Lyndal Roper is an Australian historian who’s currently a professor at the University of Oxford in England, and she studies especially German history in the 16th to 18th centuries. And if you’re thinking, “16th century—isn’t that when Martin Luther lived? Wasn’t that the time of the Protestant Reformation?” then you are an astute and faithful scholar, because yes, that’s the era in which Martin Luther lived. Lyndal Roper studies Reformation history and has written a biography about Martin Luther.
In 2017, during the many celebrations that went on during the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Dr. Roper got to preach in Luther’s pulpit in Wittenberg, a moving experience for her. The service was bilingual in English and German, with members of an African church visiting that day as well, and afterward, Dr. Roper learned that there would be a follow-up event in the church hall where she would answer questions from the congregation for 45 minutes. The first question came from the local pastor himself, pressing her to explain her assertion that Luther was anti-Semitic. There followed more discussion from other theologians and historians in the audience.
Later, she reflected on the experience, writing,
“The event reminded me why I was so gripped by Luther, and why I was fascinated with Germany—the imagination and creative idealism…the openness of German society to outsiders like me, the matter-of-fact way in which learned academic debate was just expected to be part of a congregational discussion after a service. No-one, not even a pastor in a white collar…is immune from having their sermon scrutinized and debated; and Lutheranism remains a profoundly non-hierarchical, non-structured denomination, just as its founder Luther had no formal position in the church and was only ever a professor of Holy Scripture. In the end, I too will have my views assessed, and I hope that my view of Luther’s masculinity and his knotty character may open up the discussion further about how we commemorate great men without losing sight of their frailties and violence.”
Here we are, five hundred years after Martin Luther and other Reformers sought to make the gifts of the church more accessible to people, and our church is named for Martin Luther, who is himself both a brilliant and problematic human being. The pattern established by the Reformers was discussion, geared toward learning. I mean, Martin Luther could also be insulting and crude when he argued his points, but he kept the conversation going.
This is part of our theological heritage, that our faith is up for discussion. And it’s helpful for me to hear the reflections of an Australian scholar on her time in Germany, where this discussion tradition is very much alive, and the testimonies of preachers are up for discussion as well. This is how we keep faith alive and relevant, for ourselves and for the people who will hear our testimonies.
Why does this matter? What does this have to do with Jesus? Well, we can pay attention to the way Jesus set up his organization. He didn’t retain all the authority and power for himself: he called disciples and sent them out in pairs to heal and to teach and to keep moving. And he was clear with them that this power won’t be universally welcomed—people will take offense.
Gene Robinson, who is now retired but was the first openly gay bishop consecrated in the Episcopal church in New Hampshire, once said, “It’s funny isn’t it? That you can preach a judgmental and vengeful and angry God and nobody will mind. But you start preaching a God that is too accepting, too loving, too forgiving, too merciful, too kind…and you are in trouble.”
I see this as evidence of our original human sin working in our lives: if God is too merciful, then what if God gives me everything I need and I can’t earn it myself? We humans never stop trying to earn God’s favor, earn our freedom, earn our salvation. And I’d rather get angry and take offense at God’s goodness before I’d give up my project to earn everything I have. I’d rather earn my way and gain the glory for myself, rather than receive God’s grace as a gift.
I’ll tell you one way this shows up for me. Creating sermons is my art. I love words, and I love God’s Word in particular, and I want my sermons to inspire people. In my early years of preaching, I really believed I could write a perfect enough sermon to change people’s lives—oh my gosh, that is embarrassing to even say it out loud. I thought that seeing people’s faith response would validate my work in sermon-crafting, and that’s how I’d know I’m doing a good job. Perhaps you notice why this is a problem: proclaiming God’s Word becomes an ego project, and then my goals are about me, not about God.
Jesus didn’t tell the disciples to force conversions or demand confessions—just go out and heal and proclaim. That’s it. That’s the job. If someone rejects God’s Word, that’s not the problem of the proclaimer. Move on, and keep proclaiming. It’s not about you.
This is why I struggle with language about “winning souls for Christ”—winning? Is this a game? Are we competing against God? Competing against other denominations? Oooh, that’s a tough one—is the biggest church in town the “winner” in the Christian landscape?
What if the only actual goal is to proclaim God’s Word? And if there are questions, then discuss them. Guess what—God can handle it. The Word of God is strong enough to withstand scrutiny and challenges. And if you are on the receiving end of the questions, you don’t have to have all the answers. The Holy Spirit might give you an answer, and that’s fun, but sitting with a question is not the worst thing in the world, either. Again: God can handle it.
The really tough questions, like “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Why does a tower fall in Florida and bury over a hundred people? Why does Covid kill some people and not others? How can human beings be so hateful toward one another?
Martin Luther, ever the professor, relied on questions for teaching, and set up the small catechism in a question-and-answer format. You remember the one question that pops up again and again: what does this mean? Questions are not a problem: questions are a chance to be in conversation with God.
God is always inviting us into relationship, with God’s self and with one another in community as well. In this stage of late-pandemic and struggling with planning for the future, even though we trust that God holds our future, there are so many things keeping us apart. God continues to call us together as faithful servants.