Standing on the shoulders of giants

This is the sermon I delivered today at Putney Methodist Church today, reflecting on the themes of remembrance and the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. The text was Hebrews 12:1-3.

martin-luther-9389283-1-402We are now well and truly in the season of remembrance. On Wednesday, Christians across the world marked All Saints Day, the day we traditionally remember those who have gone before us to glory. Next Saturday and Sunday, we shall be marking Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday, when we recall the sacrifice made by all those who have been killed in conflict and recommit ourselves to work for God’s peace in our world. And today, of course, is Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes, when we “remember, remember the 5th of November, gunpowder, treason and plot”.

There is another occasion for remembrance this year, though. The 31st October marked 500 years since the traditionally starting date of the Protestant Reformation: the day on which Martin Luther allegedly nailed his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg. This anniversary has been widely marked across the world, and I am sure that you have seen at least one article or television programme about some aspect of the Reformation this year. Perhaps David Starkey’s recent television series on television, for example. Naturally enough perhaps, the celebrations have been most marked in Luther’s home nation, Germany. There, the country has been celebrating ‘Reformation 500’ for the last twelve months – and my German pastor friend, for one, is looking forward to its conclusion! My favourite tribute to Luther probably comes from the German toymaker, Playmboil, who not only produced a lovely Martin Luther play figure but also an animated version of the great man’s life (here)!

Playmobil-Luther ging schon 400.000 Mal wegLuther’s legacy is, of course, not entirely straightforward. We rightly remember him as a man of his time, with many faults and failings. His views on Jews are wholly unacceptable, for example, and we always need to remember that any human we put on a pedestal will inevitably have feet of clay. Many would also question whether his division of the Christian church into Protestant and Catholic is a legacy worth remembering. A division that continues to provoke violence and misunderstanding down to our own day. They might also argue that too much of our Christian heritage and tradition was lost and destroyed by Luther and his followers, which should have been retained.

Yet it is noteworthy that the 500th anniversary celebrations in Germany have been co-organised by both the Protestant (Lutheran) and Catholic churches. After centuries of ‘wars of religion’, it seems that all Christians are finally able to find something to celebrate in the life of Martin Luther. To different Christians this will mean different things, and many would argue that Luther merely rediscovered aspects of faith and practice that others had already discovered. Nearly all might agree, though, that Luther’s great emphasis on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour and the true acceptance of God’s forgiveness were vital for all Christians. They would also agree – and this is where many Catholic historians might argue that Luther wilfully misunderstood traditional doctrines – that it is only by the grace of God that any of us are ultimately reconciled with God; we can never earn our salvation. Perhaps most importantly, nearly all Christians today would emphasise the importance of knowing our scriptures and having ready access to them in our own language, in order that we might “hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them”, as another reformer, Thomas Cranmer, wrote. If Luther had done nothing else than produce his monumental German translation of the Bible, thereby encouraging others to follow suit, then he would be worthy of our remembrance. Drawing on his vast intelligence and scholarship, but also his love for ordinary people and his passion for the scriptures, he produced a text that was immediately accessible and incredibly powerful. When we pick up a Bible in our own mother tongue it is arguably Luther, most of all, to whom we need to be thankful.

luther95thesesI could go on at much greater length about Martin Luther, his life, achievements and legacy but there is neither time nor the need. I strongly encourage you to take advantage of the plethora of material available about him at present in the media and elsewhere. (Not least the free exhibition at the British Library.)

What I do wish to emphasise, though, is that we must always remember that God has not left us alone in our struggles with life and faith. As the writer of Hebrews urges us to remember, “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1). As good Protestants here today, I know that many of us when challenged by problems in life or when in need of guidance, would immediately turn to our scriptures. That is right and proper, but we all know only too well that very often the Bible can supply as many questions as answers. How do we interpret difficult passages? How do we reconcile texts from different parts of the Bible that seem to contradict one another? How do we discern the truth about nuclear weapons, artificial intelligence, stem cell research, or a host of other subjects about which our Bible appears to be completely silent?

The answer is always to recall that we are not facing the challenges on our own. We are never the first people to ponder these issues. In each and every generation, God has raised up women and men to guide and encourage us. Some of these bear the title ‘saint’ but many, many others – such as Martin Luther – do not! Some were scholars and academics; others were pastors or bishops; some lived lives separated from the world, while others lived amid its hustle and bustle; most were simply good Christian folk trying to lead their lives in the most challenging of times. This great “cloud of witnesses” constantly surrounds us all; they join us at our communion table; they provide our hymns and liturgy; they enlighten and guide our preachers and teachers. And when we study our scriptures and wrestle with matters of faith, they provide the example and guidance we so often need.

The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and MartyrsThe great physicist, Sir Isaac Newton famously observed that, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. This is as true of theology as of physics. As I stand here today, I am conscious of that great cloud of witnesses who support and uphold me, and on whose shoulders I metaphorically stand. Of those who have sweated over ancient texts that I might have the Bible in such an easy form that I can grasp its meaning immediately. Of those who have argued and debated for days upon end, that I might have some access into the mysteries of the nature of God and his world. Of those who have braved the fires and bullets of persecution that I might be able to speak to you today in peace and safety.

All of us here today need to give thanks for that great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us and to draw strength from their presence. We need to learn more about women and men like Martin Luther, and never believe that we have been left as orphans without guidance or support. As we face the “challenge of tomorrow’s day” (to quote the hymn writer), let us stand tall upon the shoulders of the giants who have gone before us. And let us with renewed confidence and hope take up our own calling to be saints in this world. As the writer of Hebrews urged his first readers: “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us”. I doubt many of us will be called to translate the Bible nor to nail our theological ponderings upon the church door but never doubt that you and I are part of God’s purposes for his world – just as much as Martin Luther. The challenge for us is to discern OUR place in that great race. What is OUR role in that magnificent “cloud of witnesses”? Whatever it may be, I pray that we may all run OUR race with the same faith, courage and resolution that Luther did. Amen.




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