We are approaching Reformation Sunday (October 31) in the Lutheran calendar. We are in the countdown to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation on October 31, 2017. While the Reformation was a huge movement that affected European religion, politics, and economics, and while historians can discern a number of factors that contributed to it, the spark was ignited by the solitary struggles of one man. The first reading in the Revised Common Lectionary for the coming Sunday (Lectionary 29, Year B, typological track) provides an opportunity to reflect on the struggles of Martin Luther and his most basic insight and its applicability for us.
Genesis 31:22-31 (NRSV)
The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.
Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
This legendary story from the Old Testament about the patriarch Jacob is full of mystery. It describes a rather strange nocturnal event at the ford of the River Jabbok. The patriarch is returning from years of exile, hardship, and disappointment. He has fled from his uncle Laban with his two wives, Rachel and Leah, the daughters of Laban, and his two maids, all of whom are the mothers of his eleven children, as well as his sons and daughter, his employees and all the livestock he has claimed from Laban’s herds (by a bit of trickery). Laban is behind him in hot pursuit. Jacob is heading south toward the territory of his brother Esau, whose birthright he had stolen years earlier by deceiving their blind father Isaak. He didn’t know how Esau would receive him after all these years, but he’s heard that Esau was approaching him with 400 men. That’s not exactly a welcoming party. It sounds more like a war party. He is caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place.
He sends everyone and his herds across the river, hoping to salvage something if push comes to shove, while he stays behind. A man appeared with whom Jacob wrestled through the night. No name is mentioned. The mystery is preserved. But all of a sudden he understands that he is wrestling with God. And for good reason. Because although he was the son of promise who would continue the legacy of Abraham, he had taken it into his head to win that inheritance in his own way, without waiting for God to work out his purposes in his own way and on his own time table. So he spent the night wrestling with God, represented by the angel. That is why he summed up the experience of the night in that strange, evil term, peniel. For he said, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
We are approaching the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Each hundred and each fifty years there is a major observance of this anniversary, and each centenary is characterized by what is important about the Reformation for that generation.
In the years after the Reformation began the anniversary of the presentation of the Augsburg Confession on June 25, 1530 was commemorated more than Luther’s posting of his Ninety-Five Theses on October 31, 1517. But Luther’s bold act was commemorated on its 150th anniversary in Lutheran Saxony in 1667. This was the age of Lutheran orthodoxy, which was ironically a return to scholasticism which Luther had rejected but now was based on Luther’s writings. In this Age of Orthodoxy the reformer was regarded as the timeless prophet of the true Christian message. The reception of Luther was concentrated on his written works, which were received almost as the infallible truth.
By the time of the Reformation’s bicentennial in 1717, the Age of Pietism was in full swing, and Luther was praised as the religious genius who had concentrated Christian religion on an immediate experience of Jesus. Even the exponents of an enthusiastic Reformation and the radical reformers received a new estimation and were regarded as examples for Christians, notwithstanding the fact that Luther had rejected them as heretics and had fought bitter controversies with them.
With the Enlightenment-fueled tricentennial in 1817, Luther was regarded as the bringer of the light of reason, the liberator from the darkness and superstition of medieval times and of the papal slavery. In his victory over the pope, the monk of Wittenberg had given an example. Those who are faithful to Luther are the ones who struggle against every rigid religious system, against the letter of the Bible, but also against Lutheran orthodoxy, its confessions and its creeds. Yet at the same time, this 300th anniversary in 1817 took place after the Napoleonic Wars when, politically, there was a conservative reaction to the French Revolution all across Europe and, theologically, to the ideas of the Enlightenment. For many Lutherans it was time to “get back to Father Luther” and the Reformation church orders.
The 350th anniversary in 1867 was an occasion for Lutheran institutional expansion. Germany was moving toward a new empire under the Protestant Hohenzollerns and America was expanding across the continent after the Civil War. Fledgling seminaries were endowed with impressive new buildings that looked like mighty fortresses of knowledge and truth.
The 400th anniversary was actually downplayed because in the year 1917 Europe and America were in the throes of World War I. Indeed, Lutherans in America of German descent found that it was important for them to de-emphasize their Germanness.
The 450th anniversary in 1967 focused on the Reformation and human freedom in the wake of civil rights and colonial independence movements. There were also observances of Luther’s 500th birthday in 1983 that were notable for some joint Lutheran-Catholic celebrations.
This 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017 is characterized by what is important to us today: a global Church that struggles to find relevance in the Reformation for its own post-colonial situation, ecumenical relations marked by newfound agreement on matters of faith that seemed intransigent in the sixteenth century, interfaith dialogue in a time of jihadist terrorism producing massive waves of refugees and social upheaval. Aspects of the Reformation speak to each of these concerns and in books and conferences they are being teased out.
But behind all the observances down through the centuries stands the figure of Martin Luther, the one regarded as the prophet of the Reformation by his followers and also by other reformers such as John Calvin. Luther’s life story stands out alongside and interwoven with his insights and pronouncements. He went through his own struggles with God that can be compared with the struggles of the patriarch Jacob. For both Jacob and Martin Luther there was a name change that signaled a change in their lives. Jacob became “Israel,” “one who struggles with God,” instead of “Jacob,” “the deceiver.” Father Martin changed his family name from “Luder” (he was the son of Hans Luder) to the Greek-derived “eleutherea,” (Luther), meaning “freedom.”
What must it have been like for Luther as he prepared his Ninety-Five Theses and posted them on the door of the Schlosskirche (the Castle Church) in Wittenberg on the Eve of All Saints, when hordes of pilgrims would flock into All Saints Church the next morning to venerate items in the Elector Frederick’s vast relic collection and earn indulgences good for thousands of years of time off in purgatory? Oh, yes, the Elector stood by his professor because the pope’s plenary indulgence was being peddled by the Dominican John Tetzel across the river, and Frederick wanted to keep good Saxon money in Saxony. The evidence suggests that Luther was not totally aware of all the financial machinations that had gone into the papal authorization of the sale of a plenary indulgence, proceeds from which would go toward the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. But Luther could not have been unaware that he was assaulting the pope’s indulgence, and that other powerful people were involved, when he charged that “the revenue of all Christendom is being sucked into that insatiable basilica.”
There will be opportunities to unravel the indulgences controversy and help people understand concepts for which Protestants (and maybe even many Catholics today) no longer have a frame of reference. But what of the junior professor at Wittenberg University who was about to take on the most powerful religious and political figures in Europe? We learn from Luther himself that his decision to tackle these forces was not undertaken without personal struggle and suffering that he himself termed by the strange and hard to translate term Anfechtung. If I may say so, it comes close to the Arabic term for “struggle,” jihad in the personal sense.
In his Explanations of the Ninety-Five Theses, Luther describes the time of Anfectung in one’s life this way:
At such a time God seems terribly angry, and with him the whole creation. At such a time there is no flight, no comfort, within or without, but all these things accuse. At such a time as that the Psalmist mourns, “I am cut off from thy sight” [Ps. 31:22], or at least he does not dare to say, “O Lord,…do not chasten me in thy wrath” [Ps. 6:1]. In this moment (strange to say) the soul cannot believe that it can ever be redeemed other than that the punishment is not yet completely felt. Yet the soul is eternal and is not able to think of itself as being temporal. All that remains is the stark-naked desire for help and a terrible groaning, but it does not know where to turn for help. In this instance the person is stretched out with Christ so that all his bones may be counted, and every corner of the soul is filled with the greatest bitterness, dread, trembling, and sorrow in such a manner that all these last forever.”
This is an astonishing passage. Luther in his time of struggle is not rushing to the redemption of the cross. He is stretched out on the cross with Christ experiencing the wrath of God.
Luther’s God is the biblical God whose ways cannot be understood by human beings. We cannot teach Luther without teaching about Luther’s God and what Luther learned about this God’s ways from his own personal struggles with God. Luther’s God stands athwart our modern cozy, domesticated ideas about God. Luther’s God must be proclaimed to people who will not let God be God, who do not understand that when you say “God,” you say “sovereignty,” you speak of majesty, you refer to One who cannot be grasped by human reason. The message of the Reformation must be addressed to people who do not understand that it is not the case that we must justify God before the world but that we must all be justified before God.
This message must be addressed to modern people who like the sweet smell of success, who like to build up their resumes and point to their achievements, who want to be self-sufficient, autonomous, not tied down by divine stipulations, free to do whatever they want to do and to go as far as human capabilities will take them. The message of the Reformation must be addressed to modern people who have indeed accomplished a great deal, but who, at about age 55 or 60, sometimes become uncertain, neurotic, disconsolate with everything they have done, dissatisfied with their life’s work, and ask whether they have achieved anything that really matters, or did I really waste my time and my talents? We preach that God is love but only experience God’s wrath on our human efforts.
Modern people like to point to their accomplishments, their technological achievements, their business empires, their house in the suburbs, and all their accumulated goods. We are newly aware, after recent elections, of those who are have been left behind by the global economy. But all of us, whether we have made it in life or struggle to stay afloat, still like to stand with our medieval predecessors and say, “Look what I have accomplished, O Lord.” Deep down it is the human condition to think that it’s what we do rather than what we are that counts before God. So God must kill us with his wrath before he can make us come alive with his grace.
It was the liberating experience of the Reformation that what we do does not count. What you and I have achieved does not count in the least in terms of who we are before God. It is not necessary to heap achievement upon achievement, success upon success. When a person is crushed under the grind and slips to the frayed edges of existence and sinks into despair, then that person needs to come to terms with the God who created us and gives meaning to our lives and reconciles us to himself by the work of Christ who, on the cross, took on himself all of God’s wrath so that it could be lifted from us. But, like Luther, we may have to join Christ on that cross to experience what the wrath of God is like before we can be liberated from it.
This is the lasting significance of the message of the Reformation. This is the up-to-date counterpart of that bold scene in the Old Testament of that mysterious nocturnal trouble. Jacob had to come to grips with the fact that he simply could not do things his own way and according to his own timetable. He must trust the God who fulfills his promises, but works in his own mysterious ways.
Like Jacob, the person who wants to do things his own way must be confronted by God. She must struggle with God. But it is when we stand our ground and struggle during those dark nights of uncertainty and fear that God takes hold of us and blesses us. Then we will have seen God face to face and our life will be preserved.
We cannot lose sight of that lonely struggle of Jacob with God, or of the equally lonely struggle of that professor at Wittenberg who took on the world. Only by engaging in that struggle with God can we receive the spiritual renewal which alone is empowering. Reformation and spiritual renewal begins not with a movement but with a man alone, wrestling with a God who will not let him go, but a God who finally blesses him and sends him off limping into the morning light to claim his promised inheritance.
Pastor Frank Senn
Image above this article: “Jacob Wrestling With the Angel.” Painting by Leon Bonnat, 1876.
Image below this article: “Luther at Erfurt”, which depicts Martin Luther discovering the doctrine of sola fide. Painting by Joseph Noel Paton, 1861.