Have I mentioned that I’m not a big fan of Martin Luther?
I returned a few days ago from a series of meetings in Berlin with other pastors serving international churches. The trip included some sight-seeing in Wittenberg, Herrnhut, and Dresden – in other words, Luther (and Count von Zinzendorf) country.
What seemed obvious was that the German government is gearing up for a big celebration in 2017, the 500th anniversary of the year Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door. Buildings are undergoing renovations, tour guides are sharpening their monologues, and even the gift shops are expanding their inventories.
Luther beer, anyone?
I knew a few facts about Luther’s life and teachings before the trip – the fierce anti-Semitism of his last years, for example. But a few facts were new to me. His attacks on the Catholic church were not quite as brave as I had been led to believe. Jan Hus was burned at the stake a century earlier for what the Catholic church called his “heresies,” but the biggest threat to Luther’s life came from overeating.
At one stop our guide was asked why a mostly secular country like Germany would be so keen to preserve Luther’s memory.
The guide, who had a brand-new Ph.D. in German history and was eager to demonstrate what he knew, especially with a group of mostly-Lutheran pastors, had a quick and unexpected answer. Luther, he said, is remembered in twenty-first century Germany not so much for the Reformation but for his translation of the Bible into German. Before Luther’s German Bible, we were told, the German language was a series of dialects and not really a national language at all.
The new Bible standardized the language.
I’m not sure why that statement didn’t affect me at the time. Maybe it was because we were hurrying on to the next important Luther artifact. The death mask, maybe? But today, while working on my sermon for Sunday, it suddenly occurred to me that Luther would be devastated.
Really? After a life devoted to teaching the Christian faith, he is remembered today mainly for his contributions to German grammar and spelling?
I’m speechless. (And for a preacher that’s a serious matter.) I’m actually starting to feel sympathetic to the man.
(Photo: That’s Luther’s death mask, made following his death on February 18, 1546, in his hometown of Eisleben. I know, right?)