Martin Luther arrived home to Wittenberg from his Wartburg stay on Thursday, March 6, 1522. With all the controversies he’d contend with that had arisen in his absence, at least one had been resolved. His friend Nicholas von Amsdorf, who had accompanied the reformer to the Diet of Worms and was present when he was “abducted” and taken to their prince’s fortress above Eisenach, had been appointed to serve as preacher at the Wittenberg city church. Even so, Luther was entering a hot zone.
Although there were signs that some thought the only way forward would be outright rebellion, the situation in Wittenberg was bad enough. Luther’s colleague Andreas Karlstadt and others had raised a furor over changes in the mass. Karlstadt led worship without donning vestments. German replaced Latin as the language of the mass. There was agitation for the removal of statues and other images. People had read enough of Luther’s output to imagine necessary changes in the “we’ve always done it this way” mode of ecclesiastical activity. Their urgency demanded change be done now. But if rebellion was going to happen, Luther sought to prevent it from happening in his town on his watch.
On Saturday, March 8, Luther pulled together the Wittenberg circle of Philip Melanchthon, Justus Jonas, Nicholas von Amsdorf, and Hieronymus Schurf for a strategy session. He stepped into the pulpit to preach the next morning. March 9 was Invocavit Sunday, the first Sunday in Lent when the appointed introit for worship was Psalm 91. In the psalm the Lord speaks: “He will call on me [invocavit in Latin], and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him. With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.” From that Sunday morning to the next, Luther preached a series of eight unusually brief sermons that effectively quelled the unrest. What’s more, his sermons [LW 51:70ff] offer a primer on how to approach change in the church and on what stands at the core of our mission together and informs any change we might imagine.
Luther began his first sermon by reminding his hearers of the responsibility they had for knowing the central tenets of the faith. Years later Luther argued that the primary tool lay people needed in their hands was a well-calibrated theological crap detector. Without it, they would be clueless in the face of bad doctrine and weak preaching. “Everyone must … know and be armed with the chef things which concern a Christian. And these are what you, my beloved, have heard from me many days ago.” Luther goes on to list the essentials:
- First, “[w]e are all the children of wrath, and all our works, intentions, and thoughts are nothing at all.” In other words, to paraphrase Duke Ellington, we got it bad and that ain’t good.
- Second, God gives Christ so that “we may believe in him and that whoever trusts in him shall be free from sin and a child of God.” (Luther said there were just a few people in the congregation who knew this. There might have even been ten among them who could be counted on to trust Jesus!)
- Third, faith moves us to bear love in the world. “Dear friends, the kingdom of God,—and we are that kingdom—does not consist in talk or words, but in activity, in deeds, in works and exercises.” Luther desired a real living faith rather than a counterfeit one.
- Fourth, such love for others compels us to turn away from the rights the sinner in us demands and toward a patient concern with others. In other words, a life of faith and love will often feel like a burden and require a willingness to suffer.
The suffering Luther had in mind involves staving off demands for immediate satisfaction in the matter of reforms. He quoted Paul in 1 Cor. 6:12, that all things are lawful for me, but not all things are beneficial. Here he gave us one of his greatest images that rivals the picture of us as asses ridden by God and the Devil (in Bondage of the Will). When it comes to change, we are like babes learning to eat. “What does a mother do to her child? First, she gives it milk, then gruel, then eggs and soft food, whereas if she turned about and gave it solid food, the child would never thrive.”
What the agitators had done in Wittenberg was force food that would be a delight for an adult alimentary canal down the throats of theological naifs. In the process those new to Luther’s explosive reclamation of the gospel would choke, and their faith would die. He said, “Dear brother, if you have suckled long enough, do not at once cut off the breast, but let your brother be suckled as you were suckled.” He told the Wittenbergers straight out: “I would not have gone so far as you have done, if I had been here. The cause is good, but there has been too much haste. For there are still brothers and sisters on the other side who belong to us and must still be won.”
The upshot of the first Invocavit sermon is that people had made a “must” out of what was free. What the agitators had done was create a situation in which people on their deathbed would not be certain of what Christ had done, because the iconoclasts had attempted to add something to his work. Thus, Luther urged his hearers to “feed others also with the milk which we received, until they, too, become strong in faith.” In the next seven sermons Luther dealt with each issue in turn.
- On Monday addressed changes in the mass and opposed any coercion.
- On Tuesday he again reminded people that when it came to the “musts,” “no one should be dragged to them or away from them by the hair. He pointed to the question of images as something to beat no one with a club over, because Moses’ serpent on the staff was precedent for the acceptability of images.
- On Wednesday, Luther said the 16th century equivalent of giving up something for Lent was not a “must” but a “freedom.” What’s important is that our optional practices don’t become a judgment on those who don’t fall in line with them.
- On Thursday, he told the hearers that having both bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper doesn’t make them any better. In fact, he said, there were some ostensibly good Christians in Wittenberg who communed in both kinds and then go home “to their brandy and swill themselves full.”
- On Friday, Luther argued that piety and practices don’t make a person worthy to receive Christ’s body and blood. It’s not for solid spiritual superheroes but is instead food for “hungering and longing” people. Christ “delights to enter a hungry soul, which is constantly battling with its sins and eager to be rid of them.”
- On Saturday, Luther said the fruit of the sacrament is not more piety and holy abstention from the world but a loving engagement with it. The clamor in Wittenberg had been evidence of the word having been “revealed and preached in vain.”
In his final sermon on Sunday, March 16, Luther’s topic was confession. Here he circled back to Invocavit Sunday where he said we start our understanding of the faith with the knowledge of sin. Confession is not another ecclesiastical bludgeon but is instead a gift. There we can tell the truth about ourselves, knowing that Christ has only mercy for us in response. The arc of the eight sermons depicts the Christian life as a constant circling back to what grounds us: awareness of sin, proclamation of Christ’s mercy, love of neighbor, and willingness to suffer.
The pattern comes up again and again in Luther’s last 25 years or so. It appears in the Small Catechism’s explanation of the Lord’s Prayer. It shows up in his list of the marks of the church in “On the Councils and the Church.” It’s there in his preaching and letters of spiritual counsel. It behooves us, then to ground our actions — and especially our demands for pious changes in practice and in the behavior of other forgiven sinners — in what’s central. Not to do so always means turning freedom into a “must,” and Christ’s benefits become lost in the legal quagmire that results. In Wittenberg, Luther trusted that Christ had set them free, and he urged them not to submit again to a yoke of slavery (Gal. 5:1).