Our Family Tree – Remembering Our Roots: The Most Important Task of Youth
The focus today in our series Our Family Tree – Remembering Our Roots is on youth. Our Scripture passage comes from I Peter 5:5-7:
5 In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because,
“God opposes the proud
but shows favor to the humble.”
6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. 7 Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.
Jesus gave us what we call the Great Commandment, which is to love God in four ways: with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength. These are the four ways in which we are to respond to God. They also define the four ways that we grow. You can see the four clearly in Jesus. Luke 2:52 says that Jesus went to be with his mother and father and that he “grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.” He grew in wisdom, which is intellectual growth. He grew in stature or physical growth. He grew in favor with God and man means that he grew spiritually in his soul with God and emotionally with other people.
All young people grow in these same four ways. For each of these areas youth must answer a significant question. In regard to their relationship with other people, they have to answer, What is expected of me from others? They must consider expectations of teachers and parents, as well as employers and fellow students. In regard to their physical growth, they must answer the question, What in the world is happening to me? They begin noticing the many changes occurring in their bodies. Every young person must have a mirror. Boys need to flex in front of a mirror to see if they are developing muscles. Girls need a full-length mirror so that they can make sure they are filling out in all the right places. Teenagers become very preoccupied with how they are developing physically.
In reference to their intellectual ability, youth must answer the question, How far can I go in life? A daunting folder called a permanent record follows our children throughout their academic career. How far a child goes very much depends on how well they study and apply themselves.
The fourth question, which relates to spiritual development, is usually the last one to be addressed: Who is my Father – my biological dad or my Father in heaven? That area might even go unnoticed. The Christian church needs to call attention to the spiritual growth of our young people. It has the responsibility of helping our youth grow spiritually.
You have often heard it said that God has no grandchildren. That expression is simply a way of reinforcing the fact that we must all become children of God. We do that through a personal relationship to God in Christ. Many of these young people here today have already made a decision to accept Christ as their Savior. We know that a child often acknowledges Christ when he or she is seven, eight, or nine years of age. Later on that acknowledgment is sealed with a further awareness that God is really the One to whom everyone is ultimately responsible.
With that in mind, I want to tell you a story of one young man I call to mind every year on this particular Sunday known as Reformation Sunday. Martin Luther, who lived more than 500 years ago, really, illustrates this spiritual development.
Please do not confuse Martin Luther with Martin Luther King. When I talk about Martin Luther, some people ask me about the Martin Luther King, who led the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther was the leader of the Protestant Reformation. Both men led important movements, but they lived 500 years apart.
Martin Luther was born in Germany in the year 1483. He gained much of his character from his mother, a woman of exemplary virtue. She was esteemed for the way in which she conducted her life, according to Philipp Melanchthon. Luther’s father, however, was harsh with his entire family, including both his wife and sons. I suppose that in our day and time we might consider him abusive.
Martin’s father, a miner of coal and copper, had come out of poverty, growing up with hard knocks. He thought that was the only life, but with hard work and an industrious attitude worked his way up in life. When he became the owner of a copper mine, he moved the family to Mansfield. This change in job improved the family’s lot in life, but it did not change his severe demeanor.
The school Luther attended in Mansfield was very harsh. Both at home and at school, Luther was treated with some sternness. His father wanted him to be a lawyer and to become a civil servant because that position paid well. Intent on qualifying for the legal profession, Martin Luther went through the usual studies in the classics. At the age of seventeen, this very smart young man entered the university and earned his bachelor’s degree in art in one year’s time. Three years later in 1505, he received a master’s degree. At twenty-one he earned a doctorate of philosophy. A profound change was stirring within him.
One day while in the library at the university, Martin Luther – still on track to become a lawyer – came across a copy of the Latin Vulgate, a translation of the Bible into the Latin language done by Saint Jerome. Luther began looking at the Latin Vulgate and was impressed to discover gospels and letters that he had never seen in lectionary readings. He felt as if someone had been hiding part of the Bible from him. Knowing the Latin language, Martin developed a passion for reading this portion of the Scriptures.
The change came in Martin Luther during the summer of 1505 while walking to his home during a terrific thunderstorm. He took refuge under a tree, and a lightning bolt struck very near him. Terrified, he cried out, “Help! I will become a monk.” He later regretted this promise made in a moment of fear; but he kept the bargain, dropping out of law school and entering the Augustinian Convent at Erfurt. His father, of course, was very disapproving and rejected Martin for this decision.
During the next three years that Luther spent his life in the monastery, he withdrew from his friends and all outside activities. Instead, he studied the Scriptures and teachings of St. Augustine. The foundation was being laid for the great movement he would soon lead.
Though Luther was ordained to the priesthood in 1507, his view of God was distorted. It resembled the view he had of his own father. He felt that God was very harsh and revengeful. God, who had all authority, demanded obedience and acted with extreme severity if a person were disobedient. You sometimes hear about people who are God-fearing. Martin Luther was scared to death of God. He tried unsuccessfully to officiate at mass several times, but he was afflicted with terrible digestive problems. Quite perplexed and introspective, he struggled to find peace. He felt plagued and described this struggle, saying that he had a burden that was too heavy.
Thinking that God was displeased with him, he devoted himself to fasts, flagellations, long hours in prayer, pilgrimages, and constant confession. He suffered what has sometimes been called scrupulosity. I suppose we would now call this struggle an obsessive compulsive disorder. He was so preoccupied with his own sin that he would wake up in the middle of the night and be convicted of sin. He would go to his confessor, confess his sin, return to his cell, and try to sleep. Lying in bed, Luther would think of another sin and feel the need to confess that one to his confessor. Afterwards, he would again return to his room and try to sleep. When the thought occurred to him that he had surely committed sins he could not remember, he would leave his cell and go back to his confessor in order to ask forgiveness for those.
Concluding that Luther needed some diversion, his superior ordered Luther to pursue an academic career. Luther did so with vigor. He studied theology, earned a second bachelor’s degree in biblical studies, a doctorate in Holy Scripture, and a doctorate in theology. During this academic study, he started looking into the letters of the Apostle Paul, which gave him fresh insight. The book of Romans and in particular Romans 1:16-17 changed his life: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed – a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’” The Scripture was life-changing for Luther.
He read further that this righteousness, given through faith in Jesus Christ, is available to any person. Martin Luther realized that he had been trying to do the right things but was failing miserably. He also understood that what God had done in Christ Jesus – not what he was doing – made the difference in life. This discovery resulted in great joy. He began sharing this joy with others, teaching the idea that this great salvation was available by God’s grace through faith in Christ Jesus. This, he came to believe, was the core of the gospel.
During this same time the church needed money, so Rome began selling indulgences. People could pay the church a certain amount of money to have the Pope forgive past sins, future sins, sins they planned to commit, and sins of people who had died. Johann Tetzel came into Saxony, Luther’s area of Germany, with the motto, “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs.” How Luther objected to the practice of buying salvation! He also objected to other practices within the church.
On October 31, 1517 – a day called Halloween or All Hallow’s Eve and the day before All Saints’ Day – Luther nailed ninety-five points of contention to the door of the church at Wittenberg. These points of debate stirred Christianity from Rome all across the face of Europe. Many people cite his act as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Luther would have said that many other great reformers, such as John Huss and John Wycliffe, had gone before him; but it was his action that stirred people so deeply.
Luther’s sudden and bold step awakened the Vatican. Pope Leo X, deciding to take this matter in hand, sent a cardinal to Saxony to bring Luther under control. The cardinal was no match for Martin Luther. A council called The Diet of Worms was held; and Johann Eck, a very skilled ecclesiastical lawyer, called Luther to task. Eck, backed by a number of cardinals, archbishops, and bishops, had spread all of Martin Luther’s writings on a table and demanded that Luther retract everything he had written.
Luther asked for some time to pray about the order. The council granted him overnight. After prayer and consultation with others, he returned the following day. When the request was put to Luther again, Luther simply said, “Unless I am convinced by Scripture or by plain, clear reason and argument, I cannot and will not recant anything. I have been taken captive by the Word of God. It is neither safe nor wise to do anything against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other.”
That response labeled Martin Luther as an outlaw. As he was leaving the premises at Worm, a group of masked soldiers seized him. It looked as though enemies had captured him. Actually, the masked men were friends, sent by Frederick the Wise, the elector of Saxony, to protect Luther. Luther was taken to Wartburg Castle, where he lived in seclusion for a year. It was during that time that he translated the entire Bible into the German language. Luther later married Katharina von Bora, a former nun; and they had a number of children.
Though Luther had bouts of depression, he was instrumental in leading the Protestant Reformation. His work and the Reformation were basically complete when the Augsburg Confession was delivered and signed. He still had a place in the world as a leader and met with Zwingli and other reformers. We owe a debt of gratitude to Luther as he is responsible for the way we worship today in the free-church tradition. The people at St. John’s Lutheran Church owe a huge debt of gratitude. Martin Luther became deeply devoted to God, once he had decided who his Father really was. His Father was God. He is part of our family tree.
In the letter to the Romans, Paul maps out what living by faith means. First of all, we must trust a loving God. Faith comes before the law. Faith comes before works. Belief comes before behavior. In response to that trust, we are then to be obedient. Disobedience is not so much breaking God’s law as it is breaking God’s heart.
You and I know many Christians – some right here in this room – who grew up with the idea that God was cruel and judgmental, that God was a harsh sovereign who wanted His pound of flesh. Some grew up with the notion that He was more interested in keeping the law, towing the line. In our own strength we cannot do that. We can try, but we will fail miserably. “We all fall short of the glory of God,” as Paul says in Romans 3:23. We can have a personal relationship with this Father in heaven, this Father who loves us so much. We must see God as One who loves us, who creates us in His image, and who knows our shortcomings. He loves us so much that He sent Jesus Christ to be our Savior. Seeing God as our Father in heaven who loves us and desires for us to love Him is a very different way of viewing God.
Have you decided who your Father really is? Have you created God in your own image as a harsh judgmental God? Have others imposed that view on you? Do you know this God of love, this God who loves us so much that He sent Jesus Christ to be the Savior of the world? Our invitation is simply to invite you to accept, through Christ Jesus, the God who loves us. Come as God leads.Kirk H. Neely © October 2013