"Man must first cry out that he sees no hope; In this disturbance, salvation begins. When man believes himself to be utterly lost, the light breaks."
- Martin Luther, 16th century
The thunder cracked, and the skies opened, which caused a great shock to the man’s soul – as if it were as fragile as an egg, with the yolk of security, courage and independence dripping onto the fresh soil – now covered in a new way of being.
It was both the death and the birth of a man, then acting in concert, as if a symphony of divine music were playing the opposing chords of the heart, forever changed.
It was July 2nd in the year 1505 and Martin Luder, a German law student of University of Erfurt was traveling home from a recent visit with his parents. He had been wavering about his future for some time, but this was a guarded secret from his father, a wealthy copper smelter and an influential man in his own right – having no time for anything but his endless pursuit of Fortune –
Regardless of where she may lead him.
He had plans for Martin to become a lawyer, so that he could help the family business in its re-occurring legal tensions with rival enterprises.
But on that night, the night of July 2nd, Martin’s life trajectory shifted like a tectonic plate rising vertically out of the deep waters of expectancy and regularity, neither foreseen nor sought after.
It came in the form of a tempest, a gale, a storm.
And it seemed to pick up out of nowhere as this medieval law student struggled to keep his wits about him on a cobblestone road in central Germany.
Martin would later say that the terrifying lightning strikes, and crippling air pressure which pinned him to the ground, were the work of a God himself, intercepting him on the road home. Whether a natural or supernatural experience, one thing was certain:
Martin’s life would never be the same.
In fear and trembling, he cried out to the maestro of this terrifying orchestra, pleading with God to save his life. In return, Martin bartered, he would leave law school and becoming a monk – somewhat unthinkable in the context of the Luder family, who were neither religious, nor interested in anything that the monastic life represented.
Martin had little understanding of God, beyond the idea that his gamble seemed to have paid off – as he was able to escape the storm, alive and unharmed. But now what? He was faced with a life of serving a God he knew virtually nothing about. In fact, the only understanding of God that Martin would have come to inherit from the clergy of his day would have looked quite different from the God that is worshipped in Canadian churches in the 21st century. Gott (God in German) in the eyes of this litigator-turned-monk was something of a maleficent character, taking little interest in His creations beyond judging them for their wretched nature. Gott was often angry, whose wrath could only be appeased by endless confessions to representatives of the papal hierarchy, sequences of preordained prayers and the purchasing of indulgences.
As a result, Martin felt stuck in a system of servitude to this Gott; and yet like he was simultaneously careening off the cliff of control and into the abyss of depression and anxiety about life and the afterlife. The worst of both worlds. One contemporary of Martin noted that while it was not unusual to see someone in angst about their religious position, given the religious atmosphere of the day, it was striking to see how the monk was able to confess for hours on end, trembling at the thought of omitting to mention even the smallest of transgressions to his vicar.
In short, Gott was terrifying.
Like many both within and outside of the Church at the time, he had simply adopted the status quo of what it meant to be a member of the Church body. Transformation, deliverance, restoration and even the Gospel itself would have meant virtually nothing to someone filtering their understanding of the role of Church through their Medieval lens. Its as if the original ethos – the overarching narrative, including the guiding beliefs and purpose – had simply been forgotten or pushed aside to make room for a collective of men who built the Medieval Church in its stead.
The Christian ethos was dead long before Martin was ever born.
As such, Martin’s very real struggles with anxiety and depression over this life and the next, were the results of a framework of corruption and perversion of the Church, which could offer nothing of value to the deeper questions of where did we come from, where are we going, and what is our story as the Body of Christ. The idea of purpose, direction and context within the complexities of life seemed like looking into a dimly lit room and searching for discernment, instead finding disorientation, disconnection and trepidation.
Simply put, Martin did not understand his place in the Gospel, since (even as monk) he did not know of the Gospel.
His dilemma at first was that he had never read the Scriptures – something of a guarded text, housed within the ivory towers of the powerful who would bend and manipulate portions of Scripture to justify their personal agendas. But upon attending the University of Wittenberg to obtain a degree in Biblical Studies, Martin began to discover that Gott was not God, and the Church of the 16th century was quite unlike the Body of Christ found within the Word of God – moving, emancipating, renewing. It was here that Martin Luder changed his family name to Luther to identify with the Greek eleutheros, or as we would now say:
Imagine the sheer ecstasy of knowing that you were not the object of Gott’s wrath, a wretched creature of unlovable nature – but rather a beloved, a betrothed, an adopted child of a King. No longer fettered by shame, nor chained by darkness. No longer bound by fear, nor shackled by sin. Freed.
Like Sha'ul who changed his name to Paulus 1500 years prior and went on to launch the early Church into its purposed glory, this transformation of character within Martin demanded a new identity.
Martin no longer served a man-made den of thieves, eager to line their religious cloaks with the pauper’s coins. Instead, he served a man-making God, who desired to nothing other than the pauper’s heart. No longer did Martin see a Gott who desired to judge the world in their sin, but rather a God to save them from it.
And that would be his point of no return.
Once Martin understood his ethos – that he was a part of something much greater than himself and that this something was the moving, breathing power of the unstoppable Gospel – he knew two things:
One: He was in.
Two: He needed to tell everyone about it, whatever the cost.
And it nearly cost him his life on more than one occasion, as the keepers of the perverse tradition of Gott would stop at nothing to maintain the reigns on the uneducated and poor. Injecting the life-giving nature of the Gospel into the spiritual death and decay of the populous meant the certain death of Gott – and by extension, the death of the 16th Century Church. As such, one does not need to search very far in either his imagination nor in the annals of history to comprehend just how desperately the Church wanted to silence and destroy the monk who threatened to end them.
And here, Martin made his stand. He’s been called the most influential figure of both the Medieval and Enlightenment eras, because he is largely responsible for collapsing the former to make way for the latter. That of course was never his intent, but I think it speaks to the power of the Gospel to burst the wineskins of old and corrupt ways, to make way for the new, life-giving potations of freedom and justice.
And yet, he was a man who was crass and offensive, prideful and bitter, and went through a period when he struggled with his own religious prejudices. He was, in short, merely man – and man can err. But he was a man who, through the enlightenment of Scripture, found and re-launched the Gospel Movement in his era and recognized that his life meant nothing outside of that context.
But that context, what we call the Gospel, begins with the Gospel Originator – Jesus Christ. The first time the words of Jesus hit the ears of the people in his day, a crowd packed into a Jewish synagogue in AD 1st Century, they concluded what so many of us now tend to forget:
The people were amazed at his teaching, for he taught with real authority—quite unlike the teachers of religious law… Amazement gripped the audience, and they began to discuss what had happened. “What sort of new teaching is this?” they asked excitedly. “It has such authority! Even evil spirits obey his orders!” (Gospel of Mark)
The people of his day picked up on something striking: the words that have left the mouth of whomever this is, are not like words we have
This isn’t another religious sect. Or another philosophy. It’s a not a means to control nor an attempt to establish a theocratic rule. Its partially what makes me cringe when I hear Jesus lumped in with the major religions.
These are new words.
This is freedom. And freedom from.
But when we consider that lens – that we are not simply church-goers or small-group attenders, but bringers of these new words of freedom – of eleutheros – do we hear our own voices in that? Do those words sound like the words that leave our mouths? Or do we sound like the same resounding gongs and clanging symbols of the world around us, apathetic, cynical, desperate to fit in and yet spiritually disconnected?
We have a choice before us. We can adopt that which we have allegedly entered into – a people chosen for a purpose – or we can keep the status quo, hope for a hedonistic outcome to our lives and pray that no one engages us. It sounds simple. But how many of us choose the former over the latter?
Friends, if we don’t where we’ve come from, where we’re going and what in God’s name we’re doing here, then as author John Eldredge puts it, we’re disoriented times zero, unaware of our surroundings and unable to allow for transformation to take place in ourselves or to invite anyone else into that process.
And yet we find ourselves in the interesting position of inheriting the freedom that was fought for and paid for by the blood of martyrs and the sacrifices of the saints that came before us, only to turn and accept with open arms the very things that fettered the Medieval Church: ignorance and apathy.
We’re becoming a Church that is perniciously willing to allow perversions of the Gospel to enter the Church, happily adopting ideas, philosophies and habits which are at best a distraction and at worst, heresy. Worse still, the decisions made are often done not in the name of conviction, but rather in appeasing the applecart – keeping the spotlight of negative opinion away from us and on to someone else. The problem isn’t so much that we have malintent, but rather that we don’t even realize what is happening. Like a rescue diver who has hit the water at great speed and found himself disoriented in the pulls and tugs of the ocean current, we can no longer see which way is up, and therefore cannot tell right from wrong, good from bad, freed from enslaved, Gospel from something other entirely.
And consequently, we stray from the Movement.
The Gospel offends. It is raw. It is untamed. It is the rescuing power of Jesus Christ, the one chosen to free us from the ugliest versions of ourselves – our addictions, our pains, our anxieties, our sins. The Gospel comes to claim, and claim boldly, the lives of those once discarded and deemed worthless, to bring those lives into the fold of the Body of Christ and to make them sons and daughters of the King. Witnesses of the message that saves. Slaves to forgiveness and love. Bringers of peace and proclaimers of truth. Defenders of the orphans and widows.
Sounds great. But the truth is, we will never be characters in a narrative in which we’ve not entered. And we will never enter a story for which the author is unknown. Our ethos is who we are as a people, as a chosen Body to bring the fire to those kept in the cold. It’s an understanding, a mindset, a wardrobe to another world.
But that process starts the way it has always done: from the manger of humility. It starts in a place where we as the Church can admit to ourselves that we have become mistrustful and disinterested, and placed the things of this world above the Gospel. When we can admit that we’ve lost our way. That we are without hope of saving ourselves.
If we can get to that place, a place of openness and humility, we will wake to the reality that something good is rising just over the horizon, the darkness is lifting, and the Gospel has come.
Here, and only here, the light breaks.