The 95 Theses Window
This sermon is part of a Lenten midweek series on our sanctuary stained-glass windows.
Text: 2 Chr. 30:6-9, Mark 1:14-15, Luke 13:1-5
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
“When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’, he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” With these words, Martin Luther fired the first shot of the Reformation. It was the first thesis in a list of 95, written against the practice of selling indulgences—letters excusing people from the punishment for their sins that they were supposed to be paying in purgatory. It’s no accident that Luther begins this treatise that would shake the world with the call of “Repent!” Indeed, all great movements in the Church begin with a call to repentance. Adam and Eve were called back to God when He asked them, “Where are you?”—not because He didn’t know where they were, but because He wanted to give them the opportunity to repent, to turn back from their running away from Him. Israel was to live a life of repenting of their trespasses against the Ten Commandments given to them from Mt. Sinai. David repented of his sin when the prophet Nathan was sent to bring him back to the paths of righteousness. John the Baptizer prepared people for the coming Messiah with the call, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” So now, on our last Wednesday night together before Holy Week, we look at the window of Luther posting the 95 Theses, the beginning of the Reformation movement that has given us our own Lutheran Church.
In this window, we have Martin Luther, still in the black robes of a monk of the Augustinian order, tonsured hair cut also showing he’s a monk, posting his writing against the sale of indulgences on the castle church door in Wittenberg. The door in our window is a little smaller than the church door in reality, but the artist did have to work with the limits of scope and size in the window. The door of the castle church was something like a community bulletin board. Since nearly everyone passed the doors of the church, nearly everyone saw what was posted there. It was common to leave public notices on the door. And because Luther posted it on a high feast day that everyone attended, October 31, All Saints’ Eve (or All Hallows Eve, we might be able to recognize), Luther was making sure that it was there in time that anyone who needed to see it would see it.
What I would draw your attention to is the reaction of the people in the window. Luther wrote the 95 Theses in Latin, hoping to spark a scholarly debate among the theologians and learned. And while the overwhelming majority of people in Wittenberg would not have known Latin, I think that the artist captures the range of what they would have thought after they heard or read it translated into German, which is was shortly after it was posted, against Luther’s wishes.
Look at the shock of the people. There’s a man in green in the fore. He looks as if he’s been stopped dead in his tracks, frozen by the staggering conclusions Luther reaches. There’s a man in red clothes, who seems to be someone of wealthier means, perhaps a merchant, as depicted by his more elaborate clothing and hat. He’s stunned by what he’s reading, mouth slightly open, eyes fixed on the document. But my personal favorite is the woman behind Luther, who’s grabbing the sides of her head, as if she’s dizzy or going insane, as if she alone sees how this will turn the world upside down.
What is it that’s so shocking about the 95 Theses? It all begins with the first of the 95: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’, he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Luther, the monk, who had dedicated his life to out-monking the monk-iest monks of them all, is now saying it’s not enough. Even what he’s done—it’s not enough. Our entire life is to be one of repentance. No part of our lives is free from that need to repent. No portion of our daily routine, our life’s work, nothing of our being, is worthy of existing all on its own without God’s grace and mercy covering it up. That’s truly shocking from a monk who’d dedicated his life to becoming the purest of the pure. He’s saying that even the monks are not exempt from this. No part of their life, no matter how holy it might appear to be, is without the need for repentance.
That’s what Jesus said. When He was approached by people asking Him what He thought about the Galileans who had been executed by Pontius Pilate while they were making sacrifices, they thought that Jesus would surely say that those Galileans had been extra bad. There must have been some hidden sin that they were being punished for, to die in that horrible way, with their blood mingling into their own sacrifices, making their last act on earth technically a human sacrifice, something strictly forbidden by God. But Jesus doesn’t go that route. “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they died in this way? Do you think they were worse than you? Do you think you don’t have some sin that need forgiving? No—but unless you repent, you will all likewise also perish.”
The audacity of saying, “You’re not fine. You’re not doing well enough. You need more and it needs to come from outside of you,” is something that causes us to prickle even now, 500 years after Luther wrote those words. This truly does turn the world upside down, as our beloved freaked out woman in the window realizes. It turns our personal lives upside down to know that we don’t have a little pristine and pure part of us that doesn’t need forgiveness. It’s insulting to our fallen nature to be told that our entire life is to be one of repentance, asking God for His mercy and grace, rather than holding up our list of reasons of why He should reward us. It turned the world upside down at the time of Luther, setting countless people free from buying indulgences for themselves and their loved ones, learning to lean completely on the mercy of God instead. It closed monasteries and convents, setting free monks and nuns who had been crushed by their fear that they were close to perfect, but not quite perfect enough. It broke down the manmade invention of purgatory, showing people that when their whole life is offered to God for cleansing and purification, He really does forgive and purify their whole life. He doesn’t hold back secret punishment cards for purgatory. This call to be forgiven by God flips our entire understanding of God upside down—how He does not operate the way the world does. He’s not looking to be bribed by our deeds or convinced by our works. And so this call to live a life of repentance changes us. It shows us that we can serve in the small ways that God presents us. We can trust Him to take care of salvation, to get the big things off our plate, so that we can focus on our job of reflecting God’s love, forgiveness, and mercy to those around us.
How can repentance change so much? What’s so great about it? It’s all connected to what we’ve been talking about thus far on Wednesdays this Lent with our windows. Repentance is opening our hands and asking God to fill them. Because we need more than what the world is offering or what we can muster. Luther made the comparison of faith and repentance as going to God with an empty bag and admitting to him that it’s empty. There’s nothing in there that you can use to trade with Him. You just need Him to fill it. And He does. God is merciful. He doesn’t want His beloved creation to suffer and lack. He wants us to see all that He has to give. As we heard from 2 Chronicles earlier, “For the Lord your God is gracious and merciful and will not turn his face from you if you return to him.” Luther knew this when he wrote the 95 Theses. So he writes in thesis 62: “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.” It’s the grace of God that saves, that enriches, that fills our bags, that restores and heals.
We’re reaching the end of Lent. We’re drawing close to Holy Week and Easter when we see how God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast, sacrificial, and staggering love. I would say that we’re reaching the end of our season of repentance, but we’re not. Our entire life is to be one of repentance. But our repentance is not gloomy or morose. It’s not miserable and joyless. Our repentance—repentance that recognizes God’s grace and love for us in Jesus, that recognizes that everything we need comes from God as a free gift—that kind of repentance is about to be met by God’s plenty. It’s about to be met and filled by Jesus’ work on Holy Week, by His death, by His resurrection on Easter, by the giving of His gifts constantly and continually. Rejoice, for your true salvation is coming and everything is about to be turned upside down, in the best possible way. In the name of Jesus, our Savior. Amen.