When the time is ripe ideas can change the world. Few events have so permanently shaken European society as the Reformation. 500 years ago today it kicked off.
Yet my first impression is of the vast chasm between then and now; Martin Luther emerged in a profoundly religious culture, which needed a hard prune. Church influence was all pervasive from cradle to death-bed. Today we live in a profoundly secular culture; sure there are voices questing for authenticity. Critical of a shallow empiricism and materialism. But our Churches, with rare exceptions, seem to be descending into sectarian cults… So it would be naïve to think we can put a Luther band-aid onto church life in post-election Kiwiland. No silver bullet. What is the time ripe for here in NZ? What contribution have open, thoughtful, questing congregations like St Lukes to nurturing the breakthrough that is needed here/
Luther’s Reformation after all not only changed theology, but virtually every aspect of social and cultural and political life in Germany. Think of the new status of marriage, the different work ethic with its positive appreciation of worldly holiness, of vocation; then there’s the huge shifts in cultural patterns. Many of us here today long for a similar social and cultural renewal of society today. How do we as Church develop a culture of integrity and resistance which will ask the sharp questions of suburbia. Depth rather than breadth. We may be able to find allies in unexpected places if we ask: What might authenticity look like today?
This is not the age of information. People are hungry for bread. And one good word will feed a thousand.
I like too the gutsy S. London performance poet: Kate Tempest:
To really see the state of things is lethal
it’s safer just to see what we can bear.
There’s a huge indolence of spirit out there in NZ society; but there’s also an appetite out there for simple things: truth-telling, environmental and social justice. A minority one, sure, but subversive of unquestioned suburban values. The very fact of attendance and commitment to church means that we don’t regard life as a spectator sport. In our local, frontline way we’re committed in action, in prayer, in head-work to the other.
Here’s M. Luther:
Anyone who wants to put themselves under the Gospel must accept that they'll be called subversive. It is a subversive teaching'
Luther’s not talking about political subversion; but of ultimate values. Our Saviour, he says, arrived heavily disguised in a filthy stable; God’s truth is never a non-brainer, never patent, never at one with our expectations. It is subversive, in Heiko Obermann’s term, anti-traditional. Upsets the kiwifruit cart.
Our readings today revolve around the golden calf story. How would Luther would have handled them?
Not easy for us, for today, I think. Most lay people have just about given up on Scripture. Luther’s sola scriptura, Scripture as the sole guideline for faith leaves us bemused. Is it the case, Peter Matheson asks, that we just graze the Bible these days for helpful hints, forgetting the rigorous attention to the text of our forebears only a generation or so back? Cherry-picking. The Devil hates grammar and all the liberal arts, says Luther. When I kicked off as a preacher congregations were expected to do energetic historical and imaginative work, boring their way through to Jeremiah’s time or whatever. Flipping out of their contemporary skins in the process. We could do with some of that. Remember that Luther before he eventually surfaced into clarity traversed hate of God, hate of self. His famous Anfechtungen. Doubt and despair. Lethal stuff. Bible reading involved self-reading, bruising self-scrutiny. Squared. We’ve lost that door into the numinous.
.You’ll know, maybe, the Cranach painting of Luther preaching. Between him and the listeners men and women hangs Christ on the cross. Fear, pain, passion. So this sola scriptura is not about words, folks, not about a holy book - but about lethal and redemptive realities. Scholars speak of Luther’s ‘mysticism of listening’.
How are we to to break out of our post-modern condescension. Allow o.s. to be challenged. What would the man from Wittenberg say to us today?? That there’s no golden calf. We say silver bullet. No instant solutions. We have to hang out at the bottom of St Sinai till Moses plods his way down the mountain. If we’re on about the ultimate we won’t pick it up at the supermarket. Or by mumbling the old pious words from our childhood. That filthy stable asks some questions. Maybe, too, the filth within the evasions, the deep fears. Until we recognize our humanity, in all its fragility, we will never recognize Christ’s divinity. Thus Luther. So it’s struggle, struggle, struggle, wait and pray stuff. And only then: “When the heart is full, the tongue spills over.”
You know me. I’m not advocating bibliolatry. What Luther was on about was a life-giving alarm-bell, centred on the heart of the Gospel, true to the lethal nature of things. One recent interpreter has dubbed Luther a fireman, who doused the fires of hell itself. Youth suicide rates suggest we need a fireman. What is hell for our young folk? What redemption.
For me, though, and here I go beyond Luther, it is not enough to say that Scripture however, dynamically grasped, is self-sufficient, has all the answers, is its own interpreter. My own position is closer to that of Luther’s radical opponent, Thomas Müntzer, who used dreams and his own mystical and lethal experience to sharpen up Scripture. He saw Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, the apostles as catalysts. They nudge us, provoke us to come face to face us directly with the living God, whatever that means. Just parroting biblical texts won’t do it. Says Müntzer. We have to go down into the depths of our own experience, the very abyss of the soul, and let the Spirit of God work on us there. Dangerous stuff, of course. Too many nutters think they have a whiff of the spirit.
This brings me to Luther’s vision of the church. “God put his church into the midst of the world, so that Christians wouldn’t become monks, but live and learn in communi societate.” For Calvin it was a school, where you learned stuff; for Luther a sick-bay, A & E, where we come to be triaged; trailing in w. our limping morality and inarticulate spirituality. Women in our student colleges in NZ are regularly and crudely abused sexually by their drunken male mates. I heard recently of one college where a marvelous woman dean has instituted restorative justice sessions where the guy has to front up. Listen to his victims. Face up to himself. Truck loads of trust required here. Not a bad contemporary image of the true church, perhaps. Scary, though. St Luke’s as A and E? I’m not trying to be sensationalist. I’m asking how we find ways to get below the surface with one another.. In some Old Lutheran congregations forgiveness is still proclaimed not in the vague anonymity of a corporate prayer, but by individuals coming forward for the laying on of hands. Brings it home.
Somehow, friends, we have to get beyond the words. Get real. St Luke’s is of course special because it works so hard at that. As I creak my way to old age I increasingly sense that the way forward is to enter the drama of faith. Luther: “The Gospel isn’t what’s there in the books, and printed in letters, but is a person to person thing, a living Word.” In a community w. that sort of authenticity and expectation of liberation anything can happen.
Luther drove to the heart of things. He nailed the realities of doubt, despair. Beginning of course w. his own. Our difficulty is to identify with him on much of his journey. Why this obsession with sin, with evil within? With the lethal? Terms like sin, righteousness, holiness slip by us like ships in the night. Not our problem, we say.
But we do ask about authenticity, don’t we? We have a good nose for false piety. We do wonder where authority lies in the things of the spirit. Why is it that we only tolerate God talk in the public space when the language is te reo? What is that saying? Have we pakeha forfeited the right or maybe the ability to aspire to the numinous, we kaleidoscopic multi-taskers, we who manage life, cope with illness, expect “closure” when bereaved. Is there s.t. about our culture that abhors depth, the elemental?
Certainly to read Luther is to slip into an abyss where none of our post-modernist evasions work. “The Holy Spirit is not a sceptic.” At our best, in our Presbyterian tradition we faced up to the difficult stuff. My Dad used to say; Ask, ask, ask about everything, but then question your questions.
What I’m trying to say is that Luther’s profoundly mythological take on reality, God’s son taking the breast of Mary, the grim, cosmic battle to cast out the demons, read radical evil, suggests that we only find our feet when we lose them. Coram Deo we are successful only as failures, righteous only as sinners, gifted only when we stop trying so hard. Unmanageableness the name of the game.
We’re to give up on the golden calf. Hang out at the bottom of Mt Sinai till Moses shows up, face shining. Numinous. Get beyond the words. We earth-bound creatures need an earthy God, Martin is telling us. Learn to relax, with God and one another , and we’ll catch a glimpse of Jacob’s ladder, with the Christ child shinning down it.