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Monday, May 31, 2010

Walking with Luther--500 years later

If Lutherans believed in purgatory and got time off for visiting 'holy' sites I think I would have gained quite a bit of credit these past two weeks.   I have visited Eisleben where Luther was born and died (even got a chance to see up close and get photos of the burial shroud put on his coffin and then given to his wife Katy.  It is on display at the house where he died and they were taking it out to prepare it for a transfer and new home in the new site that will open in two years.  On the day I visited it was out of the case and stretched out on the floor with paper underneath it.  The experts who were examining it seemed undaunted by my presence and even allowed some photos); Mansfeld where he grew up and went to school (saw the house, school and home church), Erfurt (where he entered the monastery and was ordained a priest); Eisenach (where he translated the New Testament into German and was held safely in the castle Wartburg); Wittenberg (where he is buried and posted the 95 theses on the castle church door); Leipzig; Magdeburg, etc..etc...  ( The picture above is from Luther's house in Wittenberg where you can with many other interesting things see Luther's Larine...I kid you not!!!). 

But the little city that made it all clear was a place called Halberstadt.  Here there is a Lutheran church that has the unusual distinction of owning quite a collection of "relics."  What are relics?  The very things that drove Luther mad!!  People were taught that to venerate (give sacred honor) to these relics would help them gain salvation and get to heaven.  Relics are pieces of bone or other body parts of important Biblical people or saints, items used in Biblical stories, or odds and ends that were used by holy people.  In Halberstadt I saw a finger of St. Nicholas (Don't tell the kids that Santa's finger is on display); one of the stones used to put Stephen the first Christian martyr to death, and a gold covered display case of wood that contained a body part fragment from each of the twelve apostles, John the Baptist, Paul, an authentic piece of the cross of Jesus, and one of the thorns from the crown he was forced to wear!  Holy cow...er Holy Relics think of how much time I could have gotten out of purgatory if I only had the right attitude about this.  (You know just in case there's something to that whole purgatory thing).   To be fair these relics date from the 1200's and are quite an interesting window into the piety and practice of medieval Christianity---but could people really have believed that these things were real?

No, I don't think most people did...but here's the clincher....bowing down to a piece of clavicle bone that supposedly belonged to John the Baptist or a tooth from Saint Paul was a whole lot easier than living out the great commission or loving my neighbor as myself.   Luther came to understand that the purpose of the Gospel was to free us from sin, death and the devil and allow us to live out our faith each and every day in love.  Christian faith is contextual and lived out in community--it is not about living in fear or in search of personal salvation.  What do I mean by that?  You as a baptized child of God have been bought by the blood of the lamb--you belong to Jesus!  Or, do you like the medieval indulgence sellers suppose that Christ's sacrifice on the cross wasn't enough and you have to add your own piety to the equation?  No, Christian faith is not about trying to make sure I'm saved, it is living in the confidence of Jesus Christ that I AM SAVED by his perfect grace and free now to live out that faith in love and community.  But let's face it...that's hard.  Easier to join 5 different Bible Study groups, subscribe to the approved Christian magazines,  read all the blogs that lament the current status of Christianity, and attend at least two personal growth retreats a year.   

Here's the point...whether venerating relics (bowing to pieces of bone and skin) or becoming obsessed with the latest Christian books, groups and movements...they both are inherently self centered and turn Christian faith inward and reduce it to a quest for personal immortality.   Here's the good news that Luther rediscovered 500 years ago--you are saved by CHRIST!!!  Christ has done what you never could!  Christ has reconciled you to God through the blood of the cross.   Now....stop letting the Evil one rob you of what Christ has given.   You are free now to live out your faith for the sake of the world.  To actually live your Christian faith.    Salvation having been taken care of we can now concentrate on loving each other as Christ has loved us; loving our enemies, forgiving those who have trespassed against us, being cheerful givers, feeding Christ's sheep, repaying no one evil for evil, sharing what we have......Holy Cow.... it would be a lot easier to just pay a few bucks to venerate some pieces of bone and wood, or for that matter commit myself to a regime of personal piety.   Well, yes it would.  But that wouldn't be living as disciples of Jesus. (Picture above is Luther's grave marker which is located right below the pulpit in the Wittenberg Castle church). 

In each and every generation we need to fight against the impulse to make Christianity all about me.  Acts of personal piety and growth are not bad....in fact I encourage them....but not to the exclusion of actually living out your faith in the world.   And how do we do that?  Be a good and faithful spouse, a good and loving son or daughter, a good and loving parent, a good and loving friend and neighbor.  See you life as being on loan from God and its purpose to share the love of Christ in all that you do.   And for CHRIST'S SAKE (not used in vain, but in praise, prayer and worship) don't obsess with your own salvation--that's the good news, God has already done that.

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