October 27 – When Heroes Fail

#ReformationDay500. While some may be preoccupied this coming Tuesday with tricks and treats and little ghosts and goblins knocking at the front door, others of us will have the Chapel Door in Wittenberg in mind. Maybe we’ll lift a good German beer to the occasion rather than sneak another couple of candy corns.

Five hundred years ago this coming Tuesday, All Saints Eve, the young monk – a college professor, really – Martin Luther, posted 95 Theses to the Chapel Door at Wittenberg. 95 complaints about corruption and abuse in the medieval church. We mark the day as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

The Reformation was a time of renewal and recommitment to the gospel in the life of the church, giving birth to the Protestant churches and calling the Roman church to its own reform. Thank God for the Reformation and for Martin Luther.

Luther, of course was not the only Reformer – the century before Luther and the century after are littered with the names of Reformers, some well known and some not. But this coming All Saints Eve, Reformation Day, belongs to Luther. Happy 500th!

Here’s a nice summary of Luther’s life and work: Martin Luther: Passionate Reformer.

The occasion of the 500th has brought Luther back into the bright light of historical scrutiny. It turns out there is some debunking to be done. Five Myths About Martin Luther, one story tells. Luther probably did not nail the 95 theses to the Chapel Door at Wittenberg. That was the sexton’s job. But, yes, Luther wrote each of the 95 Theses and, yes, they changed the world. Luther may not have said “Here I stand, I can do no other” as he stood before Emperor Charles V. But, yes, he stood before the emperor, speaking truth to power.

As I think about Luther and celebrate 500 years since his 95 Theses were posted on the Chapel Door in Wittenberg, five minor myths hardly bother me. If we are going to celebrate Luther, however, and as we should, we cannot hide from a bitter reality that marked his later life. Once a fierce defender of the Jewish minority in Wittenberg, in his later years he became a vicious anti-Semite.

Consider this: …Luther’s rage and increasing religious and political power were accompanied by a program for protecting Christian society from Jewish influence and contamination by burning or razing synagogues, destroying Jewish homes, confiscating Jewish holy books, banning Jewish religious worship, expropriating Jewish money, and deporting Jews. Luther and His Lies

This is not revisionist history. It is true. It is ugly. How could the great Reformer who spoke truth to power, the compassionate pastor who made his own home into a hospital when the plague ravaged Wittenberg, have become so filled with hate and so far from grace? We dare not dismiss Luther’s hate with “he’s only human,” for as Luther himself would say so often, “I am baptized.” He knew grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone, Scripture alone, to the glory of God alone to the day he died. Luther never forsook faith; he failed to live the faith to which he clung.

Heroes fail. The heroes whose portraits hang in the halls of history, Christian heroes, fail. The heroes of childhood and the friends of adulthood fail. It is not okay and “only human.” We are baptized. But, as Luther said, we are Simul Justus et Peccator (at once justified and sinners) we are justified, made right with God through Christ alone. We require that justification because we are sinners incapable of living righteously of our own effort. We fail. Christians fail whenever they wander from grace alone. Our need is desperate: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” – Jeremiah 17:9. We need a great savior because we – every one of us – are great sinners.

Tuesday is Reformation Day. 500 years since the sexton at Wittenberg posted Luther’s 95 Theses on the Chapel Door. Maybe I’ll lift a German beer in honor of the day. I will remember the failed hero of the Reformation, and the failed heroes, Christian heroes, of my childhood and adulthood, a reminder of our great need of a savior. I will pray that I might, one more day, live the faith to which I cling.

See you Sunday,