Sermon in the Wittenberg Castle Church for the 500 Anniversary of The Reformation

Reverend Rafael Malpica-Padilla of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)

“Stubborn, Unwavering Commitment.”

Grace and peace from our Lord Jesus!  Amen.

Here we are. The 500 years commemoration of the Reformation.

This is indeed a very important day in the history of the Church and of our denomination. Today, as every other year we remember Martin Luther and his role in the reformation of the Christian church. The importance of this event has been the subject of hundreds of presentations, lectures, and activities around the globe. I don’t think Luther ever imagined the celebration of this day, much less that a Lutheran pastor from Puerto Rico, an island and its native inhabitants encountered by Christopher Columbus 25 years prior to the posting of the 95 Thesis, would be preaching at the commemoration service.

In preparing for this homily I asked myself, “What should I say about Luther?” A lot has been written about his persona and his significance for the renewal of the church. It was Lucas Cranach who provided a helpful insight. In 1547 Lucas Cranach the Elder finished the painting adorning the altar at the Wittenberg Parish Church. One of the panels shows Martin Luther preaching in the pulpit. One of his hands rests on the Bible; the other points to Christ on the cross as the embodiment of the word of God. Luther was possessed by the Word of God. He lived his life seduced by this word. It was in this word that he found solace and peace for his anguished soul. However, the question never left him. Constantly he asked himself, how can I stand before God?  It is only on account of Christ, and his righteousness imputed to us, that we stand before the eternal God, as Paul writes to the Romans: “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.” Here we find the Christ to which Luther points in his preaching. Christ, the word of God incarnate, Christ the one through whom God restores community with me and enables me to restore community with the other. For Luther and the Reformers this was the chief article of the faith. On it the church either stand or falls.

The radical claim posited by the doctrine of Justification led to many disputes and condemnations. However, in the last decades we have seen a lot of progress in our ecumenical dialogues, particularly with the Roman Catholic Church. The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1995) intends “to show that on the basis of their dialogue the subscribing Lutheran churches and the Roman Catholic Church are now able to articulate a common understanding of our justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ.” Together we affirm that justification is the work of the Triune God; that Christ himself is our righteousness and that “by grace alone, in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hears while equipping and calling us to do good works.” (JDDJ I.3.16)

Equipped and called to do good works!  Luther’s understanding of Justification is, thus, transformative. In Christ, we find both God’s favor (favor) and gift (donum). As Finnish theologian Tuomo Mannermaa states, “Justification has real effects; Christ the Redeemer does not operate only for us but also in us.” It is the indwelling of Christ, his presence in our life through faith, that opens for us a whole new world. Freed in Christ, we are no longer captive to our “congenital narcissism” (Torvend). We can look up and see the other, particularly the neighbor in need. Luther’s notion of justification as transformation does not contradict the centrality of sin in his theology. Luther understands sin as self-turned in upon self, the human proclivity to do everything for the promotion of self, out of concern for self, and using resources claimed as one’s own rather than as gifts of God. Luther argues that humans cannot free themselves from this condition. Only God can do so as an undeserved gift. God can grasp and turn the sinner (Moe-Lobeda). And it is the indwelling of Christ that enables us, gradually, and never perfectly, to love with the love of Christ that is in us. A love that is, as New Testament scholar Douglas Hare has described it, “stubborn, unwavering commitment.”  The relentless love of God that takes the center of your life frees it to make it to make it captive of the word.  The radical love of God that makes you a free Lord of All subject to none, and a dutiful servant of all, subject to all.

Love is the essence of God. The Cappadocian Fathers have gifted us with such a magnificent yet simple theological understanding of God. God is a community sustained by love in which each of the personas dwell on the others. Latin American theologian Leonardo Boff captures it splendidly in his book on the Trinity. “In the beginning -he writes- there was the community of the Three not the solitude of the One.” It is this extreme relationality which is the essence of God that God wills for all of creation. We are embraced and absorbed into this perichoretic dance-of-love, God through Christ present in faith, dwelling in us through the Spirit.

We live in a very troubled world. The solution to our problems are complex, but when we really look at them, it seems as they all have a common root: how do we perceive and engage the other? The love of God, received through grace by faith in Christ enables us to see the face of God in the other. This is Luther’s greatest gift to us, neighbor-love as the basis for our relationships. I am deeply convinced that if it were to be a third sacrament in our church it would have been the “mutual consolation and conversation” not only of and with the saints, but among all of God’s children.

Many Lutheran voices from around the globe are working on “transfiguring” (the procedure by which a figure from a given context has the potential for being a catalyst of experiences for other contexts) Luther using the neighbor in need as the lens for his reappropriation. This is the Luther that excites people in the Global South: the Luther that is relevant for our everyday life; the Luther that gives us hope when we face situations that push our humanity to its limits, the Luther who was at the center of the socio-economic revolution intrinsic to the Reformation. It is love, Luther’s neighbor-love, that enables the critical vision badly needed in our world today for “engaging, reconfiguring, forging and adopting ways of life that build equity among human beings and a sustainable relationship between the human species and our planetary home.” (Lobeda).

But what has happened to this Luther? Where do we hear his voice anew? In most cases, and here I am reflecting my North American context, Luther has been domesticated. His prophetic voice is no longer heard in our midst. He has become the subject of doctoral investigations in our theological experimentations. We need to free Luther from his Babylonian captivity.

In his writings Luther addressed a very troubled world. The older and mature Luther manifested a deep concern for the excluded and marginalized of his day. He pushed the community of followers of Jesus to find their Lord and Master in the suffering ones, en los “crucificados de Dios.” In relation to those who are poor, Martin Luther’s insights into the meaning of the commandments against killing, stealing, and coveting are sobering. We violate “you shall not kill” when we do not help and support others to meet their basic needs. As Luther explained, “If you see anyone suffer hunger and do not feed [them], you have let [them] starve.”2  “To steal” can include “taking advantage of our neighbor in any sort of dealing that results in loss to him [or her] . . . wherever business is transacted and money is exchanged for goods or labor.”3 “You shall not covet” means “God does not wish you to deprive your neighbor of anything that is [theirs], letting [them] suffer loss while you gratify your greed (see ELCA Social Statement on Economic Life). And he does not stop there. In his treatise on the Sacrament of the Altar he makes the “happy exchange” not only a binary experience, that is between God and the individual, but a multidimensional one:

“Here your heart must go out in life and learn that this is a sacrament of love. As love and support are given you, you in turn must render love and support to Christ in his needy ones.
For the sacrament has no blessing and significance unless love grows daily and so changes a person that he is made one with all others.
Thus, by means of this sacrament all self-seeking love is rooted out and gives place to that which seeks the common good of all

The time is ripe to acknowledge that translating Luther to new contexts “involves a process of transfiguration by which the old, relevant as it is in its reappearance, also passes away.” (Westhele). The 1960 saw the emergence of these “new heretics” in the new contexts for Lutheranism: Mr. Emmanuel Abraham and Rev. Gudina Tumsa from the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus, Bishop Manas Buthelezi from South Africa, Bishop Josiah Kibira, from Tanzania (the first president from the global South of the LWF), Bishop Helmut Frenz in Chile and Bishop Medardo E. Gomez Soto in El Salvador. They began to re-appropriate Luther from their contexts and to see his significance as a tool to dismantle systems of oppression and marginalization to give a chance to an alternative reality for life in the community of Jesus.

These “new heretics” began a process that we must continue. The new voices, particularly the voices from the margins, of the subaltern, are critical in assisting us to “examine this process of reconfiguration of the reformation in different contexts…”  (Westhelle)  Brazilian theologian Vitor Westelle points to an important question looming over us, “How does an institutionalized reality become an event again? or to put it bluntly, can and should “orthodoxy” finds its ‘heretical roots’ again?”

In Jesus name. Amen