The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable
is a quote attributed to, among others, President James Garfield, who seems to be following up on the words of Jesus in John’s gospel: “If you live according to my teaching, you’ll know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
I’m sure many of us have found Garfield’s additional commentary to be true. Sometimes the truth hurts or is a huge challenge to our usual way of being. Gloria Steinem’s version, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off” is another common response to being confronted with a different reality than the one we thought was true. Why else do we sometimes wonder whether it’s best to tell a friend or loved one the truth about something we know will be very hard to hear? Or will make them angry – maybe with us?
But this wasn’t the case with Martin Luther. He wouldn’t have agreed with either Steinem or Garfield – at least not when he had his so-called “Tower Experience.” The story in a nutshell is that while studying Romans 1:17 (our second reading) in his study in the tower of the monastery in Wittenberg where he lived as an Augustinian monk, Luther had one of those light bulb moments. You know how that goes; a light goes on in your head and you suddenly see something in a way that you never had before and you suddenly get it, whatever “it” is. A revelation. An epiphany! An “ah hah!” moment. A blinding flash of insight that reveals – the truth.
For Luther, that truth did set him free and it did not tick him off or make him miserable. In fact, he’d been angry and miserable before this revelation:
I, blameless monk that I was, felt that before God I was a sinner with an extremely troubled conscience. I couldn’t be sure that God was appeased by my satisfaction. I did not love, no, rather I hated the just God who punishes sinners. In silence, if I did not blaspheme, then certainly I grumbled vehemently and got angry at God.
His big “ah! hah!” moment was when he was set free from a way of thinking about God that was unhealthy, destructive, and wrong. Now, he could have done what many people do and stop there. Many who abandon the idea of a wrathful, vengeful, punishing deity who needs to be appeased abandon any idea of God at all. To be fair, who can blame them? A lot of terrible things have been done in the name of this idea of God.
But Luther didn’t go there. What he discovered in Romans1:17 was freedom.
All at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates. Immediately I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light. I ran through the Scriptures from memory and found that other terms had analogous meanings, e.g., the work of God, that is, what God works in us; the power of God, by which God makes us powerful; the wisdom of God, by which God makes us wise; the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God. I exalted this sweetest word of mine, “the justice of God,” with as much love as before I had hated it with hate. This phrase of Paul was for me the very gate of paradise.
Reformation: a spiritual awakening
On Reformation Sunday we don’t usually think about Luther having a spiritual awakening. We tend to focus on the shift from a belief that one’s good deeds could get you into heaven to a doctrine of justification by faith through grace. In the 16th century that was a big deal; the Church was selling indulgences so people could help loved ones get out of Purgatory more quickly. The title of Luther’s 95 Theses was actually “A Disputation on the Power of Indulgences.”
But things are different today. In 1999, The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification was signed by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church‘s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, which essentially ended the 500-year-old conflict at the root of the Reformation. And in 2016, in anticipation of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church held an historic joint commemoration of the Reformation in Lund, Sweden.
So – times have changed. And reconciliation between Lutherans and Catholics and agreement on a doctrine is something to be celebrated. But our commemoration of the Reformation shouldn’t stop there. We should savor that moment of spiritual awakening that caused Martin Luther to discover that his idea of who and what God was no longer made sense. And we should celebrate his magnificent and joyful new awareness of the true nature of the Divine.
It’s a moment and an awareness that many of us have experienced and that, by the grace of God and our efforts, many more will experience. I often quote the late Marcus Borg, who liked to say in response to someone who said they didn’t believe in God, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.” When the person would describe a version of Luther’s wrathful, vengeful, punishing deity who needs to be appeased, he would say, “I don’t believe in that God either.” And then would begin a conversation on the true nature of God – loving, compassionate, luring us into wholeness, calling us into works of peace and justice – the God that had Luther joyfully running through the Scriptures and finding more proof of what he’d discovered:
the work of God, that is, what God works in us; the power of God, by which God makes us powerful; the wisdom of God, by which God makes us wise; the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.
This was no mere intellectual exercise. Why else would he write:
I exalted this sweetest word of mine, ‘the justice of God,’ with as much love as before I had hated it with hate. This phrase was for me the very gate of paradise.
A liberating spiritual awakening indeed. A re-formation of a man’s relationship with the holy truth of Divine Love.
A New Re-formation
Today, many thinkers, writers, theologians are claiming that we are in the midst of a new reformation. There are several new lists of theses (items for discussion), including John Shelby Spong’s The Twelve Theses. A Call to a New Reformation and Matthew Fox’s 95 Theses or Articles of Faith for a Christianity for the Third Millennium.
In The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why, the late Phyllis Tickle talked about the fact that about every 500 years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale. And I believe she’s right. We’re going through our religious “stuff” – doctrines, language, practices, etc. – and making decisions about what should stay, what should go, and what might still be a treasure if we just cleaned it up a little bit. The process is messy; discussions about what stays, what goes, what gets transformed are chaotic, unsettling.
Even our image or concept of who or what God is up for discussion. Not that this is something new. It wasn’t even new to Luther. In ancient times, the idea of God being more than a tribal deity, one among many other tribal deities, was re-formed to a belief in one God. The idea that God is comprised of persons, including Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, was a re-formation brought about by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In recent times, we’ve had to re-examine what we think we know about God in light of what people of other religions think they know about God. Those who have declared themselves to be atheists present us with the challenge of defining what we mean when we claim to believe in a deity. Science does this also. And this is all good. We are free to wonder and question and explore.
“Ecclesia semper reformanda est” is not simply a call for change for change’s sake. It is a call to look around at our own cultural context
Before World War II, Barth was a strong critic of the rise of the Nazi party in Germany. He also criticized the many churches that went along with the Nazis, for not fulfilling their prophetic role in society. In 1917, a group of these Nazi Protestants coopted the 400th anniversary of the Reformation, in an event that endorsed German nationalism, emphasizing that Germany had a preferred place in the Protestant tradition, and legitimizing anti-Semitism. They used Luther’s admonishment to respect secular authority to justify their positions. When Hitler was named Chancellor of Germany, Barth was involved in the drafting of the Barmen Declaration opposing these churches. So “Ecclesia semper reformanda est” is not simply a call for change for change’s sake. It is a call to look around at our own cultural context (Barth is often quoted as saying that one should preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other) and to be the church with integrity. This is the tradition in which we stand. As Luther famously said, “Here I stand; I can do no other.”
In today’s cultural context, we find ourselves taking our stand in the midst of a great number of people disaffected with the church, with clergy, and with God (or at least God as God has been defined in the past). We also find ourselves among a great number of people who imagine the Divine differently from the way we do.
We can respond to this in one of two ways. We can wring our hands and lament the good old days when churches were full and we could hold a real old-time Reformation service where we bashed Catholics and sang “A Mighty Fortress” like it was our national anthem.
Or we can enter into the spirit of “semper reformanda” with the freedom granted by the gospel. And with joyful hearts, knowing as Luther discovered in that transformational tower experience, that God is gracious and good, compassionate and healing, freeing – and challenging us to bring peace and justice and healing to the world
So let’s not talk about the God we don’t believe in. Let us share the good news of the Divine Presence in which we do live and move and have our being. There’s a Reformation going on. Here we stand.
An excerpt from Martin Luther’s “Tower Experience”
. . . in that same year, 1519, I had conceived a burning desire to understand what Paul meant in his Letter to the Romans, but thus far there had stood in my way, not the cold blood around my heart, but that one word which is in chapter one: “The justice of God is revealed in it.” I hated that word, “justice of God” . . . I, blameless monk that I was, felt that before God I was a sinner with an extremely troubled conscience. I couldn’t be sure that God was appeased by my satisfaction. I did not love, no, rather I hated the just God who punishes sinners. In silence, if I did not blaspheme, then certainly I grumbled vehemently and got angry at God . . . . I constantly badgered St. Paul about that spot in Romans 1 and anxiously wanted to know what he meant . . . I meditated night and day on those words until at last, by the mercy of God, I paid attention to their context: “The justice of God is revealed in it, as it is written: ‘The just person lives by faith.'” I began to understand that in this verse the justice of God is that by which the just person lives by a gift of God, that is by faith. I exalted this sweetest word of mine, “the justice of God,” with as much love as before I had hated it with hate. This phrase of Paul was for me the very gate of paradise.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is itself the very power of God, effecting the deliverance of everyone who has faith – to the Jew first, but also to the Greek. For in that gospel, God’s justice is revealed – a justice which arises from faith and has faith as its result. As it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”
In “The Freedom of a Christian,” Martin Luther developed the concept that as fully forgiven children of God, Christians are no longer compelled to keep God’s law to obtain salvation; however, they freely and willingly serve God and their neighbors. Luther also further develops the concept of justification by faith. As Luther stated, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”
Jesus said to those who believed in him, “If you live according to my teaching, you are really my disciples; then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
They answered, “We are descendants of Sarah and Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be set free’?”
Jesus answered them, “The truth of the matter is, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. The slave does not always remain part of a household; an heir, however, is a member of that house forever. So if the Heir – the Only Begotten – makes you free, you will be free indeed.”