living in such a way that others ask why you live that way. Luther was familiar with such table parties as places of good conversation. In his time he probably conducted most of the table talk himself. But it matches his theology that everyone was able to take part.
In all these talks we also learned that, in a secular and increasingly multi-religious society, the point is to bear witness to your own truth, without denying that others have found their own truth. We can only prevent wars breaking out on religious issues if we say: I have found my truth in faith. Jesus is for me the way to God. But I respect the fact that other people recognize for themselves another truth about God or even live without God. We also learned that in this summer. There was a great readiness to show respect for one another. I think of the Friday when – in the mock-up House of One – we had Christian devotions in the morning, a Muslim Friday Prayer at noon and in the evening the first Shabbat Shalom celebrated in this city for 75 years. That was moving. And I thought, yes, we can live in peace together as people of faith. Wittenberg in Reformation Summer 2017 was an ecumenical, international festival of participation, of interested talking and respectful relations with one another. The people there will not forget it.
Disputing about truth, struggling for the right confession of faith – these issues are also on the agenda in our time, as has become very clear. That is not a burden, however. For churches of the Reformation it is part of being Christian. There are no ready-made, unquestionable answers by the church or other authorities – that is what Martin Luther taught us. Each and every one of us can read the Bible, reflect, participate - that is Reformational. And our congregations will renew themselves just like that, not by expecting new rules and forms from above but by trying out ways in which the Word of God can come alive in their local setting.
Martin Luther said: “Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace. And such confidence makes us happy, courageous and full of joy in God and all creatures.” That is a wonderful summary of a Christian’s attitude to life still today, in my view. If we reform our church and our life of faith today then that must be visible. So let us celebrate this Reformation Day and show this attitude. Then others will catch on: happy, courageous and full of joy in God!