The Truth Shall Free Us
If you should continue to remain in my teaching, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know that the truth will free you. –John 8:31b-32
This year we join with Protestant churches across the world to celebrate the 500th anniversary of a seminal moment in the Reformation of the Christian Church: Martin Luther’s publishing of his 95 Theses concerning Indulgences.
The story goes that on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther, age 31, then a young priest, professor, and monk, walked up to the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Saxony (now Germany), and nailed his 95 Theses concerning Indulgences to the church’s door. This would have been the Facebook or Twitter of its day, literally posting this argument that Luther had with the Church about its current practice of taking money for allegedly freeing the souls of people’s departed loved ones from purgatory for a small contribution to the church.
Problem was, there was no evidence that purgatory even existed, nor that the church could do anything about it if it did, nor that anyone could buy the freedom of their dear departed even if the church could. The idea that the church was not only totally fabricating a realm of being that didn’t exist, connecting it to God, and then terrifying people into giving money to apparently free their loved ones from this fictitious realm of horrors, angered the young Luther on many levels. His response with these theses, or brief, sentence-like statements, has been widely observed to mark the beginning of the Reformation of the Christian church.
The further problem: Maybe Luther didn’t pound these theses to the castle church door in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, or at any other time. Maybe all he did was send them in a letter to his archbishop, Albrecht of Magdeburg and Mainz, dated October 31, 1517, which he did do. Evidence for this exists, but the best evidence for Luther nailing the theses to the door of the church seems to come from an account made by his close colleague and friend, Philipp Melanchthon, shortly after Luther’s death in 1546. The latest scholarship on the sources of this story, some pretty good reading in itself, came 2 years ago in the Lutheran Quarterly, in an article by Luther scholars Volker Leppin and Timothy Wengert.
So what is the truth about this seminal event of the Reformation? Whether Luther nailed his argument to a church door or not, the Reformation began, and is still happening today. Indeed, the church is in constant need of being reformed, of being called back to the Word of God, of constantly redirecting it from flights of human fancy back to the cross of Christ, the center of our faith.
The above words of Jesus, translated by myself from the Greek text (a text itself the product of many years of research based on sources far removed from the original writing), speak powerfully to our “post-truth” generation. In the days of “fake news,” the real news has never been more important. Truth may be multi-faceted, but it is not endlessly changeable. As Luther said in his document spelling out his theology of the cross in its earliest full version, the Heidelberg Disputation (1518), “A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is” (Thesis 21).
Here Jesus calls his disciples to two tasks: 1. Remaining in his teaching, which entails knowing his teaching and then following it; 2. knowing the truth, and thus being set free by it.
How does knowing this truth, or knowing any truth, set us free? Indeed, the government official who most directly allowed Jesus to be crucified asks “What is truth?” (Pontius Pilate, John 18:38).
The central truths to which we are called as Christians are those that we voice every week through the Creeds. These are not truths that everyone will understand or believe all the time. That reflects the collective nature of faith: There is no “my Christian faith,” but only “our Christian faith.” The Christian faith is essentially catholic (small “c”), for if it were just mine and yours and his and hers, that faith would never stand articulation, assent, or agreement. It would not depend on our acknowledging it to be truth, but it would also not be accessible to us as it is when we agree.
Still, some truths are very hard to assent to. Sometimes, denial of truth feels necessary in order to deal with the psychological and spiritual dissonance that comes from a state of things that goes contrary to what we or our culture thinks is right. But that denial of truth will never free us. No denial will ever free anyone.
Only speaking truth will ever set anyone, or any community, entirely free. For then, it is possible to deal with things as they are, not as we wish them to be.
What are the essential truths of Trinity Lutheran Church of Park Forest that we need to voice, to lift up, to challenge ourselves with? I invite you to join me in thinking about these needed truths as we come together soon in small group discussions about the mission of this church. I invite you to talk with your spouses and children, families and friends, and fellow church members, on the nature of this church community and what any church needs to be, say, and do in the future. In invite you to call me at the church office (708-747-8388), or e-mail me (firstname.lastname@example.org) with any ideas or thoughts related to these conversations. What conversations should we be having? How do we continue to reform our welcome, our worship, and our preaching of the Word in order to meet the needs of our community and the wider community and world?
We are grounded in the essential truth of faith: Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again. And with that death, rising, and coming again God proves God’s love for us and for our universe. The love of God in the crucified and risen Christ is the basis for this and any Christian community. And this truth shall set us free.
God bless you every day!