It happens every school year.
I teach freshmen in high school, and for many, it’s their first time opening a Bible. Before we begin reading the Gospel of John, we underline sections of Martin Luther’s Prefaces to the New Testament. I especially want them to understand this message: “The gospel, then, is nothing but the preaching about Christ, Son of God and of David, true God and man, who by his death and resurrection has overcome for us the sin, death, and hell of all men who believe in him.” Luther’s words deliver the essential gospel message of who he is and what he has done.
As they begin exploring their study Bibles, these new Bible scholars need guidance in identifying what is the actual text of Scripture, and what are editorial articles and study notes. It was Martin Luther who wrote this article about the Gospels. Next, an important distinction must be made, as many of my students hear “Martin Luther” but think “Martin Luther King Jr.” It’s a perfect misunderstanding that allows me to tell them the story of how Martin Luther King Jr. got his name. I give the students a moment to Google the answer, what is Martin Luther King Jr’s birth name? The search result always surprises my student: originally, his name was Michael King Jr.
Young Michael was just five years old when his father, Reverend Michael King Sr., traveled on a multinational trip with the Baptist World Alliance. The Fifth World Congress of Baptists gathered people from all around the world to Berlin, Germany. It was one year after Adolf Hitler became chancellor. While touring Germany, Rev. Michael King Sr. became inspired by Martin Luther’s work. Upon his return to Georgia, he changed his own name and the name of his son. Martin Luther King Jr. was 28 when it became official, changing his first name on his birth certificate from Michael to Martin Luther.
In 1964, Martin Luther King Jr. preached in East Berlin, 30 years after his father’s 1934 visit. He introduced himself to the “Dear Christian friends of East Berlin.” He encouraged the Germans saying, “I come to you not altogether as a stranger, for the name that I happen to have is a name so familiar to you, so familiar to Germany, and so familiar to the world, and I am happy that my parents decided to name me after the great Reformer.” He went on to preach on the importance of reconciliation, saying:
Throughout the New Testament, there runs the theme of reconciliation. Corinthians speaks of a ministry reconciliation which has been given to us in Christ. Ephesians tells us of a plan of God to “unite all things in him, things of heaven, and things on earth.” The Gospels speak directly and in parables about the responsibility which we have for one another regardless of the differences of race and nation. And so it is not difficult for us to go a step further and assume that wherever reconciliation is taking place, wherever men are “breaking down the dividing walls of hostility” which separate them from their brothers, there Christ continues to perform his ministry of reconciliation and to fulfill his promise that “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
Freedom and reconciliation were significant themes for both of the Martin Luthers. Both preachers understood that freedom from sin and the reconciliation that comes from Christ Jesus is where we must put our hope. Christ frees us from our selves, from our old identity in sin and self, and in doing so, we are reconciled to him and to one another. As Martin Luther wrote in his 1520 Freedom of the Christian:
We are altogether ignorant of our own name and do not know why we are Christians or bear the name of Christians. Surely we are named after Christ, not because he is absent from us, but because he dwells in us, that is because we believe in him and are Christs one to another and do to our neighbors as Christ does to us (AE 31, p. 368).
We are free because our brother Jesus paid the price for our sin by shedding his blood on the cross. In Christ, we are free to love and serve our neighbors. We are free to be servants of God. We are free because we are joined with him in our baptism.
Remember how Martin Luther King Jr. got his name. It was given to him by his father. Just as he received his name, we receive a new name at our baptism as well. The name of Jesus. In Matthew 3:17, at the baptism of Jesus, we hear the voice of the Father saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” At your baptism, on the account of Christ Jesus, God the Father speaks these same words to you. You are the beloved child of God.