500th Anniversary: Luther’s Invocavit Sermons (Part 1)

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Luther had a living Word from God intended to land squarely among sinners.

For the more than eight months that Martin Luther had been in hiding at the Wartburg castle after the Diet of Worms, his post as preacher at the city church in Wittenberg stood vacant. Preaching continued, but there was no permanent replacement. Certainly no one of Luther’s stature and sway occupied the pulpit. Luther had unsuccessfully lobbied the town council to appoint his married non-ordained colleague Philip Melanchthon to the post. Although priests had already begun to marry and in spite of his being theologically qualified, it was not offered to Melanchthon.

Controversies began to crop up in Wittenberg in Luther’s absence. Melanchthon didn’t have the official position to deal with them; in addition, he had theological acumen but little of Luther’s charisma. Others, like Luther’s fellow professor Andreas Karlstadt and fellow monk Gabriel Zwilling, stepped into fill the vacuum. They began to change church practices in the Saxon village. Where before the wine was withheld from those receiving the Lord’s Supper, some in Wittenberg agitated for communion in both kinds — offering both bread and wine.

In addition, Karlstadt himself began to lead worship without clerical regalia, regarding his academic robes as perfectly suitable, and rejecting Latin as the language of worship and instead presiding at the mass in German. Further, the most radical of the void-fillers began a streak of iconoclasm, tearing down statues and removing images from churches. University students left the city, both because of the unrest and because one of their primary sources of income — begging — had been outlawed. All in all, Wittenberg had become a pipe bomb ready to blow.

Luther’s plan as late as January 1522 was to remain at the Wartburg until Easter. And his hope for his return to Wittenberg was to find a hidey-hole he could secrete himself in and concentrate on writing, all the while avoiding the politics he’d found himself embroiled in. Luther wrote Georg Spalatin, the prince’s counselor and his principal contact in Wittenberg during his Wartburg tenure, arguing that the situation needed to be dealt with so that the legalism and faithless stridency with which changes had been undertaken could be eliminated.

The Wittenberg church leaders, with Melanchthon’s backing, begged Luther to come home, play ecclesiastic janitor, and clean up the mess. In February Luther informed his prince Frederic that he was about to add a new item to his already massive collection of grace-stoking relics: the elector was to be given “a whole cross, together with nails, spears, and scourges.” The new cross would be Luther’s reappearance in Wittenberg, which would flout the ban placed on him by the Holy Roman Emperor following the diet in Worms the previous summer. The elector sent word to the Wartburg that Luther’s public return would cause further political turmoil, though he didn’t forbid it outright.

At the end of February two students on their way to Wittenberg encountered a bearded, armed knight reading a book in an inn in Jena. They asked the Junker if he knew anything about Luther coming to Wittenberg, and he said he expected the reformer would show up soon. After a conversation that included advice for their studies and their future calling in the church, the tablemates went their separate ways, with the knight paying the tab and the students carrying his greetings to folks back in in Wittenberg. It was only later that they discovered they’d spent the evening with their hero Luther in disguise.

On his route home, Luther responded to Frederic with a clear acknowledgment that his return to Wittenberg came under his own advisement. The consequences of his public appearance were his own responsibility. He asked the prince to allow the political end of things to run their course without his intervention. In fact, if the powers-that-be were to take the reformer’s life, Luther declared that the elector was absolved of any responsibility. Luther followed his letter with another aimed at political officials that said he was returning to assist his congregation without the elector’s approval. What’s more, he added that his aim was to play Ezekiel and be a bulwark against the actions of those who’d misunderstood his preaching and teaching and who sought to rebel against the structures of the empire.

Jerome Schurf, another of the prince’s counselors who had met with Luther, provided the elector with a précis of the situation. In his Luther biography, Martin Brecht paraphrases Schurf’s letter: “The high-handed preaching of Karlstadt and Zwilling had made many students and townspeople believe that true Christianity consisted of persecuting priests, eating meat on fast days, destroying images of saints, and not going to confession. Receiving the Lord’s Supper, which was intended to comfort troubled consciences, had become a demonstration of protest, and that was even worse than the previous abuses. With this, Wittenberg had become an offense for Christians throughout all Germany.” [Martin Luther: Shaping and Defining the Reformation 1521-1532, 45.]

The hike from the Wartburg to Wittenberg today would take over two days of walking with no bathroom breaks. We don’t know what Luther thought every step of the way. He didn’t write down his plans for us. But we know he was about to re-enter the fray in a big way. He must have used his solitary time on the road to consider what tools he had in his box that could possibly contend with the situation on the home front. In other words, he had to answer big questions: How does God actually work in the world? Are there ways besides power and coercion for bringing about change? Why did I even take a stand before the emperor in Worms? What are we even up to? Does it matter at all?

By the time Luther walked down Kollegienstrasse to the city church in Wittenberg on March 9, 1522, he had more than answers to big questions. He had a living Word from God intended to land squarely among sinners. He was ready to step into the pulpit and, over the course of eight sermons in eight days, be the mouthpiece for God and the exemplar of what the evangelical movement began five years earlier would look like post-Worms. His Invocavit sermons are some of his best work. And they did the trick. The bomb’s fuse was removed and a clear vision for the Christian life was back in place.