St Francis, Terriers - Last after Trinity (29.10.2017) Tony Dickinson

Earlier this year, wearing my European hat, I was entertaining a German colleague to tea at the vicarage while we talked about a possible joint project between the diocese of Oxford and his church, one of the regional churches of the Protestant Church in Germany (EKD to the fans). “Oh by the way,” he said, “I’ve brought you a small present.” Then he reached his hand into his briefcase and pulled out a toy in a cardboard box. My eyes lit up, because I knew that this wasn’t an ordinary toy. This was the fastest-selling toy ever. It was launched at the beginning of 2015 and the first production run of 34,000 had sold out within 72 hours. Since then it has continued to pile on sales – though not quite at the same speed as that initial rush. Currently the total sold stands at around half a million. Which is pretty good when you consider that the toy in question is a Playmobil figure 7cm high (that’s about 3 inches in old money) – a figure depicting not a superhero, nor a cartoon character but a theologian who has been dead nearly five centuries.

Here he is. This is the Playmobil version of Dr Martin Luther, born in Eisleben in Saxony in 1483, died in Eisleben on 18th February 1546, the man who thought he was raising some interesting points for discussion by his colleagues at the theological faculty in the new University of Wittenberg and discovered that he had lit the fuse for an explosion which blew up Western Christianity much more effectively than Guy Fawkes’s plan to blow up King James I and his Parliament. And it all started 500 years ago this coming Tuesday.

Now it’s quite difficult for Brits to get worked up about Martin Luther (Irena and Ursula may feel rather differently). It’s difficult for us to get worked up about Dr Luther because the Reformation in England (and Scotland for that matter) owed very little to him directly. The main European influences on the way the English Reformation developed didn’t come from Luther’s home territory of Saxony but from Switzerland and South-West Germany.

The key figures in the English story aren’t Martin Luther and his side-kick Philipp Melanchthon, who are hugely important in the story of the Reformation in Germany. The key figures for us (leaving aside a maverick monarch and his archbishop) – the key figures are Ulrich Zwingli in Zurich, Martin Bucer the émigré from Strasbourg who ended his life as a Professor of Theology in Cambridge, and the Italian Pietro Martire Vermigli, who had a similar role in Oxford. In the next generation there was John Calvin in Geneva, whose ideas became popular in England (and in Scotland), spread largely by people who had escaped persecution in the reign of Mary Tudor by fleeing to safety in Switzerland.

So what made Luther such a revolutionary, world-changing figure? And why was he so divisive? In many ways he was much less radical than St Francis. Partly, I suspect, it was a character thing. He came from mining stock, and he loved a fight, especially as he grew older and grumpier. But more importantly it was because he put his finger on some sore points in the late mediaeval Church and the Church lashed out at him. Luther’s “95 theses”, that list of points for discussion, called the whole system into question. Where did authority lie? That’s a question which is still causing problems today – not least in the Anglican Communion. And how are we “saved”? And from what? What does it mean to be “saved”, anyway? Is it basically book-keeping, as some of his opponents implied? We pile up merit, and if our merits outweigh our offences, then we’ll be OK on the day of judgement. Luther tried that approach as an Augustinian friar and he knew that it didn’t work. If we aim at heroic sanctity we fall short and that warps our relationship with God. In Luther’s case, as he said, “I lost touch with Christ the Saviour and Comforter, and made of him the jailer and hangman of my poor soul.” The Christian life, in other words, became a hard grind and one that was doomed to failure. Christ had become a remote, judgemental figure, a long way from the good news that Paul had proclaimed to the Thessalonians.

What transformed Luther’s life was the realisation that what mattered in the end was faith. He had two two-word Latin slogans which summed up his new approach (which is actually a very old approach). The first was “Sola scriptura” (scripture alone). That settled the argument about where authority was to be found. It was to be found in God’s Word as expressed in the Bible, not in the pronouncements of popes and bishops or even university theologians like himself. They were all provisional. The second slogan was “Sola fide” (by faith alone). Now that didn’t mean believing “six impossible things before breakfast”. It didn’t mean turning the Christian life into a box-ticking exercise or a set of rules. It meant the same sort of simplification that Jesus put forward in response to the question in today’s Gospel. Forget the 613 commandments of the Torah. There are only two that matter: Love the Lord your God with all of your being, and love your neighbour as you love yourself. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets”. So for Luther the only thing that mattered was a total, radical trust in God as he is revealed in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

One of Luther’s younger contemporaries, the Stuttgart-based reformer Johann Brenz, summed up the Christian life in a soundbite worthy of Luther himself. “Allein zwey Ding - glauben und lieben” (two things alone: believing and loving). Don’t trust in systems: they will break you. Don’t trust in authorities: they will betray you. Trust in God and love God – and love those, all those, in whom God comes to you, however difficult they may be. Place yourself in God’s hands at each day’s beginning. Give thanks for all that you have received from God’s hand at each day’s ending. And never forget that it is all, like my little Luther figure, the gift of love. And now to God the Father, who loved us...