Pentecost Sunday (C/RCL): “Word of God, Word of Life”
May 15, 2016
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manasquan, NJ
Holy Trinity has Bible treasures. One of them is this large volume with an amazing carved wooden cover. It was printed in 1778 in Basel, Switzerland. It is a Luther Bible, in German. Inside the front cover is a letter from the Krauth Library of the Lutheran seminary in Philly, dated 1934; it says, “Thanks, but no thanks.” We apparently offered the Bible to them and they stated they already had a copy. The Bible was presented by Robert C. Neary, Sr., of Neary-Quinn Funeral Home on South Street. Mr. Neary’s widow Charlotte is Presbyterian and I imagine he was, too. I can only guess he generously gave this volume to Holy Trinity since we occupy what used to be the Presbyterian Church and since Lutherans would be more interested in a Luther Bible than Presbyterians!
Luther was not the first person to translate the Bible into German, but his translation was the first that really caught on and gained widespread readership. Let me refresh your memory about the backstory. Martin Luther was the brilliant but distraught young monk who worried constantly that he could never be good enough to merit heaven. He did his best to pile up good works like fasting and praying, going on pilgrimage to Rome and venerating relics of the saints, but he was still left with a haunting fear that God was so angry with Martin’s sinful self that he’d end up in hell. The wise superior of the Augustinian monastery to which Martin belonged, who also served as Martin’s confessor, told him that God was not angry with him. Out of exasperation and inspiration von Staupitz finally ordered Martin to study for a doctorate in sacred Scripture, saying that in this way Luther would hear the good news of God’s love directly from the Word of God. He was right!
The Holy Spirit spoke to Martin through the Letter to the Romans, chapter 1, verse 17:
He who through faith is righteous shall live.
Faith is trust in God. Luther understood this verse to mean that trust in what God has done in Jesus Christ is what allows us to stand before God as forgiven sinners and beloved children. Galatians 2:16 also shed light into the darkness of Luther’s despair:
…we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.
Luther always said that the true treasure of the Church is the Gospel, the Good News about God’s love and forgiveness available to us through Jesus Christ.The way to claim that treasure is simply to trust that it is true.
Luther believed that the people of God needed access to the Word of God in their own language. He didn’t want them to have to depend on someone else’s interpretation, especially if the “someone else” was corrupt clergy or a hierarchy with its own agenda and possible mis-interpretation. So the year he was in hiding in the Wartburg Castle (1521-22) he translated the NT into German. He and other reformers then worked on the Old Testament – and finished it in 1535.
Translating the Bible may not sound too radical to us – but it was, back then. It was religiously radical and politically seditious. There were terrible consequences. Remember? Jan Hus was burned at the stake; John Wycliffe’s body was exhumed 30 years after he died, then burned, after which his ashes were thrown into the river; William Tyndale was strangled and then burned at the stake. They suffered all this because of their desire to give God’s Word to the people in their own language. We thank God and credit the Holy Spirit in particular with setting the stage so that Luther survived, not only to translate Scripture but to teach the people and lead the fledgling community of those Christians who came to be called Lutherans. The early 16th century was “the fullness of time” for the faithful to read Scripture in their own language. Thanks to Luther and other translators, those who were literate were able directly to access the Word of God, speaking to the Church and to them, laying out God’s commands and God’s promises.
Luther emphasized that we do not worship the Bible. We worship the One whom the Bible contains. He referred to the Bible in this way:
Here you will find the swaddling cloths and the manger in which Christ lies… Simple and lowly are these swaddling cloths, but dear is the treasure, Christ, who lies in them.1
The first time I remember encountering the Bible as a child was in third grade when our class studied “Bible History.” I recall a little book with a brown grocery bag cover. The stories were interesting but seemed (and were) very, very old. Bible History, full of Old Testament stories, was definitely about the past, like studying ancient Babylon or Athens or Rome. Over time I’ve come to see, though, that these stories set in the past are relevant in the present because they tell us about God’s expectations of us today, about God’s promises and God’s faithfulness in keeping those promises. The New Testament also tells us about God’s promises, and how God has fulfilled and will fulfill them in Christ. Past and present are peppered with promises for present and future and also assure us of Presence, God’s Presence, now and in time to come. “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age,” says our Lord Jesus in the very last verse of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Matt. 28:20).
It’s been said of Luther:
“The Word of God was his primary weapon against all the powers that threatened him – whether the cosmic powers of sin, death, and the devil, or the earthly powers of a corrupted church, scheming politicians, or inept or heretical theologians.”2
The Word of God is the Incarnate Word (our Lord Jesus), the preached Word, and the written Word in the Bible. Today we dedicate pew Bibles in memory of our friends Lois & Harold Hodousek, remembering and giving thanks for their witness of “faith active in love” (Galatians 5:6). May the written Word proclaimed and the living Word preached in worship bind us ever more closely to the Incarnate Word, our Lord Jesus Christ. May our lives, the only Bible some people will ever read, proclaim and glorify Him as well. Amen
1Luther’s Works 35:236.
2”Martin Luther on the Bible,” Lutheran Study Bible (Minneapolis:Augsburg Fortress, 2009, pp. 1521-1531), p. 1525.
Pastor Mary Virginia Farnham
P.S. News blast! Immediately following worship on Saturday evening, June 18, Pastor Frank Watson of Christ Lutheran in Whiting will “open up” our Holy Trinity Bible treasures, the one I’ve shown you this morning and other gems. Pastor Watson is our NJ Synod Archivist and a scholar in these matters. Please sign up on the traveling bulletin board, via e-mail or by calling the Holy Trinity office, for Wraps & Rap on 6/28!