May the grace, mercy and peace of God our Father be with us in the name of his son, our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; Amen.
Most people who have spent any time at all in Lutheran Churches are familiar with most of the basics on the reformation – Martin Luther was a born in Germany in 1483 and raised by parents who wanted him to go to law school. Instead he went to study theology and scripture, became a monk, and after many struggles he came to the conclusion that the church of his day was not being faithful to scripture. He was brought before a council (or “Diet”) at Worms in 1521 where he spoke those famous words, “Unless I am convinced by scripture and plain reason – for I do not trust the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me, Amen.” This ushered in the Protestant Reformation, and the world was never the same again.
But it wasn't quite as cut and dried as that. For one thing, there had been attempts at other reformations previously in England and throughout Europe, but the power of the church was too great for them to succeed. Martin Luther was not the first to stand up for the principles of which he championed, but he succeeded because the time was ripe for it to finally take hold.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus is in the midst of a discussion with people who are described as, “Jews who believed in him.” His instructions to them sounds pretty familiar to what Jesus says a lot in John's gospel: “continue in my word and you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” Continue is the same word as abide, and that is a word that is very ubiquitous in John's Gospel. Abide, remain, continue in the Word…know the truth…be free. If we were to boil down Martin Luther's main emphasis in his teaching and preaching it would pretty much be the same message: Abide in God's Word!
Lutheran theology tells us that there are three manifestations of “God's Word”. One is the Bible – the writings that were compiled over thousands of years and that the church of the early ages decided are important to the Christian life. Secondly is the preached word, that which trained preachers share from pulpits just like I am sharing now. Finally – and most importantly – God's Word is Jesus himself. All that God wants to tell us became flesh in the Son of Man, Jesus Christ. The first two manifestations of the Word are only valuable in the way that they reveal the third – the Word made flesh – to us. We are not to worship the Bible or preaching; we are to worship Jesus. We are to respect scripture, to be sure, but we do not treat it as an idol. It is, as Luther himself put it, the manger which holds the Christ child for us.
Indeed, the main message of the Reformation was that Christians are to abide in God's word and to experience the truth, and be made free. One of the most important outcomes of the Protestant Reformation was that the Holy Bible was widely translated into the vernacular of the people (until this point all they had was the original Hebrew and Greek versions as well as a few Latin translations) and made available for the common peasants of Germany, France, Switzerland, England and other countries to read for themselves instead of relying upon the priests to tell them what was contained therein. People became free to abide in the word – the scripture – so that The Word, Jesus, would be revealed to them and that they would know the truth. I am not sure that we all realize how big a deal this was! Not only was scripture unavailable to the laity because it hadn't been translated; it was unavailable because it was illegal to own. In 1229 the Council of Toulouse decreed, “We prohibit also that the laity should be permitted to have the books of the Old or New Testament; but we most strictly forbid their having any translation of these books.” And a ruling at the council of Tarragona in 1234 stated, “No one may possess the books of the Old and New Testament in the Romance language, and if anyone possesses them he must turn them over to the local bishop within eight days after promulgation of this decree, so that they may be burned…”
As a result of these and other decrees against lay people owning translations of the scriptures, other would-be reformers fought the battles that Martin Luther fought years later and did not have such successful outcomes.
John Wickliffe was born in 1331 in England, and is sometimes called, “The Morningstar of the Reformation.” During his life he challenged the Catholic Church on its stance on many issues – celibacy, primacy of pope, monasticism, and prohibitions against owning scripture. Wycliffe had come to regard the scriptures as the only reliable guide to the truth about God and maintained that all Christians should rely on the Bible rather than the teachings of popes and priests. He also said that there was no scriptural justification for the papacy.
Wycliffe's Bible is the name now given to a group of Bible translations into Middle English that were made under the direction of John Wycliffe. They appeared over a period from approximately 1382 to 1395. These Bible translations were the chief inspiration and cause of the Lollard movement, a pre-Reformation movement that rejected many of the distinctive teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Wycliffe's idea was to translate the Bible into the vernacular, saying "it helpeth Christian men to study the Gospel in that tongue in which they know best Christ's sentence".
Wycliffe died in 1384, but The Council of Constance declared him a heretic 21 years later on May 4, 1415, and banned his writings. The Council decreed Wycliffe's works should be burned and his remains removed from consecrated ground. This order, confirmed by Pope Martin V, was carried out in 1428 when Wycliffe's corpse was exhumed and burned and the ashes cast into the River Swift.
Another such early reformer in England was William Tyndale. Born in 1494, Tyndale was an English scholar who became a leading figure in Protestant reform in the years leading up to his execution. He is well known for his translation of the Bible into English, and his translation was the first English Bible to draw directly from Hebrew and Greek texts, the first English one to take advantage of the printing press, and first of the new English Bibles of the Reformation.
In 1535 Tyndale was arrested and jailed in the castle of Filford outside Brussels for over a year. In 1536 he was convicted of heresy and executed by strangulation, after which his body was burnt at the stake. His dying prayer that the King of England's eyes would be opened seemed to find its fulfillment just two years later with Henry's authorization of the Great Bible for the Church of England—which was largely Tyndale's own work. Hence, the Tyndale Bible, as it was known, continued to play a key role in spreading Reformation ideas across the English-speaking world and, eventually, to the British Empire.
So you see Martin Luther's message was not necessarily new or unique to the world. There were would-be reformers before and at the same time of Luther fighting the same battle with the Catholic church of that day. To face trial and execution was a serious consequence for owning a copy of the Bible, especially in one's own language. But it was a risk work taking in order to dwell, abide, and continue in God's word.
I don't want to point fingers or make anyone of us feel guilty, but I am wondering aloud – with the access that we have to many different translations of the Bible today, do we dwell in it as we should? Do we dwell in the word and does the word dwell in us? It seems to me that if we are an ever-reforming church, it begins with every Christian pulling out their Bibles, reading and discussing with their community of faith. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit that we have these writings to reveal Jesus to us in the form of today and so available, and we are not to take that gift for granted. Martin Luther and many others went to a great deal of struggles, pain and some even death to make sure we have access to God's enduring word. May the word of God speak to you, and may you abide in God's word so that you will know the truth, and so that you will be free indeed! Amen.