Luther’s father and mother were Christians, at least nominally (“in name”), as inhabitants of Catholic Christendom. Without hesitation or reflection, they raised their son Martin as one.
Luther’s father had provided Martin with all the education he would need to pursue a prosperous career as a lawyer. Neither Luther nor his father saw any contradiction between being a successful lawyer and a faithful witness to Jesus Christ. Luther walked this broad road to success all the way to law school.
During his first year at law school, however, Luther was almost struck by lightning. He immediately entered a monastery. A bolt of lightning is a curious sign of the presence of Jesus. Yet it was one in this case. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 111:10, Proverbs 9:10, New American Standard Version, here and following). Luther certainly experienced this fear, was freed by it from his Olympian pursuits, and rightly focused his unusual intellect and energy on better understanding the Bible.
As with Luther, Jesus always speaks to us in surprising ways. We have our plans, then Jesus intrudes. Rather than binding our lives to plans and expectations of our own making, James recommends that we remain improvisational by thinking, “If the Lord wills, we will also live to do this or that” (James 4:15). This will help us keep our minds and hearts open for life-transforming words from Jesus.
Twelve years passed. During that time, Luther had no idea what Jesus had in store for him. But he kept plodding along the right path, preparing well for the task ahead without even knowing he was doing so or how unimaginable that task would prove to be.
This is where we are today as prophetic Christian witnesses. As with Luther, Jesus leads us even now along the right path of developing biblical and cultural literacy as we move closer to the land and to the other members of our small prophetic mission group. Right now only Jesus knows the task to which he will later call us, a task we can’t even imagine now. Our responsibility is simply to diligently prepare for it.
When the right time came—October 31, 1517—Jesus inspired Luther to speak the words that sparked the broad and deep reformation which he (Jesus) had long sought. Luther never imagined that he would speak such words. If he had, he may not have spoken them. After he did, Jesus stayed with him to grant him the daily wisdom, strength, courage, and good cheer he needed to continue living as his witness. When the right time comes for us, may we too speak up and keep doing so.
This is not to say that every word which Luther spoke, or every action that he took, witnessed to Jesus. Like us, Luther too had an Olympian personality as well as a Christian one. Like us, he often expressed his Olympian personality while thinking it was his Christian one. He often took his own advice: if you’re going to sin, sin boldy! We may take courage, however, in knowing that Jesus nonetheless stayed with him.
Luther was an unimportant teacher at an insignificant school in a marginal city in Catholic Christendom. Even so, Jesus gave him words that changed the course of Christendom’s history and altered the lives of millions of humans for centuries to come for the better.
Nowadays the Olympian media would have us believe that political and social change is everything. We Christians and churches believe them, and express our own Olympian unity with them, when we too boast about billionaire titans of business, charismatic politicians, and grassroots organizations mobilizing millions. We too follow them in their devotion to the Olympian gods vainly hoping that doing so will keep us relevant and not completely neglected by our increasingly Olympian neighbors.
Jesus would teach us otherwise through the example of Luther. Training to become a prosperous lawyer was not what Jesus needed Luther to do. What Jesus needed Luther to do was to dedicate himself to biblical and cultural literacy. That way, when the right time came, Jesus could inspire him to speak mighty words.
One last word about Luther’s impact, a cautionary tale. Jesus spoke surprising, irritating, but vital words to Luther and later through him. This led to important and positive changes in the lives of Christians and churches. Unfortunately, the leaders of Catholic Christendom (whether Catholic or “Protestant”) did not respond to these words with only the truth, freedom, love, and vitality that we might have hoped to see. Rather, they revealed their own devotion to the Olympian gods by responding to others with increasingly destructive acts of power—mistakenly thinking that by doing so they were fulfilling the very will of God. Soon enough Catholic Christendom was consumed by a civil war that lasted over 100 years and left Jesus Christ himself, rather than the Olympian gods, discredited in the eyes of Christians themselves. From that wreckage emerged the enthusiastic devotion to the Olympian gods that led to the GTS we are so burdened by today.
Like Luther, then, let us live as quiet yet diligent bearers of hope in Christ. We do not know when or how Jesus will transform his Church, ridding us of our current fascination with the gods and drawing us much closer to himself once again. What we do know is that he is calling us now to the task of preparing ourselves for speaking his life-transforming words, as prophetic witnesses and mission groups, when the right time comes.