Preacher: Rev’d James Winderlich – Principal, Australian Luther College Adelaide

Grace to you, and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

As I begin, I offer you greetings from the presiding Bishop of the Lutheran Church of Australia, the Reverend John Henderson.

Tonight, and over the next days, we will commemorate 500 years since Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses (points for discussion) to the church door at Wittenburg.  In the minds of some people this marked the beginning of what we now call the Reformation.  Much of what will be said concerning Martin Luther and the Reformation is from the perspective of an acute, academically focussed series of theological battles that he and the other reformers fought within the medieval, Christian church.  Their aim was the right proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the hope that this gives.

As we celebrate Evensong I, however, thought that it would be more fitting for us to consider the spirituality that arose from the Reformation.  In the context of the theological battles that took place this additional perspective is important.  This is because for Luther and his colleagues theology is only truly theology when it is practised or, more precisely, enacted.  Prior to that it is little more than a notion or an idea that has yet to interact with its context – within creation.  For Luther the primary place for that enactment and interaction occurs within public and private worship, always leading the faithful to thanks and praise for God.

Luther identified Psalm 118 as among his favourite Psalms.  Hear a portion of that Psalm now:

Psalm 118:1-4, 17. (NRSV)

1 O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his steadfast love endures for ever!

2 Let Israel say,
‘His steadfast love endures for ever.’
3 Let the house of Aaron say,
‘His steadfast love endures for ever.’
4 Let those who fear the Lord say,
‘His steadfast love endures for ever.’

17 I shall not die, but I shall live,
and recount the deeds of the Lord.

Concerning this Psalm he wrote:

This is my beloved Psalm.  Although the entire Psalter and all of the Holy Scriptures are dear to me as my only comfort and source of life, I fell in love with this Psalm especially.  Therefore I call it my own.  When emperors and kings, the wise and learned, and even the saints could not aid me, this psalm proved a friend and helped me out of many troubles.  As a result, it is dearer to me than all the wealth, honour, and power of the pope, the Turk, and the emperor.  I would be most unwilling to trade this psalm for all of it.[1] 

 It is well attested that Luther actually had verse 17 mounted on his study wall.

At first glance ‘thanksgiving’ is easily identified as a main theme of this Psalm, and even today who would argue that thanksgiving is not an important spiritual value.  To be sure, in our contemporary context thanksgiving is promoted as a beneficial therapeutic discipline to encourage positive mental health.  But this was not where Luther’s interest in the Psalm lay.  Luther’s interest was derived from the ancient application of this Psalm.  The background of this Psalm was human exile and suffering.  They were things that were quite naturally interpreted as signs of God’s anger, absence and punishment.  For the Psalmist, however, the opposite was true.    What appeared to be God’s abandonment was, in fact, precisely where God faithfully acted for people (ref. Exodus 12, Jeremiah 33:11, Ezra 3:11).  This is a Psalm that not just describes but proclaims thanksgiving and joy in suffering and trauma.

Such an idea is not unusual for us even today.  It’s not uncommon for people to adopt a ‘stiff upper lip’ when faced with hardship but this was not Luther’s concern.  His focus was upon God’s presence and God’s constant faithfulness to people in their suffering and not their own capacity for triumph.  God’s constancy that leads to real hope.  The Psalmist named this as God’s ‘steadfast love’.  It is because of this steadfast love that Luther said of this Psalm, ‘It is my only comfort and source of life.’

Luther’s confidence in this Psalm came as it directed him to the core message of Jesus Christ understood and received through his cross.  In time this would be understood as Luther’s Theology of the Cross, and this formed the basis of his spiritualty.

That thanksgiving, joy and suffering should become synonymous in both Luther’s time and our own is odd at best, and entirely dissonant and ludicrous at worst.  Irrespective of the triumph of the human spirit, who could ever find joy and hope in suffering?  Suffering, no matter its context, always carries the acrid stench of death and we want to defeat it.  To our own frustration and despair (and humiliation), however, death ultimately wins.

Martin Luther also lived in a disruptive and horrible time of religious, political, social and public health danger and suffering.  The bubonic plague was in resurgence, the tragic loss of life in the Peasants War had devastated Luther to the point of severe depression, princes and emperors were trying to hold the empire together as foreign powers attempted to invade and usurp their rule.  Luther’s, as with any time, was a time of horrible human suffering and great trauma and, just like today, people wondered why?  What had they done to deserve this?  Who had brought such calamity on them?  Why was God absent?  What could they do?

One response, or form of spirituality, was to buy oneself a level of respite and peace through the sale of Indulgences.  These Indulgences tapped into ‘third party’ sources of spiritual virtue in an effort to satisfy God’s righteous anger against a sinner.  With the church as the only mediator of Indulgences the hapless, suffering soul could at least buy some peace and certainty which, at the very least, would come to complete fruition and full benefit in the afterlife.  A second approach was to work one’s way into Jesus’ own suffering by ‘mortifying’ the flesh.  That is, to compound one’s own misery to the point that it might assimilate itself with Jesus’ own suffering.  This was initially Luther’s approach who, at manic levels, applied his Augustinian disciplines to aim for his own moment of sublime mortification.  Even today people deal with their own suffering in similar ways by either attempting to transact their way out of it or to spiral deeply into it and make a companion of misery for themselves.

As Luther read the bible and engaged with its whole witness of God, he was drawn towards a third form of spirituality that neither tempted him to pretend that all would be fine through a celestial annuity (Indulgence) nor to beat himself to a pulp with the hope of perverse transcendence (mortification).

For Luther, this new or re-formed spirituality lay in the cross of Jesus Christ and all that it proclaimed and achieved:

  • Human suffering is not a sign that God has abandoned us;
  • Human suffering is not ours to alone master and transact our way out of;
  • God finds us in our suffering and fully meets us in that place through God’s own suffering in Jesus Christ.

Suffering and the certain death which it heralds is the exact place that God looks for and finds us.  The same God, who at the beginning of the scriptures searched and called out for people (Genesis 1:9), is the God who never gives up in that search.  That God knows exactly where to look for and find people, not to heap shame upon them but to offer rescue (redemption) and restoration to hope.  God brings God’s own steadfast love to fruition in our suffering.

In Jesus’ crucifixion God humiliated and mortified God’s self for our sake, knowing that we could never find our own way out of death and its traumatic scent.  Instead, God entered into our death to exchange it for God’s own life in Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21).

This, for Luther, was the whole point of Baptism and the Eucharist (Holy Communion).  In both of these sacraments God ‘searches for’ and finds people in their malaise, in their suffering, in their trauma and there God acts in love for them.  In the case of baptism people are really washed into union with Jesus’ own death and resurrection (Romans 6:3-7).    The same is true of the Eucharist.  There again, together with bread and wine, Jesus invites and encounters people through his own death so that they might receive the certainty of all that he promises and gives which is, as Luther puts it, freedom from sins, death and the devil (1 Corinthians 11:17-34).

Over time Luther’s Theology of the Cross and the spirituality that proceeded from it became more fully developed.  The heart of this theology is the realisation that through the cross of Jesus Christ God act in seemingly inappropriate and ridiculous ways for people.  In the cross God offers love in exchange for our indifference and antipathy.  In the cross God return steadfastness for our fickleness.  In the cross God give God’s own life in exchange for our death.  Why?  Because God and God’s love is constant.  Because of this our thanksgiving can be certain and whole, even in suffering and trauma.  It is precisely there that God constantly works out God’s love for each one of us.

Again, Luther wrote:

Therefore I call [this Psalm] my own.  When emperors and kings, the wise and learned, and even the saints could not aid me, this psalm proved a friend and helped me out of many troubles.  As a result, it is dearer to me than all the wealth, honour, and power of the pope, the Turk, and the emperor.  I would be most unwilling to trade this psalm for all of it.


For further reading:

Martin Luther’s Theology of the Cross (Theologia Crucis) became more fully developed within a short period of time.  An example of this can we found in 1518, less than year after the 95 Theses, in his Heidelberg Disputation:

Refer especially to Theses 20 & 21 and their subsequent proofs.

[1] cited in: Artur Weiser, The Psalms fifth edition (London: SCM Press, 1959), 723-724.