The Cloister Walk, VII: Eisleben
But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us
even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ
Today, Eisleben is a charming little medieval town of about 25,000 in the German state of Saxony Anhalt. It is at least a thousand years old; it has an Old Town and a New Town; the New Town was built in the fourteenth century. Eisleben is most famous, of course, because Martin Luther was born there in 1483.
He only lived there for a year before his family moved away, and most of the important stuff about Dr. Luther happened in the university town of Wittenberg, but little Martin was baptized in Eisleben, returned there often during his life, and—by coincidence, or perhaps by providence—was in Eisleben on business in his 63rd year when he died. Today you can visit the house of his birth and the house of his death, and his baptismal font is still being used today.
It’s possible that after Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Paul, and the Roman Emperor Constantine, nobody had a greater impact on the Christian Church than this copper-miner’s son from Eisleben. And this is why:
During Martin Luther’s lifetime, the Medici Pope Leo X wanted to build a magnificent cathedral in Rome on the presumed site of the grave of St. Peter, and just like the Kenilworth Union Church, Pope Leo needed cash to do it, so he came up with the Mother of all Stewardship Campaigns.
It was called an Indulgence, and you remember what they are from your Western Civ course at university, right? Here’s how it worked: All have sinned and fall far short of God’s glory, we read in Romans. On our own, we are poor and pitiful in God’s eye and have shown insufficient righteousness to earn God’s good favor. We are in arrears. We are bankrupt. We are Greece. We are Puerto Rico. We are Illinois.
That’s most of us, but some of us are righteous enough. They’re called saints, and the saints lived such righteous lives that they’d built up a surplus of merit. The saints were like the Apple Corporation; they didn’t know what to do with all their cash, I mean righteousness. They had to find creative uses for it.
They had more merit than they needed for themselves, and the thinking went that you could bank the saints’ superfluous merit. There it was, all that surplus righteousness in its own heavenly bank vault.
And so the Church has two things: it has the keys to the kingdom, it knows the combination on the bank vault; and it has the remnants of the saints, and the remnants of the saints were precious, holy things. They were called the ‘relics’ of the saints.
For instance, the Castle Church at Wittenberg, where Martin Luther lived and taught and worshiped, had 17,443 holy relics of the saints. The Church at Wittenberg had the thumb of St. Anne, a twig from Moses’ burning bush, some hay from Jesus’ manger and also a thorn from Jesus’ crown.
And get this, the Church at Wittenberg claimed to have some milk from the breast of the Virgin Mary. That has to get you somewhere, right?
Fourteen churches in Europe claimed to have the head of John the Baptist. Martin Luther calculated that of the original twelve disciples, eighteen were buried in Spain. Wittenberg alone had enough rich relics to shorten purgatory jail terms by 1,902,202 years.
And so, if you wanted to shorten your sorry prison term in purgatory by a few thousand years, or that of your poor Uncle Charlie, who’d maybe died unshriven of the Plague at the young age of 27 and was now languishing in purgatory, all you had to do was to lay down some cold hard cash to touch or see one of these holy relics, and Voila!: You get to heaven faster than you ever deserved to get there, and Pope Leo gets his cathedral. It was all very clever and convenient.
There was this character named Johann Tetzel who traveled the length and breadth of Europe selling these indulgences and raking in truckloads of cash. Tetzel might have been the greatest salesman in the history of the world; Tetzel was the Don Draper of the sixteenth century; if Johan Tetzel were alive today, he’d be selling cigarettes to teenagers and Scotch to expectant mothers.
Tetzel came up with a clever little ad jingle that went like this: “When the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” That ranks right up there with “You deserve a break today,” “A diamond is forever,” “Can you hear me now?”, Mastercard’s ‘Priceless” ads, and Nike’s “Just do it.”
And then Martin Luther, this obscure Augustinian monk and unknown Bible Professor from Wittenberg, comes along and has the nerve to do something which appears to have been entirely novel in the Church of the sixteenth century: he starts reading the New Testament, reading the New Testament, of all things, especially Paul’s letters to the Romans and the Galatians, and he has the chutzpah to say, “You know what? I’ll bet it doesn’t work that way. I’ll bet God doesn’t sell God’s good favor. I’ll bet God’s not an ATM machine where you can slip in your debit card and purchase some salvation, punch in your password and out comes heaven.”
The Reverend Doctor Luther reads Romans and discovers—listen to this, now, this is important—Luther discovers from Romans that righteousness is not something God demands; righteousness is something God gives.
God doesn’t expect us to obtain or earn righteousness on our own strength; God knows us too well to expect that. Instead of waiting for us to get it right, God, because of Jesus Christ, simply grants us an imputed righteousness. Luther called it an ‘alien righteousness.’ I love the way he puts that: an alien righteousness: not ours by right or merit, but ours by free gift. When we stand before God, all God sees is Jesus.
You can’t get right with God by cash or even by being good. Trying to get to God by being good is like trying to get to Europe on a bicycle: it’s the wrong conveyance. If you try to get to Europe on a bicycle, or to God by good works, you’re going to end up at the bottom of the Atlantic.
Luther loved Romans and Galatians, but it’s in Ephesians too. That passage I read ten minutes ago is the hallmark text of the Protestant Reformation: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast,” (2:8-9), “so that in the ages to come God might show the immeasurable riches of God’s grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus” (2:7).
And so Martin Luther is a big deal even 500 years later because when he nailed those 95 Theses to the door of the Church at Wittenberg, he granted Christians two monumental freedoms that they hadn’t known for a long time: Martin Luther freed us from ROME, and he freed us from OURSELVES. Martin Luther was one of the greatest freedom fighters of all time.
And that’s why Martin Luther is a great topic for Independence Day weekend. Look, there’s a Thomas Jefferson stone in our Cloister Walk too, and I was sorely tempted to talk about Jefferson on the anniversary of his Declaration of Independence, but I decided to stick with the chronological order I’ve been using for this series because it occurred to me that you can’t have Thomas Jefferson without Martin Luther coming first.
Martin Luther was one of the first individuals with the chutzpah to go up against the bristling, gargantuan omnipotence of the Roman Catholic Church. Dr. Luther talked about ‘The Priesthood of All Believers.’ “You don’t have to go to a priest to confess your sins,” he told his students and parishioners. “The Pope is no better than you. We’re all priests.”
When Luther was born, most people were answerable to one towering tyranny or another: subjects to their kings, slaves to their masters, serfs to their lords, craftsmen to their guilds, Christians to their priests and priests to their bishops and bishops to Pape.
And then, partly because of Martin Luther and partly just beside him and around him, in the 250 years between Wittenberg and Philadelphia, all these hegemonies start crumbling.
Some historians call him the first modern man. That is to say, Luther was born in the fifteenth century and died in the sixteenth century. He was born in medieval Europe and then almost single-handedly creates modern Europe. When Martin Luther is born, the individual is a pawn, and when he dies, the individual is a priest. It was Luther who began the revolution that ends with “All people are created equal.”
So that’s Martin Luther’s first gift of freedom. His second is just as important: it’s freedom from self-reliance. It’s his fixed, unshaken certitude that on the last of all your days, when you have breathed your last and finished your race and rest from your labors, at the end of the long, lingering years of cosmic time, on the throne of all the world, there is not an Implacable Judge but a Kind Father who wants you to live, who wants you to thrive, who wants you to flourish.
God cannot be bought. God cannot be bribed. God cannot be had. God cannot be impressed. And still, God thinks you are good. When you come before God at the end of all your days with the burnt offering of your life in your trembling hands—our threadbare merit and your pinched and narrow generosities and your meager accomplishments, your frequent disloyalties, your repeated mistakes, and your unflagging self-absorption, all God sees is Jesus Christ standing there in front of you. All God sees is Jesus. You are accepted, is what Martin Luther wanted to say.
So, do you think that’s Good News in a world where seventh-graders wonder if they will ever be cool enough or athletic enough or clever enough to win the respect of their demanding peers; where high school seniors sweat out their college apps desperate to learn if any decent school will ever ‘accept’ them, if they are in any way acceptable to the inscrutable, treacherous gods of the admissions department; where wives wonder if they will ever be beautiful enough for their roaming husbands; where bankers work a hundred hours a week reaching up to unreachable goals, it’s just kind of nice to know that God already thinks you’re perfect.
I mean, what do you have to do to get accepted in this implacable world? In 2006, Joe Girardi was named Major League Baseball’s Manager of the Year, and then instantly fired by the Florida Marlins.
In 2013, George Karl was the NBA Coach of the year and then promptly fired by the Denver Nuggets. What do you have to do to get accepted in this demanding world?
In 1927, Babe Ruth had one of the greatest years in the history of baseball. That was the year he hit 60 home runs, of course, and he also hit for an average of .356 and had 164 RBI’s. The trouble was, Babe Ruth was playing for the 1927 Yankees, probably the greatest team that ever played the game. They won 110 games that year; the second place team was 19 games back.
And in a year when the Babe hit 60 home runs, a .356 average, and 164 RBI’s, he didn’t even win the Most Valuable Player Award. Do you know who won the MVP Award in 1927? That went to Ruth’s teammate Lou Gehrig, who hit 47 home runs and 175 RBI’s, and had a batting average of .373. It’s never enough! What do you have to do to win a little recognition in this implacable world?
After that spectacular year of 1927, Babe Ruth would play seven more seasons for the Yankees, until 1934, the year he turned 39. During his career, he helped the Yankees win seven American League Pennants and four World Championships.
In the first year after his retirement, the Babe asked the Yankees for tickets to opening day of the 1936 season at Yankee Stadium, the House That Ruth Built. “Sure,” said the Yankees, just send a check.” And this is way before George Steinbrenner. What do you have to do to get accepted in this implacable world? “Sure, just send a check.”
Five hundred years later, Martin Luther’s revolutionary theology is still a great gift to the likes of you and me. At the cosmic core of all the world, there is a beating, bleeding heart that aches for your thriving, that yearns for your flourishing. For God so loved the world…. And you.
A while back Tracy Orr of Dallas, Texas, fell so far behind in her mortgage payments that finally the bank foreclosed on her and put her home up for auction. For some reason, she decided to attend the auction where her home was to be sold off to the highest bidder.
She was in tears of course, and as house flippers kept bidding on her house, Tracy Orr of Dallas, Texas, wondered whether it was such a good idea to attend this real estate funeral. A woman named Marilyn Mock ended up winning her home with a bid of just under $30,000. Ms. Mock had never seen Tracy Orr’s house. But she bought it anyway.
As she was leaving the building, Ms. Mock handed the deed back to Ms. Orr, who promptly moved back into her foreclosed home. “People need to help each other,” said Marilyn Mock. “That’s all there is to it.”
According to Martin Luther, that’s the way it is with God. You’re way behind. You have nothing. You are in arrears. You are bankrupt. All your ink is red. And then God comes along and says, “Here, it’s yours. For free. My Son’s taken care of it. Welcome home.”
These details come from Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1950); Richard Marius, Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death (Harvard University Press, 1999); and Martin Marty, Martin Luther (Viking Penguin, 2004).
Daniel Okrent and Steve Wulf, Baseball Anecdotes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 102 & 128.
“Good Samaritan Saves Crying Woman’s Foreclosed Home,” CNN.com, October 28, 2008.