2017 is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. For it was on 31st October 1517 that Martin Luther protested against the practice of indulgences by nailing his 95 theses to the door of All Saint’s Church in Wittenburg.
All over the world books have been published and celebrations have been held to mark this anniversary. In this week’s blog I thought I would write about a wonderful 34-page booklet which we are using in the fellowship group I lead to celebrate Martin Luther’s rediscovery of the grace of God. Entitled Martin Luther and Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, the booklet has been produced by Edward Carter, the Canon-Theologian of Chelmsford Cathedral.
When I first realised that I was having to lead a six-part study course drawing upon the life of Martin Luther and his Commentary on Galatians, I had some doubts about how easy I would find the material – let alone the other members of the group. Indeed, in promoting the course, I wrote: “I confess that I am not familiar with Luther’s commentary, so it will be a learning experience for me”. But in the end my fears – and indeed the fears of some of the other members of the group – were groundless. We were staggered to discover how relevant and helpful Luther’s insights are to us today.
Each time we meet we begin by sharing news and then, following an opening prayer based on Psalm 73, we pray for one another as also for concerns in the wider life of the church and the community.
We then read a short account of part of Martin Luther’s life. We were fascinated, for instance, to discover that Luther changed his surname from ‘Luder’ (which roughly means in German ‘rubbish’) to ‘Luther’. Apparently the ‘th’ at the heart of his newly adopted name represented God, or ‘Theos’ in Greek. After having learnt a little more about Luther, we ask ourselves the following two questions: What most strikes you about this part of Luther’s life-story? Is there anything in Luther’s life-story that resonates with yours.
Then we turn to Scripture – each Wednesday we read a chapter from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Each member of the group is invited to offer a short phrase or verse from the passage to the others – something which has particularly struck them that evening. It always amazes me how one chapter from the Bible can impact people so differently.
Only at this point do we turn to Luther’s Commentary – or rather a short extract on one of the verses of the chapter from Galatians which we have just read. We were impressed, for instance, by Luther’s pastoral insights in his comments on Christ “who gave himself for our sins” (Galatians 1.4): “Underscore these words, for they are full of comfort for sore consciences. The genius of Christianity takes the words of Paul ‘who gave himself for our sins’ as true and efficacious. We are not to look upon our sins as insignificant trifles. On the other hand, we are not to regard them as so terrible that we must despair”. We then have to answer and discuss three further questions relating to Luther’s comments.
We wind up our evening together by bringing to God the things that we have discussed, and conclude each time with a final prayer attributed to Martin Luther:
Behold, Lord, an empty vessel that needs to be filled. My Lord, fill it.
I am weak in the faith; strengthen me.
I am cold in love; warm me and make me fervent, that my love may go out to my neighbour.
I do not have a strong and firm faith; at times I doubt and am unable to trust you altogether. o Lord, help me. Strengthen my faith and trust in you.
In you I have sealed the treasure of all I have.
I am poor; you are rich and came to be merciful to the poor.
I am a sinner; you are upright.
With me, there is an abundance of sin; in you is the fullness of righteousness.
Therefore I will remain with you, of whom I can receive, but to whom I may not give.
I think this is a super way for a fellowship group to spend an evening. There are opportunities for sharing – but also opportunities for learning. We are both the wiser and the richer for having spent these 90 minutes together. On reflection, maybe we should study another key Christian leader in this way.