Sermon Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, Chair of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany
Sermon for the Festive Service of Worship for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation on 31 October 2017 in Wittenberg
Romans 8:26: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”
My dear Friends,
It was an act of liberation when, 500 years ago today, the Augustinian monk Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses in Wittenberg, perhaps even a few metres from here, on the door of this church. For him personally it was an act of liberation. Liberation from the fear of a God demanding more than a human being can fulfil. Liberation from the compulsion to have to earn one’s salvation.
It was also an act of liberation for the church. It was a wake-up call to his Catholic church that it needed religious renewal. Luther did not want to found a new church but to call the Church of Jesus Christ back to its Lord.
And it was also an act of liberation for the world. It showed that the dictates of power and money should give way to a new freedom shown in love.
Wrestling with God and the world, and being liberated from deep despair - for Martin Luther the words of Paul’s letter to the Romans had a very personal significance. “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” We have heard these same words.
And now we are sitting here, 500 years later, in a country that is likewise wrestling with itself. A country that has never been so blessed. A country that has shown an impressive amount of empathy. A country that has made many efforts, including moral efforts. And, at the same time, a country in which some people feel morally overtaxed. A country in which people are afraid of losing their familiar world, their sense of safety. A country where people long to feel at home.
A country that, for all those reasons, so urgently needs the Reformation message of justification by faith alone!
This country will not be helped by setting a limit on the numbers of needy people to be supported, or by moral appeals to persevere. What this country needs is a new inner freedom. What this country needs is a strength that overcomes fear and strengthens love. What this country needs is the Spirit that helps us in our weakness. What this country needs is justification by faith alone and not by works.
Where can a new inner freedom come from? And a new confidence for our country with all its diverse approaches to life and sources of orientation? We Christians are many, even today, and the message of forgiveness and love that sustains can still help to shape our society. In the year that lies behind us we have devoted ourselves to this to an almost unprecedented extent. We did not want any hero-worship of Martin Luther. And to our Jewish brothers and sisters we expressed our shame at Martin Luther’s invective against the Jews. We called our intolerance against the Anabaptists and other persecuted groups by its name. We confessed our guilt for disparaging other Christian churches and asked forgiveness. And we told them what we love about them today.
We have come to a new understanding that Christ is not divided and so his church must no longer be divided. And no one should think that we can be induced to stray from the path towards visible unity in reconciled diversity. Setbacks will not deter us from continuing towards this goal. I thank my brother in Christ, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, and all those who with him work for Christian unity, for all their courage, supportiveness and friendship. And on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation I call, from Wittenberg, to the Pope in Rome: Pope Francis, brother in Christ, we give heartfelt thanks to God for your witness of love and mercy, which for us Protestants also means witnessing to Christ. We thank you for your signs of reconciliation among the churches. And whenever you come here to Wittenberg we will warmly welcome you, half a millennium after Luther burnt the papal bull of excommunication! We want to talk with Christ and then go forward courageously. We trust that the Spirit will help us in our weakness!
Hymn: „Komm, Heiliger Geist“ (Come, Holy Spirit)
Komm Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott, erfüll mit
deiner Gnaden Gut,
deiner Gläubgen Herz, Mut und Sinn, dein
brennend Lieb entzünd in ihn
O Herr Durch deines Lichtes Glanz zum
Glauben du versammelt hast
das Volk aus aller Welt Zungen. Das sei dir,
Herr, zu Lob gesungen. Halleluja, Halleluja
Du heiliges Licht, edler Hort, lass leuchten uns
des Lebens Wort, und lehr uns Gott recht
erkennen von Herzen Vater ihn nennen.
O Herr behüt vor fremder Lehr, dass wir nicht
Meister suchen mehr denn Jesus mit rechtem
Glauben und ihm aus ganzer Macht vertrauen.
The world needs a joint witness to Christ so urgently! The witness that we can give as churches is not obtrusive. The church, too, remains a praying church. It does not know any better. It struggles and sighs at the side of the people of the earth and asks for God’s Spirit and guidance. And for God‘s power and
blessing. Let us help our country to sense how blessed it is, and gain new confidence!
The core Reformation convictions are, still today, inspiring sources of strength for a society worth living in.
The central conviction concerns life by faith alone. It is the awareness that each person is of infinite value. Each person is made in the image of God. No one must first earn their dignity. Not through economic achievement. Not even through good moral behaviour. Human dignity is inviolable. The strength of our country lies not in making children in kindergarten fit for globalisation but in helping them to feel, deep in their souls, how precious each and every one of them is.
The Reformers used the old word ‘penitence’ as another expression of sure faith. The first of the 95 Theses is about penitence: “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, in saying ‘Do penance… ,’ wanted the entire life of the faithful to be one of penitence.” These words call us to stop and think, to reflect on ourselves, to take a step back from ourselves that is not only good for every single person but also for the whole country. Are we actually going in the right direction? What is wrong with us if we shower hate and mockery on each other via the internet? What understanding of political debate do we have if we only see the splinter in the eye of others and not the beam in our own eye? Where are the blind spots in our self-image as a country if we see ourselves as benefactors for the world and hardly notice how much our prosperity is generated at the expense of others? The first victims of human- induced climate change are precisely the people who have contributed leas t to it.
Yes, penitence and the resultant humility do a country good!
The centrepiece of Reformation faith is freedom. Martin Luther’s most important treatise is called “The Freedom of a Christian”. And freedom is one of the mega-issues of our age. Is freedom the liberation from any obligation? Is freedom the possibility of choosing among a thousand options? Or is freedom the innermost strength to follow our conscience, even against external authorities – because nothing can separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord – as the Apostle Paul said. Here too, the Spirit helps us in our weakness, for: Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. Having the courage of our convictions, intervening in public debates not from rage but from inner freedom - this is the attitude our country needs. This freedom is good for our country!
A spiritual renewal went out from Wittenberg, to people in Germany, Europe and worldwide. To men and women from all social classes. That is why, for me, the 500th anniversary is a day to give thanks. Thanks for the impetus for religious renewal that stemmed from the Reformation and has proved effective up to the present day. We give thanks that the conflicts and wars between the confessions in the past have now become a continuing process of reconciliation, understanding and friendship. It is my hope that this process may also send a message to a world threatened by conflicts and divisions. On this Reformation day I pray that God will give us the strength to continue on this path, endowing each one of us with what is most important for the church of the future - the ability to reach out to others with the love of which we speak.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God and of his Son Christ Jesus our Lord.