The summons of death comes to all of us…

Luther´s return from the Wartburg was risky business, but the theological doctor, pastor and professor foresaw worse if he´d remain hidden in exile and not address the serious issues in Wittenberg, but let the riot run loose. In Wittenberg things were getting out of hand. Luther´s colleagues, Karlstadt and Zwilling, who both did not have authorization to preach, had despite this lack of authorization taken over a leading role in the rebellion and were driving radical reform and iconoclasm despite growing protests from various quarters.

Although Martin Luther actually shared many of the theological concerns of these mavericks, he adamantly opposed their forceful uprising. He was painfully aware that timid consciences and hesitant believers could hastily be pressed into dramatic actions which could have unforeseen and even negative consequences and which they would afterwards regret, especially if they were not done out of faithful conviction and just motives. Luther put all emphasis on faith. This he wanted to gain and promote by transparent argumentation and evangelical motivation, but rejected forceful intimidation and populist short-term gains. He saw the decisive tool for reform and church edification in preaching and teaching of Christian freedom, which would take into account the consequences for my neighbor and the fruits for fellow human beings. After all, he was a close follower of the apostle´s teaching as we find spelt out in St. Paul´s letter to the Romans in the 14th chapter in taking cogniscience of the weak in faith.

So, although the elector foresaw lots of trouble and feared that he would not be able to protect the reformer as effectively in Wittenberg as in exile on the Wartburg, Luther came anyway. Luther was convinced, that in the end, he could protect the elector and all politicians better through the gospel work he was doing, than other way round. He also had a strong and definite calling. Not only was he called to serve as Doctor of theology and thus had a responsibility to colleagues and students at the university in Wittenberg, but he also had a definite, public and proper call as preacher and teacher of the city church. The elector kept this letter by the local parish to Luther from publication for political reasons, but Luther knew about it and mentions it in his first sermon on Invocavit. The political considerations were to prevent the emperor any excuse to press for the forceful extradition of the reformer – and Luther cooperated – at least partly. He did not teach at the university until 1524! Luther used the bible translation as an excuse for his “forced sabbatical” at the university, but he saw his main purpose and calling to preach the gospel truth in St. Marys. So, he really did put the gospel on a lampstand – and did the work of a preacher with determination, dedication – and great success. His preaching turned that place around – from hedious and destructive revolt back to constructive reform!

He preached on the prescribed gospel lesson on Sunday mornings and at noon he would do cursory sermons on certain books of the bible – like the letters by St. Peter and also by St. James (!), but also for many years on Genesis. Georg Rörer and Stephan Roth wrote many of those freeliy spoken sermons down, so that we have most of his sermons in written form even today. Although Luther himself wanted people to read the bible more than anything else and he himself feared, that people would misunderstand, misinterpret and misquote him, he reluctantly agreed to have his sermons be duplicated – and they sure did spread like wild fires.

Martin Brecht quotes Albert Burer, who describes Luther´s pleasant persona on the pulpit which he experienced first-hand in student days: “His facial expression was kind, good hearted and cheerful. His voice was sweet und harmonious – and his manner of speaking was impressive and convincing.” (Pg. 64) If You look at the portrait by Lucas Cranach painted in the years 1522-1524 it looks quite in line with that student´s description: What a friendly, kind and handsome young man Luther was!

The Invocavit sermons are a good example of Luther´s profound homiletic mastery. His latter catechism sermons prove that too. They brought about change to Wittenberg, turned the enthusiastic revolution and populist uprising back into patient, enduring and hard-working reform. It was going to be an ongoing struggle – teaching that Christian freedom goes hand-in-hand with responsibility and loving care for one’s neighbor and not just liberty at all costs. Luther did not dodge thorny issues, but addressed them head on as they came up. Masterfully and successfully he guided the congregation and town back from rebellion into ongoing reform – proving himself not only a brilliant theologian, but also a true pastor and bishop of the church.  Thank God for that!

Here now the first sermon – preached by Luther in Wittenberg on Invocavit 1522 – read in German and then in the English translation by John W. Dobberstein:

The summons of death comes to us all, and no one can die for another. Every one must fight his own battle with death by himself, alone. We can shout into another’s ears, but every one must himself be prepared for the time of death, for I will not be with you then, nor you with me. Therefore every one must himself know and be armed with the chief things which concern a Christian. And these are what you, my beloved, have heard from me many days ago.

In the first place, we must know that we are the children of wrath, and all our works, intentions, and thoughts are nothing at all. Here we need a clear, strong text to bear out this point. Such is the saying of St. Paul in Eph. 2 [:3]. Note this well; and though there are many such in the Bible, I do not wish to overwhelm you with many texts. “We are all the children of wrath.” And please do not undertake to say: I have built an altar, given a foundation for masses, etc.

Secondly, that God has sent us his only-begotten Son that we may believe in him and that whoever trusts in him shall be free from sin and a child of God, as John declares in his first chapter, “To all who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” [John 1:12]. Here we should all be well versed in the Bible and ready to confront the devil with many passages. With respect to these two points I do not feel that there has been anything wrong or lacking. They have been rightly preached to you, and I should be sorry if it were otherwise. Indeed, I am well aware and I dare say that you are more learned than I, and that there are not only one, two, three, or four, but perhaps ten or more, who have this knowledge and enlightenment.

Thirdly, we must also have love and through love we must do to one another as God has done to us through faith. For without love faith is nothing, as St. Paul says (1 Cor. 2 [13:1]): If I had the tongues of angels and could speak of the highest things in faith, and have not love, I am nothing. And here, dear friends, have you not grievously failed? I see no signs of love among you, and I observe very well that you have not been grateful to God for his rich gifts and treasures.

Here let us beware lest Wittenberg become Capernaum [cf. Matt. 11:23]. I notice that you have a great deal to say of the doctrine of faith and love which is preached to you, and this is no wonder; an ass can almost intone the lessons, and why should you not be able to repeat the doctrines and formulas? Dear friends, the kingdom of God,—and we are that kingdom—does not consist in talk or words [1 Cor. 4:20], but in activity, in deeds, in works and exercises. God does not want hearers and repeaters of words [Jas. 1:22], but followers and doers, and this occurs in faith through love. For a faith without love is not enough—rather it is not faith at all, but a counterfeit of faith, just as a face seen in a mirror is not a real face, but merely the reflection of a face [1 Cor. 13:12].

Fourthly, we also need patience. For whoever has faith, trusts in God, and shows love to his neighbor, practicing it day by day, must needs suffer persecution. For the devil never sleeps, but constantly gives him plenty of trouble. But patience works and produces hope [Rom. 5:4], which freely yields itself to God and vanishes away in him. Thus faith, by much affliction and persecution, ever increases, and is strengthened day by day. A heart thus blessed with virtues can never rest or restrain itself, but rather pours itself out again for the benefit and service of the brethren, just as God has done to it.

And here, dear friends, one must not insist upon his rights, but must see what may be useful and helpful to his brother, as Paul says, Omnia mihi licent, sed non omnia expediunt, “ ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful” [1 Cor. 6:12]. For we are not all equally strong in faith, some of you have a stronger faith than I. Therefore we must not look upon ourselves, or our strength, or our prestige, but upon our neighbor, for God has said through Moses: I have borne and reared you, as a mother does her child [Deut. 1:31]. What does a mother do to her child? First she gives it milk, then gruel, then eggs and soft food, whereas if she turned about and gave it solid food, the child would never thrive [cf. 1 Cor. 3:2Heb. 5:12–13]. So we should also deal with our brother, have patience with him for a time, have patience with his weakness and help him bear it; we should also give him milk-food, too [1 Pet. 2:2; of. Rom. 14:1–3], as was done with us, until he, too, grows strong, and thus we do not travel heavenward alone, but bring our brethren, who are not now our friends, with us. If all mothers were to abandon their children, where would we have been? Dear brother, if you have suckled long enough, do not at once cut off the breast, but let your brother be suckled as you were suckled. I would not have gone so far as you have done, if I had been here. The cause is good, but there has been too much haste. For there are still brothers and sisters on the other side who belong to us and must still be won.

Let me illustrate. The sun has two properties, light and heat. No king has power enough to bend or guide the light of the sun; it remains fixed in its place. But the heat may be turned and guided, and yet is ever about the sun. Thus faith must always remain pure and immovable in our hearts, never wavering; but love bends and turns so that our neighbor may grasp and follow it. There are some who can run, others must walk, still others can hardly creep [cf. 1 Cor. 8:7–13]. Therefore we must not look upon our own, but upon our brother’s powers, so that he who is weak in faith, and attempts to follow the strong, may not be destroyed of the devil. Therefore, dear brethren, follow me; I have never been a destroyer. And I was also the very first whom God called to this work. I cannot run away, but will remain as long as God allows. I was also the one to whom God first revealed that his Word should be preached to you. I am also sure that you have the pure Word of God.

Let us, therefore, let us act with fear and humility, cast ourselves at one another’s feet, join hands with each other, and help one another. I will do my part, which is no more than my duty, for I love you even as I love my own soul. For here we battle not against pope or bishop, but against the devil [cf. Eph. 6:12], and do you imagine he is asleep? He sleeps not, but sees the true light rising, and to keep it from shining into his eyes he would like to make a flank attack—and he will succeed, if we are not on our guard. I know him well, and I hope, too, that with the help of God, I am his master. But if we yield him but an inch, we must soon look to it how we may be rid of him. Therefore all those have erred who have helped and consented to abolish the mass; not that it was not a good thing, but that it was not done in an orderly way. You say it was right according to the Scriptures. I agree, but what becomes of order? For it was done in wantonness, with no regard for proper order and with offense to your neighbor. If, beforehand, you had called upon God in earnest prayer, and had obtained the aid of the authorities, one could be certain that it had come from God. I, too, would have taken steps toward the same end if it had been a good thing to do; and if the mass were not so evil a thing, I would introduce it again. For I cannot defend your action, as I have just said. To the papists and blockheads I could defend it, for I could say: How do you know whether it was done with good or bad intention, since the work in itself was really a good work? But I would not know what to assert before the devil. For if on their deathbeds the devil reminds those who began this affair of texts like these, “Every plant which my Father has not planted will be rooted up” [Matt. 15:13], or “I have not sent them, yet they ran” [Jer. 23:21],2 how will they be able to withstand? He will cast them into hell. But I shall poke the one spear into his face, so that even the world will become too small for him, for I know that in spite of my reluctance I was called by the council to preach. Therefore I was willing to accept you as you were willing to accept me, and, besides, you could have consulted me about the matter.

I was not so far away that you could not reach me with a letter, whereas not the slightest communication was sent to me. If you were going to begin something and make me responsible for it, that would have been too hard. I will not do it [i.e., assume the responsibility]. Here one can see that you do not have the Spirit, even though you do have a deep knowledge of the Scriptures. Take note of these two things, “must” and “free.” The “must” is that which necessity requires, and which must ever be unyielding; as, for instance, the faith, which I shall never permit any one to take away from me, but must always keep in my heart and freely confess before every one. But “free” is that in which I have choice, and may use or not, yet in such a way that it profit my brother and not me. Now do not make a “must” out of what is “free,” as you have done, so that you may not be called to account for those who were led astray by your loveless exercise of liberty. For if you entice any one to eat meat on Friday, and he is troubled about it on his deathbed, and thinks, Woe is me, for I have eaten meat and I am lost! God will call you to account for that soul. I, too, would like to begin many things, in which but few would follow me, but what is the use? For I know that, when it comes to the showdown, those who have begun this thing cannot maintain themselves, and will be the first to retreat. How would it be, if I brought the people to the point of attack, and though I had been the first to exhort others, I would then flee, and not face death with courage? How the poor people would be deceived!

Let us, therefore, feed others also with the milk which we received, until they, too, become strong in faith. For there are many who are otherwise in accord with us and who would also gladly accept this thing, but they do not yet fully understand it—these we drive away. Therefore, let us show love to our neighbors; if we do not do this, our work will not endure. We must have patience with them for a time, and not cast out him who is weak in faith; and do and omit to do many other things, so long as love requires it and it does no harm to our faith. If we do not earnestly pray to God and act rightly in this matter, it looks to me as if all the misery which we have begun to heap upon the papists will fall upon us. Therefore I could no longer remain away, but was compelled to come and say these things to you.

This is enough about the mass; tomorrow we shall speak about images.

The First Sermon, March 9, 1522, Invocavit Sunday1

Lord of our life, and God of our salvation,
Star of our night, and hope of ev’ry nation,
Hear and receive thy church’s supplication,
Lord God Almighty.

See round thine ark the hungry billows curling,
See how thy foes their banners are unfurling;
Lord, while their darts envenomed they are hurling,
Thou canst preserve us.

Lord, thou canst help when earthly armor faileth;
Lord, thou canst save when sin itself assaileth;
Christ, o’er thy Rock nor death nor hell prevaileth:
Grant us thy peace, Lord:

Peace in our hearts, our evil thoughts assuaging,
Peace in thy church, where brothers are engaging,
Peace, when the world its busy war is waging:
Calm thy foes’ raging.

Grant us thy help till backward they are driven;
Grant them thy truth, that they may be forgiven;
Grant peace on earth, or, after we have striven,
Peace in thy heaven.

Matthäus Apelles von Löwenstern (1594-1648)

About Wilhelm Weber

Pastor at the Old Latin School in the Lutherstadt Wittenberg
This entry was posted in Histories, Martin Luther and the Reformation, Sermon and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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