Brother Martin

On October 31, 1517, the story goes, an Augustinian monk by the name of Martin Luther posted ninety-five theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther was on the university faculty, the church was the university chapel, and its door was commonly used as a bulletin board. Posting the theses was a public invitation to debate, but this wasn’t merely an academic exercise. Luther challenged the power of the papacy, and he probably had no idea what a massive earthquake he triggered that day.

He chose October 31 to post his theses because it was the day before All Saints Day, and the meaning and role of saints was at the heart of Luther’s argument with the church leaders. The church taught that certain believers were saints, and the argument went that the saints were so good, so perfect in belief and obedience, that they accumulated more righteousness than they needed to enter the gates of heaven. So there was excess righteousness sitting around in heavenly storage, as it were, and somebody in Rome came up with the clever idea to make that surplus available to common sinners. The Vatican issued documents called indulgences, the purchase of which allowed sinners to build up their heavenly account of righteousness, reducing the time they would have to spend in purgatory and expediting their journey to the glorious assembly of the righteous. As an added bonus, people could purchase indulgences not only for themselves but for family members and friends who had already died.

Men and women carried heavy burdens of fear in those days, and the church, or rather those called to lead the church, knew how to turn forgiveness into a lucrative business. In the early sixteenth century, Rome sent out a sales force all across Europe to peddle indulgences—and the campaign was very successful: St. Peter’s basilica in Rome was completed with revenue from the sale of salvation.

Luther wanted to debate that practice. He understood Holy Scripture to teach that salvation is God’s gracious gift to humanity in Jesus Christ, a gift we do not deserve and cannot earn, let alone purchase, but only need to gratefully embrace in faith. To us today it may sound obvious, but at the time it was a revolutionary idea: The Christian faith is not about accumulating righteousness points in one’s heavenly savings account, but about living in gratitude to God for the gift of God’s grace.

The abuses of the corrupt hierarchy meant that talk of saints and the whole concept of sainthood became suspicious and eventually disappeared almost completely from Protestant life. But only almost, because many of the New Testament writings not only mentioned the saints, but were literally addressed to them. The apostle Paul wrote his letters to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi; to all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints; to the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, including all the saints throughout Achaia; etc. And the apostle wasn’t writing to the few, the proud, the shining stars among God’s people, awaiting their introduction into the Discipleship Hall of Fame, no, he was writing to all who had found new life through faith in Jesus Christ.[1]

The writer of Hebrews reminds us that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses,[2] that we are not alone in this adventure called church. Those who have gone before us, surround us; and to me it’s a beautiful thing to imagine them watching us and cheering us on as we continue the journey toward the kingdom. Saints, Frederick Buechner wrote are not “plaster statues, men and women of such paralyzing virtue that they never thought a nasty thought or did an evil thing their whole life long. Saints,” Buechner says, “are essentially life givers. To be with them is to become more alive.”[3] They are the men and women who told us the good news of God’s love for the world; who reminded us of our freedom in Christ as sons and daughters of God; who modeled for us what faithful living might mean; who inspired and encouraged us. Some of them may still be around, others have joined the church in heaven. Some of them you may have known in person, others you may have heard or read about. They are your saints, the people through whom God shaped you and made you who you are and continues to shape who you will be. Most likely they are not faith celebrities but ordinary people whose lives showed extraordinary courage and integrity in response to God’s grace, particularly in trying times. They moved forward in hope, trusting the promise and presence of God.

I know I wouldn’t be standing here talking about keeping the faith through these tumultuous days without the example of my grandfather or the courage of Bonhoeffer or the women and men who told me the stories of Jesus when I was a kid. And you know who those people are in your own life: your parents, perhaps, or your grandparents whose love continues to be a palpable presence for you, or a sister, a brother, a teacher who saw in you what, at the time, you could not see in yourself. People of life-giving generosity, kindness, and faithfulness—and they may not even have known it, they simply lived it.

Barbara Brown Taylor wrote, with a firework of adjectives, “What makes a saint is extravagance—excessive love, flagrant mercy, radical affection, exorbitant charity, immoderate faith, intemperate hope, inordinate love.”[4] What makes a saint is extravagance of faith responding to God’s extravagance of grace. And extravagance of faith has nothing to do with ostentatious piety.

Jesus said, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” Oh, we know what he’s talking about, we know that’s not limited to scribes and Pharisees. The preachers preach forgiveness, and struggle with living it. The teachers teach being kind to others, and yell at the driver in front of them. Parents get to the end of their rope and tell their kids, “Do as I say, not as I do.” We know that’s something we all have to work on, not just scribes and Pharisees.

But there’s another layer to this. Jesus said, “They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.” The phylacteries Jesus referred to are small leather boxes with passages of scripture in them. To this day, many Jewish men strap them around the arm and on the forehead during morning prayer. The practice goes back to a passage in the book of Deuteronomy:

Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.[5]

The boxes and straps remind those who wear them of the sacred obligation to keep God’s commandments: the one on the arm, a reminder to let all their actions be determined by God’s commandments; and the one on the forehead, a reminder to let God’s commandments guide their outlook and thinking. Jesus accused his opponents of making their phylacteries broad, of wearing them not as reminders to follow God’s commandments, but as objects displayed to impress others with their wearers’ piety, as status symbols of religious conviction and achievement.

Extravagance of faith has nothing to do with ostentatious piety, and everything with keeping the words of God in our heart; words that have the power to awaken faith in us and love. I’m grateful to Luther and many other leaders of the Reformation for redirecting the church’s attention to the word of God and the centrality of faith, but I don’t think celebrating tribal identities with a Reformation Sunday is a good idea. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Bucer and all the others are part of the great cloud of witnesses, watching us and cheering us on as we journey toward the kingdom, and we honor them together with the others.

One Protestant pastor argued that we should change how we celebrate Reformation Sunday rather than bury it. He wrote,

True, we’ve set our liturgical calendar to commemorate the date on which Brother Martin posted his 95 theses for public consideration. However, one could (and I believe should) point out that there have been moments like this throughout the church’s history, all of which are worthy of being called reformation moments, moments where the church has been re-oriented toward the gospel, moved away from the many, many roads down which our distracted, narcissistic minds can take us.[6]

Reformation moments, I like that. Moments where the church has been re-oriented toward the gospel, I like that a lot. But why set aside one Sunday for that? We need every single Sunday the good Lord gives us, not to celebrate past reformation moments, but rather to ask God to re-orient us toward the gospel today, because there are indeed many, many roads down which our distracted, narcissistic, confused, and anxious minds can take us.

Luther himself was horrified when he heard people referring to themselves as “Lutherans.”

I ask that my name be left silent and people not call themselves Lutheran, but rather Christians. Who is Luther? … St. Paul in 1 Cor. 3:4-5 would not suffer that the Christians should call themselves of Paul or of Peter, but Christian. How should I, a poor stinking bag of worms, become so that the children of Christ are named with my unholy name? It should not be dear friends. … I have not been and will not be a master. Along with the church I have the one … teaching of Christ who alone is our master. Matt. 23:8.[7]

When I heard the news of the deadly truck attack in New York city, my heart broke and it broke again when I read about the victims of the attack, particularly the group of guys from Argentina who had planned this big reunion trip for thirty years to celebrate their friendship.

My heart broke for them and for us, for all the violence, the hatred, the fear, the stupidity, the callousness, the recklessness and hopelessness that flood in on us relentlessly from every side, threatening to undo us.

At some point I remembered a line from a medieval chant, In the midst of life we are surrounded by death. The line just kept playing in my head; and then I remembered Brother Martin who stared down hell and all devils and declared the gospel truth, “In the midst of death we are surrounded by life.”[8]

May God grant us grace to believe it and live it: In the midst of death we are surrounded by life.


[1] Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:2; 2 Cor 1:1; Phil 1:1

[2] Hebr 12:1

[3] Wishful Thinking, 102.

[4] Weavings, September – October 1988, p. 34

[5] Dtn 6:6-9


[7] Admonition Against Insurrection, 1522

[8] See Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006), 330.

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