It was 500 years ago on October 31, 1517 that Martin Luther tacked 95 Theses on the door to the castle in Wittenberg. He didn’t know it at the time but this action was like lighting a match to a tender box that would start the Protestant Reformation and literally, change the world. The 95 Theses was, basically, a document outlining two central beliefs, that the Bible is the religious authority and that humans may reach salvation by faith alone, not by their deeds.
I’ve been traveling throughout Germany and England the past two weeks with a group from St. Luke’s. We visited significant, historical sites relating to the Protestant Reformation and have followed in the footsteps of Martin Luther and John Wesley. Standing in the very places that Martin Luther once stood, I cannot help but feel close to him and I’ve been thinking about how it must have felt to make the decisions he made, and there are just three things I want to share with you.
First, Martin Luther struggled with a fundamental question that so many of us still struggle with today: Am I worthy to be loved by God? Martin Luther grew up in Germany around the turn of the century in the 1500s and his parents were typical Germans of that day. They were very strict, stern, conservative and very frugal. They loved their son but they believed in the old saying, Spare the rod, spoil the child. So they made sure not to spoil Martin. They did not spare the rod. They beat him all the time. He was always in trouble and being thrashed. Once when he was a small child, his mother was making a pie and he reached up on the table to get a nut off the table and she accused him of stealing and thrashed him for stealing. When you went to school, if you made mistakes on your work you weren’t just corrected. First, you were beaten and then you were corrected.
Growing up, Martin Luther came to believe that authority was for the purpose of watching over you and seeing when you did wrong. This trickled over to how he felt about God. He was raised in a religious family but considered God’s purpose was to watch you wherever you went and whatever you did. If you stepped out of line, God would get you. Martin never felt good enough. His father loved him and worked hard to provide him with the opportunity to go to college and become a lawyer. One day on a break from school, he got caught in a thunderstorm. Martin ran and hit under a tree. Sure enough, lightning struck the very tree he was hiding under for protection. He could hear it and felt it sizzle and in his mind, he just knew that God was trying to hit him with that lightning bolt. He fell to his knees and said, If you don’t kill me I promise I’ll become a monk instead of a lawyer. He didn’t die. He dropped out of law school, came home, and told his dad, I’m going to the monastery. His father was not happy; he wanted a lawyer, not a monk. When he arrived at the monastery, he continued to struggle with feeling unworthy. He felt as if he was failing all the time and decided to focus on the most menial tasks in the monastery. He was always singing hymns, reading prayers and chanting, but he still never felt good enough to be loved by God. He went to confession to get penance even when he didn’t really have anything to confess. The priest said, Listening to Martin do confession was like being stoned with popcorn.
Second, he could not shake the feeling that he was a bad person and believed that the flesh was also bad, so he would flog himself and try to hurt the flesh. At night in his stone cell where he would sleep, he would strip down naked and lie on the stone-cold floor to punish the flesh. Later he would say, I kept trying to catch the Holy Spirit but all I really caught was pneumonia. He drove the rest of the monks crazy and so they finally said, You know Martin, what would help you find the Holy Spirit is a pilgrimage, you need to go somewhere! And so they sent him on a pilgrimage to Rome and he went to Rome and crawled on his hands and knees to all the holy shrines and bloodied his knees and hands as he went to worship at these holy sites. I’ve been thinking about this visual as we’ve visited the very sites where he crawled on his hands and knees.
And third, he finally came back home, when one night he was reading through Paul’s Letter to the Romans in the first chapter, he read And the righteous shall be justified by faith. He suddenly began to realize that it is by faith alone, in God’s grace alone that we are saved, that it’s nothing you can “do”, it’s not about how “good” you are. That night Martin Luther said, I felt like I was born again. It was a whole new feeling. I was set free to discover that God loved me not because of anything I’ve done and not because of anything I didn’t do. God has chosen to love me.
We all have to discover that we don’t earn God’s love. God’s love is offered as a free gift because you are his child. It is by faith alone or trusting in God’s love for you that changes your world. It’s a struggle we all have. We all wonder, “Am I good enough to be loved?” Am I worthy enough to be loved? God’s promise to us is that by trusting in God’s love for you, that you are set free. It’s not because of what you do, it’s not because of what you’ve earned, it’s because you’re simply a child of God. I know that sounds impossible but with God, all things are possible.