October 29

A Mighty Fortress

By Marsh Chapel

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1 Thessalonians 2: 1-8

Matthew 22: 34-46

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A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing. Our shelter He amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.

The author of our first and famous hymn this morning, Martin Luther, was born in 1483 in Eisleben, Germany. His father was a miner of some affluence, who wanted his son to become a lawyer, in part to help the growing family business. Martin disappointed his father, and became a monk, in part due to a frightening experience in a fierce thunderstorm in 1505. Terrified, he promised if he survived to enter the monastery. His love of the Scripture became the center of his teaching work, his ministerial vocation, and his spiritual existence. In the Bible he found what he did not find in the church of his time, in the religious practice of his time, and in his time. He found therein, truth. Once dwelling therein, Luther became a Scriptural genius, learning the biblical languages, lecturing on the Psalms, mastering especially the New Testament and particularly the letters of Paul. Were he to return from the dead and preach here at Marsh Chapel, he might well take as his theme, as last week, ‘What a Friend We Have in Paul’. Or, ‘Luther on Prayer’, as next week. Or, ‘Luther and Hymnody’, as with Dr. Christopher Brown the following week.

Luther’s disputations began well within the church of his day, and were at first understood by all as scholarly differences typical for religious contest. But, as Raymond Brown once told us, ‘all reformations go far beyond what the reformer did originally intend’. In 1517, on All Hallows Eve, Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral, attacking the practice of indulgences, and setting the authority of the Bible over against the authority of the church. In various tribunal settings, Luther, with a little help from his friends, affirmed the authority of Scripture, and attacked the authority of the Church. Over the next three years, his writing and teaching and publication and preaching, with the help of the newly developed printing press, quickly raised up a storm of controversy. In 1520 he published three magisterial treatises, and by 1521 he was excommunicated. He defended himself at the Diet of Worms in 1521 saying, ‘Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me’.

Over the next two decades, again with much support and assistance from others, out of his voice and writing emerged the Lutheran Church, the Protestant Reformation, and the concomitant splintering of the Christian church’s visible unity, which fracture has not been healed to this day. In 1525, he married a former nun, Katie Von Bora, and together they had six children. He died in 1846 in the very town in which he had been born.   He preached, taught, lived, trusted and extolled the gift of faith. In that way, oddly enough, he was like, akin to, Thomas Merton, whom we shall hear from in Lent.

So, James Finley, ‘Merton once told me to quit trying so hard in prayer. He said, ‘How does an apple ripen? It sits in the sun.’ A small green apple cannot ripen in one night by tightening all its muscles, squinting its eyes and tightening its jaw in order to find itself the next morning miraculously large, red, ripe, and juicy beside its small green counterparts. Like the birth of a baby or the opening of a rose, the birth of the true self takes place in God’s time. We must wait for God, we must be awake; we must trust in his hidden action within us.’

So, J Louis Martyn, “All religions are attempts to know God; none is the event of being known by God…God’s graceful election of us by his rectifying and non-religious invasion of the cosmos in Christ is the subject of the whole letter.” (Martyn, Galatians, 4:9).


Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing. Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing.

 Properly to remember Martin Luther, in the space of a 20-minute teaching sermon, here with emphasis on his thought, we shall need to be brutally concise. We focus here on one year alone, 1520, and three fundamental documents from that cornucopia year, which, to some measure, encompass the broad range of Luther’s theological perspective. Together these three ‘made the breach with Rome irreparable, and established the foundations of what would eventually become a new church’ (with thanks to Dr. Lyndal Roper, now and later, 133).

The first is the essay, To the Christian Nobility of the Church. We should remember that Luther’s reformation coincided with the emergence of the printing press. 4,000 copies of Nobility were sold as soon as they came off the press, August 1520. It was addressed in German to lay people, and argued that since the church itself had been unable to reform itself, it fell to the laity to do so. The reform promoted here is heavily weighted on financial reform. Luther charged the church with avarice, and charged the nobility with the task of addressing that avarice, something the nobles had every interest in doing. Luther attacked usury. He attacked complex financial manipulations. He attacked the control of much money by few people. ‘The genius of the tract was to combine the economic grievances about the Church’s financial affairs with the religious issue of the authority of Scripture’ (Roper, 149) (which Luther averred overrode spiritual law, the Church’s teaching authority, and the Councils called by Popes.). Luther set fire to the cult of saints, to religious orders, to masses in memory of the dead, to pilgrimages, and to monastic vows, including his own—all on the basis of economics and Scripture. Most striking, to our ears, is the full sympathy Luther has for priests and religious who have fallen in love and fallen into another’s arms. Putting them together and forbidding sex ‘like putting straw and fire together, and forbidding them to smoke or burn’ (Roper, 150). Only the nobility, only the lay princes, said Luther, had the power to do all this, and he charged them to do it. Sola Gratia!

The second is the treatise, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. This came out that year in October, after he had been threatened with excommunication. The title, in which is his whole argument, refers to the children of Israel (the real church) held captive in a foreign land, by an alien power, for a sordid purpose (the church of Rome). Herein Luther trimmed the list of sacraments from 7 to 2, protecting only baptism and eucharist, on the basis of Scripture. Herein Luther rejected an ‘Aristotelian’ understanding of the Mass—one of accidents and essence—but emphasizing and retaining a full, actual Presence in the Eucharist. He hold strongly and fully to the External Word, in the actual preaching of the Gospel, in actual presence in the Sacrament, and in the actual utterance of Absolution. All these three we regularly practice here, month by month. “The sacraments are not fulfilled when they are taking place, but when they are being believed” (Roper, 152). And faith, then is all. It is the belief that makes the sacrament, not vice versa. “Human beings could not make themselves perfect and win acceptance with God because of their good deeds—they had to accept their sinfulness and recognize that God in his justice accepts sinners. Thus they were at one and the same time sinners and saved” (Roper, 154). At the beginning of the service every Sunday, a prayer of confession and a word of absolution. Sola Fide!

The third tractate is The Freedom of the Christian. If you are thinking to read just one Lutheran essay, this is the one to choose this week. Written in November of 1520, this is a 30-point sermon. See how lucky you are to have to endure only 3 points a week! A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all. So the writing begins, and in the same manner ends, and argues through and through. So beautiful, so dialectical, so paradoxical, so realistic, so Scriptural—so Lutheran! It is the inner person who finds faith. For every human act, thought, deed, presentiment is colored by sin, tainted with pride, sloth, falsehood, superstition, idolatry, hypocrisy—creatureliness.  The Bible teaches us about sin. The Bible teaches us about faith. It is the Bible, alone, that holds the full authority to do this. ‘Hence all of us who believe in Christ are priests and kings in Christ, as 1 Peter says’ (Roper, 145). Sola Scriptura!

For his trouble, Luther was excommunicated in December of 1520.

Luther’s teaching is often and rightly summarized thus: Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Sola Scriptura. 


And though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us, we shall not fear for God has willed His truth to triumph through us. 

Luther’s influence shapes our understandings of power, preaching and prophecy.

Power. Luther reminds us of the relativity of all human ideals. Luther distrusted concentrated power, as M Gellhorn put it this year, I mistrust power for myself and everyone else, especially power bestowed by race, creed or color. Luther trusted preaching, but not those ‘whose heads were clear enough but who never cleared their throats’ (NYR 10/17). Luther respected but mistrusted reason alone: do you want to know better or do you want to get better? (RAH). Luther agreed with some current psychology, that man can do what he wills but cannot will what he wills. Luther would not be surprised by current political leaders who chose political opportunity over moral judgment. Luther’s voice is heard in that of Paul Tillich, The protestant principle is the restatement of the prophetic principle as an attack against a self-absolutizing and, consequently, demonically distorted church (ST, I, 227). Power.

Preaching. As James Kay has written on preaching: “(The great Lutheran) Bultmann operates with an “I-Thou” model or analogy of revelation as entailing existential commitments. Specifically, he construes the presence of Christ to an individual as analogous to the encounter of a Lover and a Beloved when and where the former says to the latter, “I love you.” The statement, “I love you,” is arguably a promise and simultaneously an existential statement in that it does not simply convey information but a self-involving declaration. In saying, “I love you,” the speaker does not discourse about love but enacts love concretely. This word of love is the love of which it speaks….(His) description of the proclaimed kerygma as “personal address [Anrede], demand [Forderung], and promise [Verheissung]; it is the very act of divine grace.” …Words heard with commissive force “self involve” an agent or subject… “I love you,” also functions as a demand, insofar as it places the Addressee in a new situation, namely, of being the Beloved, which requires a response.” (Forthcoming Kay paper). Preaching.

Prophecy. Here is a business leader, Charles Willie, warning of emptiness: “Those who would master the institutions of our society –a company, a community, or any other collectivity—must decide here and now to give themselves over fully to that which they wish to fully control. By so doing they also will forfeit some of their freedom and flexibility. Is mastery worth the outcome of an imprisoned personality that is efficient, well-organized, but constrained and unspontaneous?”

Here is a scientist, Charles Darwin, of whom a new biography was published recently, naming him the greatest Englishman of his age: “My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of a large collection of facts…the loss…is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect and more probably to the moral character.”

Here is a philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, warning about the dangers even in good motives: “the greatest evil comes not from selfishness but from self-lessness in the service of a great cause”.

Here is a Methodist bishop, Violet Fisher, warning us about our present peril: “I ask us to turn over to God for healing the anger and the fear and the desire for dominance that would lead us to harm another human being or to acquiesce in harm done to another”.

And here is a Chapel Dean: We see what we want to see. We minimize hatred and evil. We ignore the lessons of history, to our hurt. We love to be entertained. We neglect worship. We worship identity politics. We need humiliation for humility to be born. We learn only from experience. Doctors we humor, pain we obey.  



It may be, as even later Lutheran history and teaching has noted, that the adjective sola, ‘only’ should bear some scrutiny. Maybe not sola gratia, grace alone, but grace and love together, that can measure and resist, say, the anti-semitism that predates Christianity, that is found in the New Testament (John and even Paul in 1 Thessalonians), and that is tragically found throughout the works of Luther. Maybe not sola fide, faith alone, but faith and works, one being dead without the other as James, actually quite rightly put it. Maybe not sola Scriptura, Scripture alone, but Scripture as formed in tradition, as explicated in reason, and as interpreted in experience. So: gratia and agape, fide and semeia, Scriptura and aletheia.

Elie Wiesel said, ‘He who hears a witness becomes a witness’. He reminds us of who we are at Boston University.

Martin Luther said, ‘Here I stand, I can do no other, God help me’. He reminds us of who we are in Religious Life.

Thomas Merton said, ‘Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name’. He reminds us who we are as Christian people.

Martin Luther King said, ‘The moral arm of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice’. He reminds us of who we are at Marsh Chapel.

Come and join us! I mean it. Come and join us for this year in worship, fellowship, and discipleship. Come and join us in this season of remembrance!

Let goods and kindred go

This mortal life also

The body they may kill

God’s truth abideth still

His kingdom is forever

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

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