LENT 4 (15 March 2015)

Numbers 21.4-9    Eph 2.1-10    John 3.14-21

Fr Edward Simmonds, who was a member of this Community, taught me the history of the reformation. He was an assiduous scholar throughout his long life, achieved an Oxford DD and was, for a time, Professor of Latin at Leeds University . I seem to remember that he began his lecture on  Martin Luther with the words ‘Now Luther was a wicked fellow’.

The Expository Times for last November carried a main article on Luther which gave me a warmer impression.  In his lifetime Luther was greatly admired throughout Germany as a confessor and spiritual director; one who excelled in quieting troubled consciences. The article begins with this anecdote.

“An unnamed commercial traveller at a tavern in Jena on Shrove Tuesday 1522 in conversation with assorted salesmen and students at the landlord’s table said ‘I am a plain, simple layman and I don’t understand much about this business but this I do say: either this Luther is an angel from heaven, or he is a devil from hell. I wouldn’t mind giving him ten guilders if I might make my confession to him, for I think he knows a lot about quieting consciences’. As it happened, Luther himself heard this testimony; disguised as a Thuringian knight he was staying at the same tavern on the run from the forces of the Holy Roman Empire ”.

Years earlier, when he was a young Augustinian friar, Martin Luther suffered from an extremely scrupulous, unquiet conscience. He believed that his imperfections doomed him to damnation. God was justly angry with him and he could never win forgiveness. That was the problem. He thought that he had to win forgiveness. 

The Church at that time encouraged people in this attitude. Souls, so they taught, could find release from purgatory, where they suffered the penalties of their sins, if penance was performed on their behalf by friends or relations. The way to secure release was to perform good works such as going to Mass and confession and, especially, by giving money to the Church.

Luther’s confessor, Johann von Staupitz, helped him to some extent by stressing that our sins are forgiven chiefly by the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary . The part played by our good works is secondary. Luther accepted this teaching but still doubted that he could merit salvation. Staupitz also encouraged Luther to study the New Testament and to read mystical works to balance the academic.

His understanding was wonderfully transformed when he was wrestling with the text of Romans 1.17, which reads, ‘for in it (that is, in the Gospel of Christ) the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written “The just shall live by faith”'. Luther came to see that the righteousness of God, which the Gospel proclaims, is that righteousness which God in his mercy gives to sinners. It is an unmerited gift, which we receive by faith.

 In St Matthew’s Gospel we read that Jesus commanded his disciples to be perfect, as their heavenly Father is perfect (Mt 5.48). This perfection cannot be achieved by our own efforts but is a perfection given when we look to Jesus crucified and are healed and live.

Luther came to realise that when we know and feel ourselves to be utterly unworthy in God’s sight, it is a sign that we are ready to hear the good news of God’s love and mercy. Those who think they are righteous do not need someone to heal them and so are not healed by the Saviour.

We are now halfway through Lent. Next Sunday the statues will be veiled in purple as we enter the season of the Lord’s Passion. It is time to search our consciences and to ask the Father for forgiveness as Jesus taught us. Fix your gaze on Jesus Christ “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame and has sat down on the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12.2).  “By grace you have been saved through faith and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Eph 2.8) .

Crispin Harrison CR