On October 31, 1517, a young Augustinian monk and university professor named Martin Luther tacked to the community bulletin board 95 propositions he wanted to debate with his colleagues. This simple act, done without fanfare and without press releases, became, in the hands of the “spin doctors,” an event which changed the world, religious and secular, perhaps more drastically than any other single event of the past thousand years.
But we should not understand that event simply on the grand scale of history. Rather, I suggest the beginning of the Reformation might best seen from a more intimate perspective, as a personal event, a spiritual event–the climax, in fact, of a deep inner struggle in the life of one Christian, Martin Luther–a struggle that resonated with people of all walks of life, religious or not–people who had struggles of their own, struggles that would not tolerate pat answers or easy solutions.
The story usually begins by telling about a religious charlatan named John Tetzel, Dominican friar, who earned his place in history by hawking indulgences–certificates signed by Bishop Albrecht of Mainz that would (crudely put) release the purchaser or his relatives from time in purgatory. “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs,” sang Tetzel, as he raked in the riches.
Luther reacted to this because he knew from personal experience that there was more to the Christian life than simply putting a coin in a box and getting an instantaneous result. For many years Luther had been tormented with fears and anxieties, seeking some way to please God–a God he saw as inscrutable, capricious, a God before whom one could only shake and “do one’s damnedest.” He struggled to find a gracious God–a God who could be trusted, a God who could be relied upon, a God who couldn’t be bought with a trinket.
Luther found what he needed in two primary places–Paul’s letter to the Romans, and the Psalms. In the Psalms Luther saw men of faith wrestling with God in bold confidence–cursing him, crying out to him, crying for vengeance on their enemies, but also thanking him, praising him, and rejoicing in him. He saw them unsure of where God was, but trusting him to be true to his word. He saw Paul, fighting with Judaizers who insisted that Christians must observe stipulations of the Torah such as circumcision–as if God was impressed with externals–He saw Paul lift up against this the love and mercy of God, who gave himself, who promised his care, who called for us to trust him.
Luther’s struggle was unique–but it was real. Here was a man caught between God and the Devil, as the title of a biography of Luther puts it. Here was a man who pushed on through the darkness and temptations of life in faith–faith in the God who had called him.
We may not have visions of the devil at which we throw inkpots, but we all wrestle with basic questions of faith–how do you believe in a God who gives so little evidence? How do you believe in a God who says he’s all powerful and all good, but who lets terrible things happen in this world of his? How do you find the strength to go on, through the temptations of life, when you are alone, and dare not disclose the secrets of your heart to even your closest friends?
Each of us wrestles in our own way, in our own time, under unique circumstances. Each of us is called to be faithful to the leading of Christ, wherever and whenever he might take us.
And this may leave us alone among our friends, stumped in our attempts to explain our call.
An image that has come to my mind in this is one from C. S. Lewis’ book, The Last Battle, the conclusion to his series, “The Chronicles of Narnia.” Like Lucy and Edmund and Peter and their friends, we may find ourselves being called “further up and further in,” into a world that is still recognizable as the same world I am leaving, but somehow larger and more beautiful and more real. Lewis also tells of some dwarfs pulled into that world against their will. But they couldn’t see it. What Lucy and Edmund and Peter saw to be delicious fruits and fragrant flowers the dwarfs thought were merely the droppings of the animals in the dark, musty stable they believed themselves to be in. Some do not, cannot see what we see at such times. We can’t change that, and should not try to argue with them. We can only follow to the end the path we have set out on, asking for their prayers and for continued friendship.