Reformation Day

Jane Strohl—October 31, 2007

[W]hen in his exile [Jacob] found Rachel, his blood relation, he took courage and gained great hope that at last he would obtain what he had in mind and what his father had commanded him with respect to taking a wife. Therefore he is immediately inflamed with love at first sight, and natural desire toward his kinswoman comes to the fore, so that the twofold impulse of faith and love made his body and heart more animated,. For he wanted to show himself as a man of strength and agility—in order that he might capture the maiden’s heart and entice her to fall in love with him. And these things, too, are only natural. But they are recorded by the Holy Spirit in order that no one may think that they are disgraceful or forbidden. (Luther’s Works 5:281-82)

The patriarch Jacob may not seem a likely poster child for this occasion. But since I’m the Tyra Banks of this outfit, I’m making him Reformation Day’s next top model.

When you look at Luther’s 95 theses, the academic challenges that ended up thrusting him into the public arena in 1517, you note that part of his reaction against indulgences was their wastefulness. He is very clear that if a person doesn’t have the means to keep his family in shoes he better not be spending money to hasten Uncle Albrecht’s passage through purgatory. Indeed, much of the practice of late medieval piety to which Luther most vehemently objected encouraged what he saw as extravagance. People dropped everything they were doing, including their work and family obligations, to take off on a pilgrimage. All the feast days recognized by the church encouraged idleness and party animal behavior. The brotherhoods, the organizations formed to do good works and thus accrue merits for their members, were also fond of holding in-house social functions given to excessive drinking and rude behavior. All these practices gave people an excuse to escape the everyday and ordinary. It is as if a religious activity needed to be extraordinary, even exotic, to count as really good.

Luther took fierce exception to this idea. If you want to please God, stay where you belong doing the generally humble tasks of your various vocations at work, at home, at church. Don’t underestimate what is accomplished there. Don’t aim for some imaginary state of unalloyed spirituality apart from or above your world. Take your cue from the matriarchs and patriarchs: celibacy was not one of their distinguishing characteristics, nor did they live lives of secluded prayer.

So what about these Old Testament worthies? What makes them such fine models of Christian discipleship in Luther’s mind? Well, they followed God’s call. They ventured towards an unknown land, sustained by faith in an incredible promise. But every step of their way was marked by the commonplace: courtship and marriage, the tensions between husband and wife and between siblings, the anguish of infertility, the joys and drama of parenthood, the issues of inheritance, the loss of loved ones, the ceaseless challenges of putting food on the table and getting along with the neighbors. Well, says Luther, God gets a kick out of that stuff. It is a real source of joy to our Creator; it IS the realm of grace.

For if we believe and are sure of the freely offered mercy of God, we should not doubt that everything we do pleases God very much and that He has numbered even the hairs of our head (cf. Matt. 10:30), yes, that the kisses and embraces are pleasing to Him, likewise the removal of that stone. All these things are recounted in this passage as very great and extraordinary works in the eyes of God and the angels. God could not forget them but wanted them recorded for our instruction and consolation. (LW 5:283)

Luther’s doctrine of vocation, the firstborn of the doctrine of justification, is not just about doing our duty; it is about embracing our joy.

An international student approached one of my colleagues some years ago with a pressing question. Why, he wondered, when they had such a wonderful theology of grace, were Lutherans so gloomy? Well, we do confess that sin is serious business and that it is OUR business. No one is immune. The works against which Luther was reacting were not the same works of the law that Paul knew, but both realized in their respective settings that sin is so invasive and perduring that only Christ can conquer it. After all, one of Luther’s major points in the 95 Theses against indulgences was that the last thing the church should be doing was discouraging Christian repentance. But to live as simul iustus et peccator is not a grim state of being. May I suggest we try on some other Luther paradoxes: simultaneously repentant and rejoicing, for example, or simultaneously besieged and blessed? Luther writes this in his commentary on the 23rd Psalm:

With these words, “Thou anointest my head with oil, Thou pourest my cup full,” the prophet, then, wishes to indicate the great, rich comfort that the believers have through the Word, that their consciences are sure, happy, and well satisfied amid all temptations and distresses, even death. It is as though he would say: “The Lord indeed makes an unusual warrior of me and arms me quite wonderfully against my enemies. I thought that He would have put armor on me, placed a helmet on my head, put a sword into my hand, and warned me to be cautious and give careful attention to the business at hand lest I be surprised by my enemies. But instead He places me at a table and prepares a splendid meal for me, anoints my head with precious balm or (after the fashion of our country) puts a wreath on my head as if, instead of going out to do battle, I were on my way to a party or a dance. And so that I may not want anything now, He fills my cup to overflowing so that at once I may drink, be happy and of good cheer, and get drunk. The prepared table, accordingly, is my armor, the precious balm my helmet, the overflowing cup my sword; and with these I shall conquer all my enemies.” But is that not a wonderful armor and an even more wonderful victory? (LW 12: 175-76)

When my daughter was little, she loved these fairy crowns sold in toy stores: a sparkly circlet resting round her head with long bright ribbons falling from it. Well I thought of providing fairy crowns for all this day, but unfortunately there was no provision for such additional liturgical supplies in the seminary budget. This is joyous business, my brothers and sisters. So you who are weary of heart, tempted or cold in spirit, come, come to the table. Drink deeply of the intoxicating grace of God. And then go out and celebrate this Reformation Day as a true disciple: straighten out some household matters, watch out for the welfare of your neighbors, or maybe even roll the stone from a well and lose your heart.