Luther 500

Peter Matheson
Sun 15 Oct

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?

David  Whyte:

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.

 

 

 

 

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