Like all of us, Martin Luther didn’t always remember or apply his own theology in the face of life’s realities.
The following story by David Lose illustrates this.
This past summer I was visiting Wittenberg and heard a story about Martin Luther I hadn’t heard before that seems appropriate for those observing Reformation Sunday this week. I knew that Luther died in Eisleben, the place of his birth, bringing his work and life, in a sense, full circle. And I knew that he preached his last sermon there after successfully negotiating disputes between several local magistrates. What I didn’t know was that only five people showed up for the sermon. What I didn’t know was that he was pissed. He wrote a friend about the event, despairing over what he feared was a “failed” reformation.
I’ve been a pastor and I get Martin Luther’s sense of failure. We all long to be “successful” in our churches (however we might define that), and when the church appears weak and sickly, and people don’t seem interested in supporting or responding to her ministry, it’s the most natural thing in the world to imagine that our efforts have been for naught.
We can become angry, as Luther did. We can become fearful, disillusioned, and depressed like Elijah did in 1Kings 19, running from Jezebel after he had defeated the prophets of Baal. We can become sad of heart, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, who kept saying, “But we thought he was the one . . .”
The brilliant answer to this sense of failure that Luther gave voice to in his writings is what we know as “the theology of the cross.” When it looks most like God has been defeated, he is winning. When God seems most absent, his presence is sustaining us. When all feels lost, we are, in fact, being saved.
I have long thought that this, above all Luther’s teachings, is needed in the Christian church today. We give so much attention to the appearance of success and strength that we fail to find God in much more prevalent circumstances of failure and weakness. We forget that our hope is in resurrection from hopeless death, not in being crowned after having built a glorious resumé.
The last word today goes back to David Lose:
While I can understand his dismay and disappointment, I nevertheless think that at that moment Luther forgot that much of our energy and effort will be given over to failed endeavors. He’d forgotten, that is, Paul’s reminder that we have all sinned and fallen short … and will keep sinning and falling short. Moreover, he’d forgotten that our ultimate hope rests not in our successes but in God’s great failure on the cross, the failure that redeems all failures and successes, binding them together in the promise of resurrection. He’d forgotten, that is, his own words at the close of the hymn many of us will sing this week, “Were they to take our house, goods, honor, child, or spouse, though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day. God’s kingdom is ours forever.”