Luther’s advice on COVID-19

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I came across this article drawing on something Martin Luther wrote in 1527 when Christians we asking what to do about the plague that was wreaking havoc through their cities. His words still make good sense today…

Martin Luther Actually Had Some Good Coronavirus Advice Back in 1527

God’s grace & peace be with you in these crazy times…

Learning to Love (Exodus 20:1-17)

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Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell stories of people who came to Jesus and asked him what was the most important commandment. In a religious context where people were expected to memorise and keep 613 different rules, I can understand why they would ask Jesus which one he wanted them to prioritize the most. The writers of the gospels differ slightly in the way they tell the stories, but they all agree that Jesus said that loving God with all our hearts, minds, souls and strength, and loving our neighbours like we love ourselves was the essence of what God wants us to do (see Matthew 22:37-40; Mark 12:39-41; Luke 10:26-28).

Jesus’ shift from a highly developed system of rules to one command to love challenges us to think for ourselves. When we have rules, we can either follow them or react against them without giving much thought to what we are doing. With Jesus’ command to love, however, we need to start asking ourselves some difficult questions. Who are our neighbours? How we do love them in real, practical ways? Is love for God something we feel? Is it just about the songs we sing? Or is loving God something more?

In teaching us his number one command, Jesus also gives us a way to interpret all the other commands through the Bible. Essentially, they are commentary on how God wants us to love him and love other people. Especially when we read the 10 Commandments in Exodus 20:1-17, we can see how God wants us to love him in the first three, and how to love the people around us in commandments four to ten.

(At this point it might be good to explain that I’m following the traditional Lutheran numbering of the 10 Commandments. While other parts of our Christian family number them differently, I’m happy to accept that there are different interpretations without debating which is correct.)

A gift we have in Martin Luther’s explanation of the Commandments in his Small Catechism is the way he explores how they teach us to actively love God and other people. We could spend a lot of time delving into each commandment. They open up so many ways for us to live out Jesus’ command to love that our entire lives can be dedicated to doing the good works that they teach. (If you’re interested in learning more about what Luther taught about good works and the 10 Commandments you might like to read his Treatise on Good Works).

For example, when we hear the Commandments teaching us how to love, God wants us to:

  1. respect and trust him above everything else, because whatever we love most of all is in fact our god
  2. use his name to pray, praise and thank him for the good he does for us and gives to us
  3. take time in our busy lives to rest, firstly because it’s physically good for us, but also so we can grow in our identity as his children by participating in a community that gathers around his word
  4. honour and respect those in authority, even if we don’t think they deserve it
  5. provide for the physical needs of our neighbours
  6. be pure and honourable in our sexual relationships, keeping the promises we have made as married couples and helping others to keep their promises to each other
  7. help others to protect and improve their property and possessions
  8. speak well of others and explain their actions in the kindest ways, no matter what they might be saying about us
  9. do what’s best for others in regards to their personal possessions
  10. do what’s best for others in regards to their relationships

When we interpret these Commandments as showing us how to love God and the people around us, they are very challenging. They ask us to look beyond ourselves and what we get from others, to focus on God and other people, and look for ways that we can bless and benefit them.

What is critical about re-interpreting the 10 Commandments through Jesus’ command to love, however, is asking why we are doing what we do. I regularly come across the idea that people have, both inside and outside the church, that we need to keep the commandments if we want to get to heaven. The paradox in understanding the 10 Commandments through Jesus’ command to love is that if I’m trying to keep them for my own benefit, then I’m actually breaking Jesus’ command because my focus is still more on myself than on God or other people.

The only way to keep Jesus’ command to love is to trust that God will take care of us in every way so we can focus on him and others. Matthew and Mark tell us that when Jesus began his public ministry, he proclaimed that the Kingdom of Heaven had already come near (Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:15). In a similar way, Paul tells us that through faith in Jesus we have already been raised to new life in the resurrection of Christ (e.g. Colossians 3:1). We don’t have to keep the commandments to get to heaven because the life of Jesus, which is stronger than death, has already been given to us through faith in him by the power of the Holy Spirit. That faith sets us free from having to focus on ourselves and shifts the entire focus of our lives towards the God who saves us and the people around us who need his love. When we trust God to take care of us and provide us with everything we need for this life and the next for Jesus’ sake through the power of his Spirit, we can love God because of his love for us in Jesus, and extend his love to others. Through faith in Jesus, we can follow his teaching on love. The 10 Commandments show us how we can do that in real, practical ways.

In the freedom God gives us through faith in Jesus, how can we better show our love for God who saves us and who loves us perfectly in his Son? How are we able to extend God’s love to the people around us, especially those who deserve it the least but need it the most, by following what the Commandments teach us? Loving in the ways the 10 Commandments teach isn’t always easy, but we can be sure that, when we live by them in the faith the Holy Spirit provides, we are doing the good that God wants us to do.

More to think about:

  • Which do you think would be easier to live by: lots of rules for different situations or one command for every circumstance? Which would you prefer to live by?  Why?
  • What do you think about interpreting the 10 Commandments as explaining how to fulfil Jesus’ teaching to love God and love others? Do they help you understand how God wants you to love him and others? Or do you think they make it more difficult? Explain your thoughts…
  • Luther explains the 10 Commandments both negatively and positively – what we shouldn’t do as well as what we can do to show love for God and others. Does this help you see ways in which you can love God and others?
  • Which of the commandments is most difficult for you to keep? How can the forgiveness and freedom we have through faith in Jesus help you to keep that commandment better?
  • Who do you know that needs the kind of love the 10 Commandments teach? How might trusting God help you love that person better this week?

Scripture Alone (2 Timothy 3:16)

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Last week, to celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, we began looking at some of the basic teachings of the movement which not only re-shaped the Christian church in Europe, but also heavily influenced Western civilization. This week we are looking at the principle that the Bible is the only authority when it comes to matters of faith, teaching and practice in the church.

During the Middle Ages, when the leaders of the church needed to make decisions about what they believed, taught or did, they relied on two authorities – the Bible and the traditions of the church. When the Reformers started working to make changes in the church, however, they only recognised the authority of the Bible, giving birth to the principle of Scripture Alone. For those working to reform the church, the Bible gave the clearest picture of what God wants the church to be and the work God wants the church to be doing in the world. Traditions of the church had their place, but it was the Bible that was to determine which of those traditions were to remain and which were to be discarded.

For example, when Martin Luther appeared before Emperor Charles V in 1521, he was ordered to take back what he had been writing. If he didn’t, he would be excommunicated from the church and condemned as a heretic. The story goes that Luther replied by saying:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.

One thing we can learn from these words is that Luther saw the Bible as the only authority in determining what is taught, believed and done in the church because human authorities have the tendency to get things wrong.

This is important for us today because traditions can still play a big part in our churches. Over the years, there have been times when I have been talking with people about how the Bible describes what God wants for a Christian community and people have replied that they have never done things like that before. As a church that is called to be continually reforming so that we can give a faithful witness to the gospel in a rapidly changing world, it is critical that we listen to the Reformers who pointed to the Bible as our only way of knowing who God is calling us to be and what God is calling us to do.
The challenge that goes with this is that it can hard for us to agree on what the Bible is actually saying. The Reformers discovered this, which is why we have so many different Christian denominations today. We say that the Bible is our only authority, but we find it incredibly difficult to agree on what the Bible actually says.

One example of this is the way I have seen the Bible being used in the same-sex marriage debate in Australia over the last few months. Christians on both sides of the discussion have pointed to different Bible verses to support their point of view about whether biblical rules say same-sex marriage is OK or not. They both claim that the Bible is their source of truth, but both read the Bible in very different ways.

Martin Luther’s approach to reading the Bible can help us find a way through this challenge. Luther taught that God says two words to us through the Bible. On the one hand, there are things God wants us to do, which we call law. On the other hand, God also wants to tell us what God has done and wants to do for us, especially in the person of Jesus. We call this gospel because it is good news for us (see verses such as John 1:17; Romans 5:20; 2 Corinthians 3:6; Galatians 3:17,18).

As long as we read the Bible as a book of rules, it will always show us to be people who break rules (Romans 3:20). For Luther, then, the main message of the Bible is that in the person of Jesus, God comes to give rule-breakers forgiveness, freedom, hope and life. For Luther, the central story of the Bible is the story of Jesus. He ate with social outcasts, extended mercy to the people society had rejected, brought grace to the people who needed it the most but deserved it the least, and gave healing to people with wounded hearts and souls. Jesus was crucified as a rule-breaker, died with convicted criminals, set the guilty free through his death and brings us life through his resurrection and victory over death. As we hear in Luke 4:16-21, Jesus came to bring good news to the poor, release for the captives, sight for the blind, and freedom for the oppressed as he brings us God’s favour and grace.

So when Luther argued and fought for the principle of Scripture Alone, he was fighting for the church to keep the good news of Jesus central to all we are and do.

It is easy for us to drift away from keeping the gospel, the central message of the Bible, as our central message. We can easily become more like a business, a social club, a welfare agency, or a moral watchdog. The call for us to recognize Scripture Alone as our authority means, for us as Lutherans, that we keep the gospel as our first and foremost priority, so that we can join with Luther and the Reformers in bringing the good news of Jesus to a world that is in desperate need of the hope, joy, love and grace it provides.

More to think about:

  • Do you read your Bible regularly? Why / why not?
  • What is more important in how you think about what we do as church: our traditions (the way we’ve always done things) or what the Bible teaches us? How might your church community be different if you applied the Scripture Alone principle and relied solely on what the Bible teaches us about being church?
  • When you think about the central message of the Bible, do you tend to think more about about the law or gospel, rules or grace, God’s commands or God’s promises to us? Can you explain why you think about the message of the Bible like that?
  • How might your understanding of the Bible be different if you thought of it more in terms of the way God wants to speak his grace, love, forgiveness and freedom into your life?
  • What might need to change in your church community if you were to keep communicating the good news of Jesus as your core purpose and task?

Reforming Since 1517 (Ephesians 2:8)

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Christians around the world from many denominations will be celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation this month. On 31st October, 1517, Martin Luther, a German monk, pastor and university lecturer, nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Many see this event as the start of a movement which changed Western European society forever.

Because this is such a significant event, our congregation will spend all 5 Sundays in October having a closer look at some of the key ideas of the Reformation movement and why they are still important for us today.

One way we can understand why the Reformation happened was that the church had lost its way during the Middle Ages. By the 1500s, the church was concerned with worldly power and influence, generating financial revenue, and using fear and guilt to maintain their control. While this might be a simplistic evaluation of a complicated church culture, basically the church had strayed a long way from the picture of Christian community that God has given us in the Bible.

This was the church culture in which Martin Luther grew up. He took his sin very seriously and was struggling to find a forgiving and loving God in the church of his day. The harder Luther tried to make God happy with him, the more he felt God was unhappy with him.

Luther eventually discovered that God was pleased with him, but not because of what he was doing. He found God’s grace in the Bible through verses like Romans 1:17 that “the righteous will live by faith” (NIV) and Ephesians 2:8, “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (NIV). Luther’s personal discovery of the gospel grew into a thriving movement as he and others sought to communicate the good news of God’s grace through faith in Jesus, and to bring freedom to people who were trapped in fear and guilt.

A pivotal idea of the Reformation was that the church needs to be continually re-forming. The Reformation was never meant to be just an event that we read about in history books. Instead, the people who dedicated themselves to restoring God’s vision for the church wanted those who came after them to continue their work of returning to the basic truths of the Christian faith, asking whether we are still being consistent with those truths, affirming where we are being faithful, but also being courageous enough to make changes where we are drifting away from them.

As Lutherans, we celebrate the Reformation because we believe that God still wants to be re-forming us as his church today.

Because of our flawed human nature, we always run the risk of drifting away from being the Christ-centred community God wants us to be. Maybe that is one of the reasons why the first of Luther’s 95 Theses read, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” One way or another, intentionally or not, we are going to get things wrong. Jesus calls us to repentance, to keep turning back to him and the truth of his good news, so we can find forgiveness, freedom, love and life through faith in him. Jesus calls us to be faithful to the gospel in our lives, but also in the ways that we live out the gospel in our relationships with each other and as organisations that carry his name. In the same way, the Reformation movement challenges us to ask whether we, his church, are still being faithful to the gospel in our current time and place. Where we are being faithful to the gospel, we can give thanks to God for his faithfulness to us. However, where we are not being consistent with the good news of Jesus, in the spirit of the Reformation, we need to change.

This is largely what our congregation’s Simple Church and Growing Young conversations have been about over the past year or more. I have been asking our congregation to look at what we are doing and ask whether we have been in step with what the Bible says God wants for us as his community of believers, or whether we need to make some changes. As a congregation that exists in the tradition of the Reformation, we need to reflect on where we are and where we think we are heading, and ask whether we are moving closer to the picture of Christian community which God gives us in the Bible. Where we are, we can give thanks and affirm the good work God is doing in us. However, where we might be drifting away from who God wants us to be, maybe it’s time to make some changes.

For the next four weeks, we will be going back to some of the basic teachings of the Reformation and asking how they might still speak to us. Next week, we will look at the belief that the Bible is the only authority on which we can know God and what he wants for us. The following week, we will be asking what it means that we are saved by grace alone. The week after that, we will look at how Luther and the Reformers understood faith and how our lives are shaped by what we believe. In the last week of October, we will focus on Jesus who alone is God’s revelation of himself to us, and through whom we can find God’s goodness and love for us.

The Reformation is both a gift and a challenge to the church. It is a gift because it restored the gospel of Jesus as the heart and core purpose of our lives, both as individuals and as church. The Reformation is also our challenge because it asks us to make whatever changes may be needed so we can give a faithful witness to the gospel in all we say and do.

As we celebrate the Reformation this month, we don’t just celebrate an historical event that happened 500 years ago. We are part of a 500 year struggle to be true to God’s grace so we can faithfully bring the good news of Jesus to the world around us.

More to think about:

  • What do you think of when you hear the word ‘Reformation’? Share some thoughts about what the Reformation has meant for you in your life.
  • What do you know about the life of Martin Luther? Share some stories you might have heard about him or what he might have said or done (you can find a short animated version of Luther’s life here; if you would like to read his 95 Theses you can find them here)
  • The basic goal of the Reformation was to re-form the church with the gospel of Jesus as its heart and core purpose. Do you think this was a good aim? Explain why you think that?
  • As you look at the church today, do we still keep the gospel of Jesus as our heart and core purpose? Do you think we still need to be re-forming today? If you think so, what are some aspects of the church that we need to be re-forming?
  • Over the next 4 weeks we will be looking at the Reformation principles of Scripture Alone, Grace Alone, Faith Alone and Christ Alone. Is there anything connected with any of these that you would like us to look at in particular? Do you have any questions or concerns about any of these that we could explore for you?