A Reformation Sermon

By The Revd Dr Carl E Braaten


I Corinthians 2: 2:  “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

I have chosen one verse from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, as the text for this sermon on Reformation Day.  It is a Bible verse that Martin Luther came back to again and again.  Church historians and polemicists have bequeathed to us many conflicting images of Luther.  For centuries Lutherans have made Luther into a hero, not surprisingly since he was the founding father of world Lutheranism, now numbering over sixty million adherents.  Then there is the other side of the story.  To Roman Catholics Luther has traditionally been viewed as a rebel who split the Catholic Church, called the Pope the Anti-Christ, and was rightly excommunicated.  Which image of Luther is historically the more accurate one?

Socialists have derided Luther as a nasty bourgeois man who called upon the  German nobles to put down the peasants’ rebellion.  In a heat of rage Luther screamed the words, “Stab, slay, and smite those murderous hordes fomenting an armed rebellion.”  A few historians have portrayed Luther as the spiritual ancestor of Hitler.  Luther urged the authorities to take swift and decisive action against the Jews — to burn their synagogues, raze their homes, seize their prayer books, and as a “final solution” send them back to the land of Israel.  Indeed, there are so many conflicting images of Luther; the most embarrassing ones we would like to forget.

However, I do not believe that Luther the man as such is a fit subject for a sermon, and Luther would be the first to agree with that.  We will leave the question of the real Luther to the historians to debate.  Rather, I would like to cut to the chase and focus on the permanent validity of Luther’s witness to Christ and his cross.

A New Way of Doing Theology

Luther called for a new way of doing theology.  Luther was by training and vocation a professor of the Bible.  As a twenty five year old student Luther wrote in a letter that “the only theology of any real value is what penetrates the kernel of the nut and the germ of the wheat and the marrow of the bone.”  After he nailed his 95 theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg (1517), he travelled to Heidelberg to hold a disputation with his fellow Augustinian monks (1518).  There he asserted: “The only theology of any real value is to be found in the crucified Christ” — a clear echo of the verse we read from I Corinthians 2: 2: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

For Luther the only theology true to the gospel is what he called a “theology of the cross.”  He contrasted that to a “theology of glory” that was being taught in all the schools at that time.  Popular theologians, not unlike many modern ones, were trying to get to God through a variety of other ways, teaching that people can come to know God through philosophy, mysticism, and morality, by means of reason, religious exercises,  and good works.  All of these ways lead heavenward to a glorious God of majesty, a God who wouldn’t be caught dead on the cross of that afflicted man of sorrows, in whom there was no “form or comeliness.”  (Is. 53: 2)

Luther was a follower of the apostle Paul’s theology.  Luther said:  There are two ways of doing theology, the way of the philosopher Aristotle who defined God as the First Cause of all things, an Absolute who could not care less about what is going on in the world, and then there is the way of the apostle Paul who decided to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified.  The two ways of doing theology are the way of glory and the way of the cross.  The way of glory rises up to meet God at the level of God in heaven.  The way of the cross looks for God in a down-to-earth manner, in things that are as lowly, weak, poor, and naked as the suffering man who died on a hill outside the gate.

God in the Flesh

The cross of Christ involves not only the death of a human being, one Jesus by name.  Rather, it is a God-event.  The person dying on the cross is not a mere man; he is God in the flesh.  This equation results in a strikingly new concept of God.  The very idea that God would allow himself to be crucified among criminals — it’s unbelievable!  The great religions of the world teach that God cannot suffer; God cannot bleed; God cannot die.  Because God is God he has no feelings at all; he has no passions; he has nothing in common with the suffering of human beings, in sharing their anguish, despair, and sickness unto death.  What happened to Jesus on the cross was something that presumably happened to Jesus only in his human nature.  This is what the theologians of glory taught, in order to exempt God from human deprivation and degradation.

For Luther the reformer and Paul the apostle what happened on the cross happened to God.  It is right to say that God himself is crucified, because Jesus is not only man but also God.  The crucified Jesus is “very God of very God.”  That is exactly what the Creed of Nicaea also says.  God is hidden in the cross of Christ.  Theologians of glory flee from the hidden and crucified God in favor of the omnipotent God of majesty.  Ashamed to find God in the cross of Christ, their pride tells them to look for God in loftier places, in  peak experiences, in which people scale the heights of their own human potential, their reason, creativity, and imagination.

What do we normally think of when we think of God?  Do we think of power, glory, wisdom, and majesty?  Of course, that is one way, the broad way, but Paul chose the narrow way, where God meets us in the cross of Christ.  Let us listen to some of Luther’s own words:

“We Christians must know that unless God is in the balance and throws his weight as a counterbalance, we shall sink to the bottom of the scale.. . .If it is not true that God died for us, but only a man died, we are lost.  But if God’s death lies in the opposite scale, then his side goes down and we go upward like a light and empty pan.  But God would never have sat in the pan unless he had first become a man like us, so that it could be said:  God is dead; here in Christ is God’s passion, God’s blood, God’s death.”

Such a theology of the cross is revolutionary in the history of religion.  When it comes to the nature and attributes of God, we are to think about Jesus Christ and him crucified.

Four hundred and fifty years later, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the martyr who died on Hitler’s scaffold, was saying the same thing as Paul:

“God allows himself to be edged out of the world onto the cross.  God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which he can be with us and help us. . . .Only a suffering God can help.”

The Jewish writer, Elie Wiesel, in his book Night, tells about an incident at Auschwitz:

“The SS hanged two Jewish men and one youth in front of the whole camp.  The men died quickly, but the death throes of the youth lasted for half an hour. Where is God?  Where is he?’ someone asked behind me.  As the youth still hung in torment in the noose after a long time, I heard the man call again, ‘Where   is God now?’  And I heard a voice in myself answer:  ‘Where is he?  He is here. He is hanging on the gallows. . . .’”

Could he perhaps have been thinking of the suffering God who humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on the gallows?

Only in Christianity do we find this idea that God and the gallows go together.  In other major religions, God is high in his heaven and far away.  We humans are supposed to go there on the wings of our own reason and experience, our religious rituals and good deeds.  Against this Luther said, “We should not try to penetrate the lofty mysteries of God’s majesty, but we should simply be content with the God on the cross.  Anyone who tries to find God outside of Christ will find only the devil.”

The Happy Exchange

Of what use is this theology of the cross for you and for me?  In his Letter to the Romans, Paul answers this question by expounding his doctrine of justification by faith apart from the works of the law.  The cross of Christ and justification by faith are not two separate things; they are two sides of the same coin.  Without the crucified Christ there can be no justification of sinners in the sight of God.  In the Lutheran tradition the doctrine of justification has been called “the article by which the church stands and falls.”  In light of this doctrine of justification, Luther found much to criticize in the church and theology of his day, from the Pope in Rome to the peddler of indulgences in his parish.  He claimed that they were teaching salvation by the merits of works and not by faith in Christ and the benefits of his cross.  “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”  So said John Tetzel, the popular preacher, while selling certificates of indulgence to raise money to build St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome.

What is so great about this salvation that we receive through faith alone on account of Christ alone?  What hangs in the balance is the issue of bondage or freedom.  Freedom is the very essence of salvation.  In his wonderful treatise On Christian Freedom, Luther wrote:  “A Christian is free. . .and in bondage to no one.”  Yet, at the same time, he said, “A Christian is a servant, and owing a duty to everyone.”  Radical freedom was purchased for us by the cross of Christ and it means to be in bondage to no one, yet free to serve everyone.

The righteousness of God is revealed from heaven.  It is not something we render to God but what he gives to us.  “Lord Jesus,” cried Luther, “you are my righteousness, just as I am your sin.  You have taken upon yourself what you were not and you have given to me what I was not.”  This what Luther called the good news of the “happy exchange.”  God in Christ takes our sin, and we get his righteousness.  We are free, free at last, and off the hook.  Justification by faith alone means freedom from the way of works, which requires us to sweat for every inch of our stature in the face of God.  The cross is God’s way of shattering the way of works to make way for faith.  That is to let God be God who is in the business of saving sinners.  This frees us to receive his salvation as a gift and to live life to the hilt.

Luther wrote a letter to his friend, Philip Melanchthon, who was worrying about a dilemma:  If he did what he felt he had to do, he would be committing a sin, no matter how hard he tried to avoid it.  Then Luther said to his friend, “Pecca fortiter,” which means, “Sin boldly!”  Go ahead and do what you have to do, and then he added these words of qualification, “. . .believe in Christ even more boldly still, for he (Christ) is victorious over sin, death, and the world.”  Luther was assuring Melanchthon that Christ did not die for fictitious sinners, but for real sinners.  If it were possible for humans to be perfect on their own and avoid all ambiguities, then Christ would have died in vain.

Living Under the Cross

Finally, we must ask, what is the meaning of the cross for the daily life of ordinary believers in the world?  The cross is not only a way to be saved but a way to live.  Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me.”  To be a Christian is not only to believe in Christ but to follow Jesus.  To follow him where?  Into the world in solidarity with the least, the lost, and the last.

The cross is not a symbol for pious people meditating on things religious.  The people of Christ live their lives under the cross, in school, on a farm, in a family, in a business, at city hall, in the every day secular world, doing what needs doing at the moment.  That will sometimes entail suffering, humiliation, grief, disgrace, and maybe even martyrdom.  Not many of the disciples or apostles died of old age.  Bearing the  cross of Christ aroused conflict and opposition.  Christians ought to expect that they may be dealt with as sheep for the slaughter.  In Greek the word “martyr” is the same as the world “witness.”  Martyrdom means being a witness to the truth, willing to pay the price that one unavoidably pays in doing hand-to-hand combat with forces of evil in the world.

We confess in the Nicene Creed, “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.”  Those are the four marks of the true church of Christ.  Luther placed on the par with these four marks the additional mark of the cross, of suffering, and martyrdom.  A church that wants to be great and glorious in worldly terms, that wants to be vocal and victorious in political terms, is deeply suspect.  Something is profoundly wrong with any church that wishes to be identified with the rich, beautiful, and powerful people.  That is the way of the theology of glory.  The church seeking glory tends to worship its own growth, success, popularity, and to peddle cheap grace to those who can afford to pay their way.

The reason that the Christian life under the cross brings suffering is that those who are set free by Christ go into the world to set the captives free.  That means to work for the liberation of the captives, to widen the range of freedom in every respect — in terms of freedom of the press, freedom of worship, freedom of assembly, and freedom of opportunity.  Almost every American will agree with that.  But it also means freedom from want, freedom from war, freedom from ignorance, and freedom from oppression. The way of the cross in the world — in political, social, and economic terms — means to liberate people from the prisons of class, race, wealth, ideology, and anything else that keeps people down.

Just as Jesus was nailed to the cross for setting people free, those who claim to be his followers will go the way of the cross in setting people free from suffering and degradation, from poverty and hunger, from ignorance and superstition.

All of these ideas flow from Luther’s theology of the cross.  Luther carried this theology to his death bed.  His friends asked him if he was prepared to die in the faith he had preached.  Throughout his career Luther had said, “Preach one thing: the wisdom of the cross.”  Now on his death bed Luther answered, “Yes.  We are beggars.  That is true.”

It is to be hoped that churches today will learn from Paul’s theology of the cross how to be faithful witnesses to Jesus Christ and him crucified;

that they might teach nothing but a theology of the cross;

they they might preaching nothing but the crucified God;

that they might trust, not in themselves, but solely in the benefits of the cross;

and that their mission will take shape in the form of the cross of Christ.  Amen!

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