I want to invite us today to the work of debunking myths and getting to the truth of the matter – or the truth that matters. With courage and open hearts and minds strengthening themselves through active practice we can, with the help of God and as people of faith, scrutinize – look closely at those things we hold most dear – and debunk the myths - or at least add in facts and details that give a fuller picture and add appropriate nuance and complexity.
Here we are on Reformation Sunday, a day when, even if he doesn’t get mentioned much of the rest of the year, most Lutheran churches will trot out some details about Martin Luther, the reformer after whom this branch of the Christian tree is named. They – and we – might talk about how Luther posted his 95 Thesis on the door of the church in Wittenberg to start a discussion about God and faith and how Luther believed that the Church had in some significant ways strayed from her true purpose and course of sharing the gospel. We might talk about how Luther was a great reformer, the first translator of the Bible from Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek into the language of the “common people” (German at the time). Luther was a brewer of beer, a monk who discovered a different kind of calling in becoming a father and a husband (though not in that order!) and building a life he truly loved with a woman, Katharina Von Bora (herself formerly a nun) with whom genuine love seems to have been shared.
This is all true and worth learning about and exploring, but too often Martin Luther and the remarkable things God accomplished through him are lifted up and discussed as though he were a saint without sin which, given Luther’s own teachings about how we are all simultaneously saints and sinners is somewhat if not seriously ironic.
Yes, Martin Luther accomplished remarkable things in his lifetime. Or more accurately, God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit accomplished remarkable things through Luther in his lifetime. Yet it is also true that Luther, alongside those remarkable accomplishments, also had remarkable struggles. Luther probably struggled with depression and by contemporary understandings was likely an alcoholic who ate and drank far too much, in ways that probably contributed to a serious deterioration of his health and even shortening of his life. And, alongside the remarkable truths about God that Luther so remarkably drew from his study of scripture and describes in his writings, Luther also wrote disparagingly about the Jewish people in ways that would be appallingly drawn upon by the Nazis centuries later in order to justify their tragic and terrible slaughter of millions of people.
Though it does not excuse the damage done, we have publicly recanted of all such writings by Luther, clarified what we do believe as the Lutheran branch of the church, and apologized for the pain and suffering they caused. And we must as people and as a Church ardently continue the difficult work of coming alongside people of different faiths and beliefs in ways that are respectful and honor the many ways that God reveals God’s self in this world and decrying violence such as has once again broken out in this war in Gaza as a result of the atrocious acts of terror undertaken by Hamas, but most of all from a three thousand year story of sin causing people to hate and fight where God desires peace and healing.
The gospel of good news, as Luther and we understand it in our best moments, calls us to be messengers of peace and restorers of streets for all to live in side by side. For us as Christians, this work of building peace begins with learning that God in Christ by love and through grace planted freely as faith within us frees us from the burden of guilt and sin and invites us into a new and verdant way of living. This new and verdant life includes debunking myths so as to live in and by truth. Debunking myths, or at least adding to the stories of our lives and others in ways that add nuance and complexity, whether we are talking about Martin Luther or ourselves or the Church or any facet of life and the world around us so that the truth that is God’s everlasting intent of mercy and love, justice, forgiveness and grace – which we as Christians understand to be most revealed through and in the person of Jesus – might more clearly shine forth, freed from the encumbrances of such myths.
The writer of the gospel of John is preoccupied with the concept of truth (from the Greek word Alethia) - it occurs twenty-five times in the gospel of John as opposed to only seven times in total in the other three gospels and here in chapter eight this truth language is especially concentrated. (Working Preacher, October 2023) Jesus says to the Jews who believed in him (and we need to remember that often the word “Jew” is used interchangeably with “Jewish leader”); Jesus says to the Jewish leaders who believed in him that if they know the truth, the truth will make them free. Or more accurately, that because they know the truth, that is the truth of God that has been revealed in Jesus who is walking among them, they are being set free.
The Jewish leaders are confused and say that as descendants of Abraham they have never not been free, so what can Jesus be saying? And Jesus says that all who are caught in sin are indeed slaves, but that God, in sending God’s self through Jesus who was both God and human, has done a new thing, has literally incarnated into the world – a fancy word for saying that God took God’s eternal and omnipotent and beyond comprehension self and chose to be humbled into human frame so as to change the narrative of human existence. To free us as humans in a way that was not possible before.
So, what are Reformation Day and Reformation Sunday, which we mark and commemorate today, all about? They are not, as some think, days on which we celebrate the founding of the Lutheran Church or other churches of the Reformation era. They are not days upon which we celebrate Martin Luther or other reformers or worst of all – deify them – after all, as we’ve already discussed, are just as fallible and sinful as us! In their simplest and perhaps smallest form, Reformation Day and Reformation Sunday are occasions upon which we mark and commemorate Martin Luther posting his 95 Thesis on the church door in Wittenberg in order to start a theological discussion.
Yet if we will allow ourselves to have our vision enlarged, we might discover that Reformation Sunday is a day upon which we don’t just commemorate a small, yet significant event in the past, it is a day upon which we might allow ourselves, with God’s help and the support of our church communities, to be recommitted to rediscovering the truth that sets us free. Rediscovering as people and as church communities that naming the places where we are fallible and have stumbled does not make us less, it makes more room in which we might perceive how God’s reconciling and redeeming work can break wondrously through even the most broken of people and that whether we are a Martin Luther or a Katie Von Bora, whatever our name might be – in naming the brokenness – our brokenness – and debunking the myths God can help us to participate in the glorious freeing work of God in Christ that will better position us to be more useful bearers of the gospel among this hungry and broken world.
For when the truth can shine forth, it is truly wondrous to behold.