Day 148: Matthew 16:21

I must go to Jerusalem and suffer much from the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the Law. I will be put to death, but three days later I will be raised to life.

Well, here we go.  Twice Jesus has alluded to the “Miracle of Jonah”, that he will be buried for three days and then returned to life (see Days 121 and 142).  Now he announces that Jerusalem will be the place where he will be put to death.  And instead of running away from trouble he announces that he is going to face it head on.  He goes straight for the danger.  He is willing to die for his convictions. He is obedient to complete the task that God has put before him, not because he must but because he chooses to do so.

What if God told you to go to a place where you will be killed?  Would you go there?  I can’t imagine it.  Jesus was a very, very brave man.  He was brave and unbelievably heroic.

When I think about people who have put themselves in grave danger so that other people might be liberated from the enslavement of religion, the first person that comes to mind is Martin Luther.

Luther was born in Germany in 1483, a time when the medieval Roman Catholic Church had tremendous power and influence. While most people were illiterate, Luther’s family was able to send him to school and he was an excellent student.  In 1505 he became a monk after he vowed to give his life to God after he survived a terrifying thunderstorm where he was almost struck by a lightning bolt.

Luther was an exemplary monk and he was ordained as a priest in 1507, but he could not find a sense of peace despite continual fasting, prayer, penance, and confession.  No matter what he did he still had a sense that he was unacceptable to God.  He later confessed that he actually hated God for punishing people for their sins even though it’s impossible for humans to be perfect. His superiors became concerned about his extreme spiritual disciplines and gave him a new assignment as a Biblical professor in 1512.  For four years he lectured on the Psalms, Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews.

Ultimately Luther had a spiritual breakthrough called the “Tower Experience” where he had a revelation of God’s grace.  From that point on he believed in “justification by faith” – that we are saved not by what we do but through belief in Christ’s sacrifice for the sake of sinners.

LutherDuring this time, the Roman Catholic Church was selling “indulgences” to raise money.  These were essentially documents issued by the church assuring the recipients that they would go to heaven.  Luther detested this practice, and he became very disillusioned with the church of his time.  He eventually came up with 95 Theses, or declarations, which he nailed to the door of Castle Church on October 31, 1517 concerning the Vatican’s false teachings and corrupt practices.

Luther’s personal protest coincided with the development of the printing press, and over the next few years his writings critiquing the church became wildly popular as they began to circulate throughout Germany and beyond.  Eventually word of his insurrection reached the Vatican, and in 1520 he received an edict from the Vatican to recant his writings.  Instead, Luther publicly burned the edict. He was consequently excommunicated by the church in early 1521.

Later that year he was called to stand trial for heresy.  Luther had great popular support, and he could probably have found a wealthy patron who would have protected him.  Instead he chose to make the journey to go to trial in Worms, knowing that the punishment for heresy was death.  Like Jesus, he chose to go to a city where death awaited.

Luther was indeed found guilty and the church demanded that he recant his writings which challenged the authority of both the church and the pope.  Instead, he refused and is quoted as saying these famous words:

“Here I stand. I can do no other.”

He stood up and looked death right in the face.  He went right into the fire.  Literally – those convicted of heresy were usually burned at the stake. But Luther didn’t care. God had spoken to him in the Tower and he could not compromise the holy insights that he had been given.

Neither could Jesus.  He had to go to Jerusalem, the power center of Jewish religion.  The Vatican of its day.  He had to stand up to the authorities and confront them about their false teachings and corrupt practices. He had to go straight into the fire.

It ended better for Luther than it did for Jesus.  Luther was abducted after the trial and protected from the church for the rest of his days by one of the German princes.  Luther continued to write throughout the rest of his life and he changed the course of religious history by breaking the power of the Church of Rome by initiating the Protestant movement.

Luther would never in a million years have compared himself in any way to Jesus, but I personally think there are some comparisons that can be made.  Jesus chose to risk his life to confront the religious authorities of his day, just like Luther.  Jesus changed the course of history and initiated a new era of religious practice that didn’t revolve around the mindless slaughter of livestock (See Day 18).  Like Jesus, Luther refused to bow down to the religious authorities.  Like Luther, Jesus essentially said, “Here I stand.  I can do no other.”

I think it’s important to note that Jesus doesn’t spiritualize his upcoming demise.  I think that when we spiritualize his death too much we take away from his great courage, we diminish his sacrifice and suffering. Notice he does not say, “I will die for the sins of the world” or “I will die so that all might have eternal life.”  He says that he will be put to death. Period.

Times have changed and we don’t live in a country where we can legally be executed for our religious beliefs.  The church no longer has that kind of power. Unlike Jesus and Luther, we enjoy freedom of speech.  We need to use our freedom to be honest about our beliefs and true to what God has revealed to each of us, even if it seems to contradict traditional teachings.  I think everyone probably has beliefs and doubts that they are afraid to share with others. We shouldn’t be afraid.  We should use our freedom to honestly express ourselves.  In doing so we can release others to express themselves, and ultimately we will all learn a little more about God.  The only thing we risk is criticism.  Who cares?  It’s about time we all got real.  It’s not like we have to go into the fire. No one’s going to burn us at the stake.  All we have to face is a little heat, if that.  It’s not much of a risk.

What does this scripture say to you?

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