A mighty fortress: A reflection on Protestant Reformation

“A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.” These are the opening lines of the most sung English translation of the hymn, written by Martin Luther, called “A Mighty Fortress.” It is a hymn so vividly entrenched in my childhood that the mere mention of the word Reformation brings forth strains from my soul. It was my father’s favorite hymn and one that we sang at his funeral in April 2001.

Each autumn, as my friends were getting excited about upcoming Halloween activities, I was always aware that Oct. 31 was also the anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, when Martin Luther nailed the 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, sparking controversy and reform. It must have been one of my father’s favorite stories of church history because he preached on the event each year on the Sunday closest to Oct. 31. It was important for him to remind congregations that the church is not always free from corruption and that sometimes God calls us to do things that might seem impossible.

And, of course, my father talked about Martin Luther and the Reformation around our dinner table. My brothers and I knew the story well. We knew what the Reformation meant to United Methodists. And we knew the hymn, “A Mighty Fortress,” by heart.

This year, 2017, is the 500th anniversary of this momentous event of the church history and indeed, world history. This one act of Martin Luther, early in the morning on Oct. 31, 1517, changed the world in so many ways. Luther did not set out on that morning walk to the Wittenberg church to begin a new denomination. He wanted to talk about practices in the church — talk that would lead to reform. He got both.

Last year this time, when I realized that we would be heading into the 500th anniversary year of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, I knew that I wanted to visit Germany and some of the sites that were important to Luther and to the reform that began in that year.

While I had studied in-depth about Luther and the Reformation in church history classes during my seminary days, and while I continued in my own ministry my father’s tradition of observing Reformation Sunday each year, I still did not know much about Luther or what motivated him to make such a daring move 500 years ago.

In fact, I had a bit of a love/hate relationship with Luther. So many of his writings were profound in understanding of grace and faith, but some of his writings had left me profoundly sad — especially some of his writings on the Jews. Still, I knew that he had such a consequential effect on the church and in turn on my life that I knew that I had to be in Germany some time during the 500th anniversary year.

Martin Luther was born on Nov. 10, 1483, to parents Hans and Margarethe Luther, who had worked their way into some means. His father was a miner and then acquired and ran several small, yet profitable, copper mines. As he was growing up, Luther was well cared for, educated and encouraged to consider a career in law. However, he was born into a world that was full of fear.

Just 100 years or so before his birth, the Black Plague, one of the deadliest pandemics in human history, had swept through the world, killing as many as 75 million people worldwide by some estimates. Even though the pandemic had occurred 100 years prior to the birth of Luther, the plague, in some form, occurred every generation or so, making it something to be feared. It would be possible for a person to wake up one morning feeling well and healthy, get sick and die by evening. The Black Plague was known, in German, as das Grosse Sterben — the great dying. This was a frightening world to live in.

Because of the fear of death all around, the certainty of life eternal was a longed-for reality. Many questioned what the point of a wretched life might be. What could make this life worth all the pain and fear? How could certainty of life eternal be known in this life, when life was tenuous and uncertain?

As Luther was growing up, the church extended certainty to people with the sale of indulgences. After confession and acts of absolution (paying money), a piece of paper was provided indicating that the church granted remission of eternal punishment. In a world where sudden death was more certain than much else for the common people, this piece of paper was a powerful certainty for life eternal. It was something for which to give the very last little bit of money.

The church was powerful and not to be questioned. The scriptures were only available in the language of the church, Latin, or the original languages of Hebrew and Greek, and only the clergy and most highly educated people would have been able to read and understand them. Church services were held in Latin, and so even attending church did not offer the people any more understanding than they already had. Why would the people question the church anyway? The church represented God, so these practices must be true and certain.

As a young man, while studying law at the university in Erfurt, Martin Luther had his own encounter with near death and the fear of death that many people around him experienced daily. While traveling back to the university after visiting his parents, Luther was caught in a thunderstorm as a bolt of lightning hit the ground just in front of his path. Falling to his knees, he called upon St. Anne to save him and promised that if he were saved he would become a monk. He was saved, and upon returning to Erfurt, he sold his law books and entered the Augustinian monastery.

During his time in the monastery, Luther worked hard at living a holy life. He spent much time fasting, praying, studying and confessing. Later in his life, Luther described this period as one of spiritual despair. He was trying to perfect his holy life in order to receive certainty of life eternal, but the opposite occurred, and Luther realized that he really had no love for God, because he had lost touch with Christ and had made Christ the “hangman” of his soul. The harder he worked at living a holy life, the more he felt the weight of guilt and unworthiness.

Luther was ordained in 1507, and in 1511, he was sent to Rome on church business. Along the way, he stayed in monasteries and was surprised at the luxurious life that many of the monks lived. When he arrived in Rome, he found much the same kind of lifestyle and he saw much of the selling of indulgences. I believe that during this time, much of Luther’s study, praying, observing and maybe even fear, came together to set his soul searching for the presence and comfort of God in this life, for the certainty of life eternal.

In 1512, Luther received his doctorate and began teaching at the University of Wittenberg. Soon after, Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar, was sent by Rome to Germany to sell indulgences. The money gained from the sale of indulgences was to help pay for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica. Of course this act concerned Luther. Many of those who could least afford to part with any money were buying indulgences because they believed that the indulgences could guarantee life eternal for themselves and for their loved ones.

Near the same time Luther, studying the scriptures as he prepared for university lectures, discovered something that changed his life. In the first chapter of Romans, verse 17, he read these words: “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.'”

And there it was, the answer to the questions that had troubled Luther. It was not the church that could grant salvation. It was not the pope or the clergy or a Dominican friar who could grant salvation. It was not buying indulgences that could grant salvation. Salvation came from God, and it was received by and through and because of faith. Nothing can be done to earn it. Nothing can be bought to receive it. Salvation came from God.

Luther began to think about this idea and to teach about this idea. And on Oct. 31, 1517, his thoughts and teachings were put into powerful words that have become known as the 95 theses. These words may or may not have been nailed to the door of the church at Wittenberg, but the words were delivered to his bishop, Albrecht von Brandenburg, expressing his objection to the selling of indulgences. This act set into motion what has become known as the Protestant Reformation.

And so, with this background in my mind — this history of a complex man who wanted assurance of forgiveness of sins and of life eternal — I stood on a cobblestone street in Wittenberg, Germany, on a beautiful July day and looked straight ahead. I hesitated as I walked down the street toward what I knew to be the place, the church, where it all started. I am not sure what I expected, but I knew that I didn’t want the moment to pass too quickly.

I stopped in the street, just for a moment to take a picture, and there I saw it — the tower of the church with a band encircling it, and on that band were the words “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott.” Immediately, the melody rose in my soul and I wanted to sing at the top of my lungs — but I didn’t. Instead I started humming in thanksgiving and recognition of an event, 500 years ago, that has made it easier for my faith to grow and for me to claim it.

Later on, in quiet and stillness, I read Psalm 46, the passage that formed the basis for that great hymn. It was years later that Martin Luther wrote that hymn — after the event that ushered in the Reformation, after the trials and ordeals, after depression and assurance. Later, Luther would indicate that it was out of one of the darkest periods of his life that the words of that hymn were penned and that it was meant to be a hymn of comfort.

Indeed the psalmist writes:

“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.” (Psalm 46:1-3, NIV)

These words are words of comfort, of hope, of faith. I can imagine that, enduring all the struggle of his life, Luther took great comfort in what the psalmist knew as well as he did — that God is always with us. God is with us in depths of pain and despair. God is with us in heights of joy and glory. God is with us in the ordinary and the mundane. God is with us even when we don’t really want God to be aware of what we are doing or thinking or questioning or believing. Even in those times the love God has for each of us is powerful, astonishing, merciful and unconditional. And God never lets us go.

In those moments of struggle, of despair, when relief felt slow in coming, I am certain that Luther could claim the words of the 10th verse as well: “Be still and know that I am God.”

I think that what we know as the 4th stanza of Luther’s hymn is my favorite:

“That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;

“the Spirit and the gifts are ours, thru him who with us sideth.

“Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill;

“God’s truth abideth still; his kingdom is forever.”

At first glance, these words might seem morbid, and yet, as we seek to grow in our faith and discover how God is leading us in our lives, these words are powerful. Often, we find that we must let go of things in our lives — conditions, situations, relationships — in order to follow where God is leading us.

Certainly Luther gave up much to follow God’s leading. At times his very life was threatened, as was his position and security. And yet, the words of the psalm and the words of his hymn rang true to him — God’s truth abideth still; his kingdom is forever — God is always our refuge, our strength.

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