Lutherans, and others who follow the teachings brought to light during the Reformation, will mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation on Tuesday, October 31, 2017. As they do so they face a future that is uncertain. And, strangely enough, they are just fine with that.
Luther and his supporters faced death threats throughout their lives. Both the Pope Leo X and the Emperor Charles V wanted Luther dead and it was only a remarkable array of political and military distractions and the stubbornness of some German princes that kept them from achieving their goal.
Just a few months after the death of Martin Luther, Lutherans faced a major threat to their existence as Emperor Charles V and his army invaded Germany and made it as far as Luther’s grave in Wittenberg.
During the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) the situation in Lutheran lands looked hopeless until “The Lion of the North,” Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, came to the rescue. And there have been other attempts to force Lutherans to abandon their distinctive teachings and be absorbed into other religions, so facing an uncertain future is nothing new to Lutherans.
One of the amazing strengths of Lutheranism is its willingness to embrace mystery and paradox. As one scholar put it, “Lutherans thrive on paradox. Lutheranism can only tell you what it has been told by scripture. Lutherans have the fewest answers of anyone. They resist the temptation to make stuff up when things do not make sense.”
Why would anyone be attracted to a group that claimed to have the fewest answers of anyone? Perhaps a better question would be, “Why do so many people claim to have all the answers when really they don’t?
The Apostle Paul, one of scripture’s most eloquent authors, wrote:
“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?’” (Romans 11:33-34 ESV)
Paul’s lack of understanding of the deep things of God did not stop him from living a life full of service to God. In what most believe was his last writing, Paul wrote: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7 ESV).
Job and his friends conduct an exhaustive discussion of the mystery of suffering in the Old Testament book that bears his name, but don’t expect them to solve the mystery for you. Job’s final words are, “I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6 ESV).
“We are only beggars, this is true,” are the words Luther had written on a slip of paper that was found in his pocket after he had died.
The key to all this paradox and mystery is the fact that Luther found the answer to a question about his future that we are all going to have to face someday, the reality of death. His struggle and despair and fear all centered on the question, “What will happen to me when I die?”
He did not face this struggle alone. He reached out to his peers and listened intently to what the religious experts were teaching, but nothing brought him comfort. Finally, in the pages of holy scripture, he found the peace and comfort for which he was searching. The Holy Spirit moved his heart to believe the promises of forgiveness, life and salvation through faith in Jesus Christ that are recorded in Scripture.
Once this single, crucial question was answered, Luther found that the rest of Scripture and much of what goes on in the world, while they still did not technically “make sense,” they fit in perfectly around and in support of this one important answer. The doctrines of Scripture and the realities of this world remain a random and mysterious mess if one tries to fit them into other belief systems. But when they are assembled in support of the free gift of salvation in Jesus Christ, they form a cohesive, yet still in many ways mysterious, whole.
Now, just because Lutherans are fine with mystery and paradox does not mean that we are anti-science and knowledge. Far from it. If the goal of science is to take all the mystery and wonder out of the world then Lutherans want no part of that. There are plenty in the world of science and, for that matter, in the church, who are already doing that. But if the goal of science is to increase our sense of wonder and amazement at the world we live in, along with understanding better how to live in this world, Lutherans are all for that.
As the 500th anniversary of the Reformation approaches, Lutherans face an uncertain future; and they are just fine with that. Arrayed around the certainty of eternal life through faith in Christ is a glorious assortment of mysteries and paradoxes that we are eager to study and explore.