By Pastor Sarah Stadler
In the year 1400 in what is now the Czech Republic, Jan Huss was ordained as a priest in the Roman Catholic Church, the only Christian Church in Europe.
By 1402, he was calling for the reform of the church and specifically questioning the morality of the clergy, bishops, and even the pope. Though the writings of John Wycliffe were banned in the Roman Catholic Church, Huss translated them into Czech and helped distribute them because he was moved by Wycliffe. John Wycliffe was an English theologian, priest, and reformer just a generation ahead of Huss. Contrary to the teachings of the church, Wycliffe translated select portions of scripture into English from the Latin translation called the Vulgate—a deeply controversial and risky move. Wycliffe also believed that the privileged status of the clergy was contrary to the gospel and called for clergy to live in poverty instead of wealth. Just as Martin Luther would declare a century later, Wycliffe maintained that only the Bible revealed truth—not the traditions of the church. Wycliffe lived to an old age, his writings banned and having been declared a heretic but lived to an old age nonetheless.
By contrast, when Jan Huss called for reform, Huss was first excommunicated, then declared a heretic for condemning the use of indulgences, imprisoned, and then finally burned at the stake. Over a century later, yet another reformer, William Tyndale of England, a contemporary of Martin Luther, translated the Bible into English directly from the original Greek and Hebrew. During the reign of King Henry VIII, Tyndale announced that the king’s annulment was contrary to scripture and that the Roman Catholic Church was in need of reform. Though Tyndale’s critique eventually led the king to break off from the Roman Catholic Church and begin the Church of England, Tyndale was still convicted of heresy and executed.
To be a reformer of the church is risky. Today, we remember and celebrate the work of Martin Luther, a reformer of the church, who lived in early sixteenth century Germany, the reformer whose name our own Lutheran church bears. Where Wycliffe and Huss and Tyndale were silenced, either through the successful banning of their books or their execution, Luther’s voice somehow managed to be heard.
Martin Luther was a Roman Catholic monk who deeply loved the church but grieved the exploitation and corruption he saw there. Martin Luther was a biblical scholar, and in reading the New Testament, in particular Paul’s letter to the Romans, Luther began to see a God of love, of grace, of mercy, not a God of punishment. And unfortunately, at that time in the church, the God of punishment was used to terrorize people living in poverty into paying for indulgences that would supposedly free their relatives from purgatory after death. It was the sale of indulgences that enabled the church to pay for the construction of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome.
Were Luther’s books banned? Yes, but because of the advent of the printing press, no one could stop his writing from getting into the hands of the German people. Was Luther pronounced a heretic? Yes, but he continued to preach and pastor and even teach. Was Luther’s life ever in danger? Yes, but even when confined in secret for the sake of his safety, he spent the time translating the New Testament into German from the original Greek. Was Luther put on trial? Yes, and when he was asked if he would retract his heretical writings, he stood his ground with his famous reply:
Wyclifee and Huss paved Luther’s way, and Tyndale continued, along with other reformers, the work of church reformation in other parts of Europe. But Luther stood at a particular time and place that made reformation, though difficult, possible. As a result, Protestants of many shades—Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, Anglican, Congregational, Baptist—were born out of strife and turmoil.
So, why is it that on this Reformation Sunday we read from the gospel of John these words of Jesus: You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free? Were any of these reformers free? Free of persecution? Free of theological and cultural norms? Free from constraint to believe what they wanted? Their deeply-held theological convictions stood in contrast with the then-current understandings of scripture, but they found truth in the mercy, love, and grace of God in a way not previously recognized by the church. They had discovered the truth, and despite the persecution they endured, they were free. They were set free to share the good news of God’s grace. They were set free to advocate for change, to end exploitation. They were set free to be a dissonant voice despite its risks. Huss, Wycliffe, Tyndale, Luther…they knew the freedom of which Jesus spoke, true freedom.
When I hear the stories of these reformers, I have a sense of relief, of lightness. What so many were weighed down by these reformers decided not to shoulder. Instead of picking up the heavy burden of shoulds and oughts, they simply set them aside. They listened closely to scripture and discovered a God of grace, mercy, and love. While the church was reformed and is reforming still, we live in a world that is enamored with enslavement, with being bound. We live by shoulds and oughts even when we don’t know why we think we should do something in particular. “That’s just the way it’s done,” or “That’s the way we’ve always done it,” we might say, whether we are speaking of getting married and having children or how we do any number of things in the church, like singing “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve while lighting candles or eating pie after Thanksgiving Eve worship. (I love both of those things, by the way; I’m not advocating for reformation here.)
My most vivid experience of freedom is kind of a silly one. A year ago when Ben and I decided to get divorced, I remember getting gas for the first time since I moved out of the apartment we shared. During the 15 years that Ben and I were together, Ben insisted that we keep track of the trip mileage, the total mileage, and the number of gallons of gas we pumped each time we went to the gas station. We had a little notebook in the glove compartment of the car where we kept this information logged, and when we would be at the gas station together, I would log the information while Ben would pump the gas even though I didn’t find the practice all that important. (It was just one of those things I did because it was important to my spouse.) On this particular day a year ago September, I pumped my gas and then, as always, reached over to my glove compartment to grab the obligatory small notebook. I had the pencil in my hand and was about to write down my mileage when I realized in midstream that I did not have to do so. And I laughed aloud at myself. I sat astounded at this new thought: I did not have to write down my mileage ever again if I didn’t want to! Freedom, relief, lightness!
What we’ve always done needn’t be what we always do.
And sometimes, doing what we’ve always done obscures the truth.
When we realize a truth that for whatever reason was hidden from us up until that point, we instantly know freedom. The truth of the Reformation is that our God is a loving, gracious, merciful God. How does this truth free you? How does this truth free us? Maybe we don’t have to do what we’ve always done—at church or in the rest of our lives. Maybe we can try something new; if it doesn’t work, we can just try something else. Maybe we can ask questions. Maybe we can risk being who we really are. The truth that God is loving, gracious and merciful frees us from fear of condemnation, failure, and shame. We know the truth, and the truth has set us free. Thanks be to God! Amen.