In the musical 1776 one scene has John Adams bemoaning that he will be forgotten while others with more flamboyance and physical presence will be remembered. He says, “One day they will tell stories that Ben Franklin struck his walking stick on the street and up sprang George Washington a full six feet high.” In response Benjamin Franklin says, “I like it.”
While we have not gone that far with our stories about George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and other great Americans, the scene speaks to the tendency to take our heroes and heroines and place them in the realm of the super human. While venerated they become distant and have little practical impact on our lives.
That is unfortunate. There is much we can learn from these people with their talents and foibles.
We can particularly learn from the changes in their lives as they develop. Take a man I have already mentioned, George Washington. He wanted to be recognized by his peers the Virginia gentry. Applying himself he made up for his lack of formal education by his work on manners and the discipline of his physical appetites. At the same time he was concerned about other aspects of advancement. Reading his letters as a young and early middle age adult he shifts the blame for his tobaccos poor return on his English agents, rather than his planting in an area not as suited for the crop as the south central sections of the colony. He was quite the surveyor which benefited knowledge of the land. His early elections to the House of Burgesses had as much to do with patronage and successful efforts to have polls closed off to opponent’s supporters in towns he had influential friends and relations.
In the following years he shifts. He wants the esteem of the wise and the good for having done things to earn their esteem. He spoke less but when he did speak he could cut to the heart of matter in the most succinct and sensible way as testified by Thomas Jefferson and others. He became a man of great public and private virtue. He rose above faction and had our first and only unity government, which included the divergent John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton. He operated as a military and civil leader on this primary insight, “The foundation of our national policy need be laid in the pure principles of private morality.” He is a man with many qualities better emulated than a statue of legend confined to viewing.
As we close in on the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation we can do the same with our church’s founder Martin Luther. The son of the German peasantry rises to challenge the practices of the largest institution in Medieval Europe, the Roman Catholic Church. He places the Biblical Word over ceremonies. Perhaps unwittingly he fans an awareness within the German people’s spirit that they have an internal worth greater than being the suppliers of material for a church and governments headquartered elsewhere. His societal achievements overwhelm those of any leader in United States history. It is easy to consign him a place of legendary proportion. It is easy to forget throughout life he had feet of clay. After becoming well known, to preserve a political alliance he used Old Testament Law to permit a prince to marry a second wife.
Nevertheless his is a remarkable story with much to make a part of our lives. Especially as we take in the dynamics in his life.
He was a disappointment to his father when he chose the monastery over the law following a vow he made surviving a terrible storm. A lawyer could take care of his material well being better than the prayers of a monk. Luther wondered if he would be a sheep or goat at the last judgment Jesus described. He leaned toward goat. God was very holy and Martin, at his best, was not. Having a strong sense of his sinfulness he could flagellate himself mentally, emotionally, and physically. He drove his confessor nuts with his endless lists of what most people would consider pretty petty behaviors. Though he participated in the rituals and prayers, he did not experience comfort from them.
He showed capability. His order gave him administrative responsibilities which he did well. He was made a teacher of New Testament. In reading and lecturing he discovered God’s grace in Romans and Galatians. Romans 3:4 from our epistle this morning hit him like a sack of bricks. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” is followed by “they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Of course Martin knew he was a sinner. Now he saw he did not have to struggle to be holy enough for salvation. As I have said to people encountered in institutions and congregations, “If we could be holy enough there would be no need for Good Friday and Easter.”
Luther moved from overriding guilt to experiencing freedom and thanksgiving for the love of God and moved to honoring God without the great terror of God. As honors came over time and confidence grew, awareness of God’s gift helped him return to an honest humility rooted in God’s grace through Jesus. He could teach about life as a growth process due to our dual sinner and saint nature because God enabled him to accept his own perfection and taking joy in God moving him to more holy living. His sense of worth was grounded in being redeemed.
Luther’s experience has helped other notable people. Over two hundred years later Luther’s writings rejuvenated a despondent John Wesley. Wesley went on a missionary journey to the American colonies. His stands for holy living and against slavery were not well received. They were largely rejected by many. He returned to England seeing himself as a failure. At a worship service he was sitting there and not absorbing much. He began reading Luther’s preface to Romans which was part of the available Bible. Luther’s exposition on the interplay between God’s Law, faith in Christ, and the working of the Holy Spirit, and faithful living was grounded in confidence in God’s grace, touched a deep place in John Wesley. He reclaimed being validated by God than by hearers. He was re-launched in his ministry of Christian perfection and service.
In Martin Luther’s experience we can see how God can communicate his love and reorient us. We are given a transforming period in history. We are also given a movement for use in our lives and communicating God’s way with people, that loves in directs while understanding our mixture of aspirations, capabilities, and contradictions. As we look back on the Reformation and its continuing gifts with Martin Luther we can say, “We believe God’s Word and must live it. We can do no other.” Amen.