By Max Johnson
In the papal bullam, Exsurge Domine of June 12, 1520, the document which condemned the teachings of Martin Luther, Pope Leo X prayed: “Arise, O Lord, and judge thy cause. A wild boar has invaded thy vineyard.”
Today on this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Lutherans, Catholics, and others gather to commemorate and give thanks for the witness of this wild boar, this German Augustinian friar and Scripture scholar, with a fondness for earthy humor, good music, and Wittenberg Beer. But we gather no longer in a spirit of polemic, diatribe, or condemnation but rather in one of reconciliation and Christian love. On this day we gather in a special way to celebrate Luther’s bold witness to the Gospel, his uncompromising witness to the God who in Jesus Christ shows himself and gives himself as a God of unsurpassable graciousness and unconditional promise; a God passionately in love with human beings.
Once upon a time, certainly in my childhood 85 miles south-west of Lake Wobegon, MN, Reformation Sunday was treated as “anti-Catholic Church Sunday” among us Lutherans, a time to give thanks for the fact that we weren’t Catholics; but things have changed dramatically today.
In 1980 Pope John II said that the Augsburg Confession of 1530 (inspired by Luther’s theology) reflects “a full accord on fundamental and central truths” shared by Lutherans and Roman Catholics alike; we are also the recipients of the numerous Roman Catholic-Lutheran official dialogues over the past 50+ years, one of the most recent culminating in the official 1997 Joint Declaration on Justification, with the removal of our mutual condemnations on the central question of the Reformation, that of justification by grace through faith for the sake of Christ.
I think of the comment of the great Jesuit theologian, Fr. Karl Rahner, SJ, who wrote in a theology text (Foundations of Christian Faith) read by numerous Roman Catholic students today that Lutheranism has an important and necessary role to play for the Roman Catholic Church as a “corrective influence,” calling “the attention of the Catholic Church again and again to the fact that grace alone and faith alone really are what saves, and that…we Catholic Christians must find our way back to the sources again and again, back to the primary origins of Holy Scripture and all the more so of the Holy Spirit.”
It was Benedict XVI who took a leading role in the Joint Declaration on Justification. Indeed, he is even quoted as saying in 1965 with regard to a document being drafted in Rome that there was too much of a Teilhard De Chardin optimistic attitude about human progress in it and not enough Luther!!
Under Pope Francis not only has a piazza in Rome been named Martin Luther Piazza but there has even been a statue of Luther placed in the Vatican!
And recent documents like “From Conflict to Communion,” and the Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry, and Eucharist, are very hopeful signs, with On the Way even boldly suggesting that occasional joint Eucharistic liturgies be celebrated.
Will Luther’s excommunication be revoked? Will some type of Eucharistic sharing, strongly advocated a year ago by Walter Cardinal Kasper as the next declaration from Pope Francis, become a reality? I had hoped, perhaps naively, for both to happen during this 500th anniversary year, and quite honestly I am disappointed. Nevertheless, times have, indeed, changed since Leo X’s charge of “wild boar” was leveled at Luther, though I must say I rather like the appellation of being a wild boar in ecclesiastical vineyards.
So, how should we commemorate Reformation and Luther today? I would suggest that we do so under the category of Christian freedom – that liberating and freeing power of the gospel of Jesus Christ; that freedom in grace proclaimed in the Gospel this past Reformation Sunday: “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed!”
Because of his profound sense of Christian freedom, Luther could write in his 1520 Freedom of A Christian that
a Christian is a perfectly free lord of all subject to none.” And like many spiritual writers before him Luther spoke of the relationship of Christians to Christ as a mystical marriage: “Faith unites the soul with Christ as a bride is united with her bridegroom…And if they are one flesh and there is between them a true marriage…it follows that everything they have they have in common, the good as well as the evil….Christ is full of grace, life, and salvation. The soul is full of sins, death, and damnation. Now let faith come between them and sins, death, and damnation will be Christ’s, while grace, life, and salvation will be the soul’s; for if Christ is a bridegroom, he must take upon himself the things which are his bride’s and give her the things that are his. Thus, the believing soul is free in Christ its bridegroom, free from all sins, secure against death and hell, and is endowed with the eternal righteousness, life and salvation of Christ, its bridegroom. The Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.
Luther’s understanding of Christian freedom is radical; it cuts to the roots; in Christ we are free from all those things which threaten to imprison us and hold us in bondage – lifestyle, occupation, free from the should’s, have to’s, musts, and supposed to’s, free from all forms of legalism, religious and otherwise, free from trying to be in control of our own lives or shaping our own destinies, free from the need to justify ourselves, our existence, and our need for finding an excuse to take up space on the earth; free from sin, death and the devil, free even from ourselves and our constant preoccupation with self; free in Him who is the truth that makes us free.
But if we are free in this way, then at the same time Luther says, “a Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” “Although the Christian is free he ought in his liberty to empty himself, take upon himself the form of a servant, be made in the likeness of people, be found in human form, and to serve, help, and in every way deal with his neighbor as he sees that God through Christ has dealt and still deals with him.” Freedom is not license; freedom is freedom from and freedom for.
Plunged into the saving reality of Christ by baptism, nourished by that same reality in the Eucharist, empowered by the Spirit of death and resurrection, we are set free to become servants, to become people of liberation and freedom for others, signs of God’s graciousness and unconditional love, living radically and restlessly as little Christs ourselves, obedient disciples who are already dead in the tomb of baptism and brought to new life by the Spirit in the womb of Baptism. Disciples who no longer need to worry about themselves but who can begin to live abundantly in Christ for others.
That’s how to commemorate Reformation; that’s how to remember and give thanks for the witness of Luther. Celebrate Christ who makes you and me free, free to be and free indeed. Celebrate Christ and gives thanks for where we Lutherans and Roman Catholics have come in the last 50 years or so as we commit ourselves to even greater communion in the future.
This is the text of a sermon preached at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, South Bend, Indiana, on Reformation Sunday, Oct 29, 2017.
Max Johnson is a professor of Liturgical Studies at the University of Notre Dame. Johnson’s research interests are in the origins and development of early Christian Liturgy and in the history and theology of the rites of Christian initiation.