Letter from Gerard O’Brien

Dear Friends,

A few years ago we celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation: the great movement in the church to go back to the Bible and reaffirm that salvation is by faith in Christ alone (and not by any works we do). But 31 October 2017 was only the anniversary of Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg. It was only the beginning! There was so much that happened after that. And so now we have the blessing of remembering the anniversaries of other major events in the Reformation.

2021 marks the 500 th anniversary of Luther appearing before Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms. One fun activity to mark it with your children is to eat gummy worms for lunch (a diet of worms  ) – but a Diet was an assembly of people and this one was held in the Imperial Free City of Worms (in the south-west modern-day Germany).

In 1520 Pope Leo X wrote a letter of excommunication against Luther titled Exsurge Domine (‘Arise, O Lord’) in which he prayed for God to rise up against ‘the wild boar from the forest’ (Luther) who was supposedly destroying God’s vineyard. In typical Luther fashion, when he received the letter of excommunication, he burned it.

The Diet of Worms was the imperial government backing up the church’s excommunication. Back in those days, heresy against the Roman Catholic Church could get you in real trouble with the Holy Roman Empire. If you have the pope personally excommunicating you, you really are in line for execution. Luther was blessed to have the prince of his territory on his side, who gained assurance that Luther would have safe passage to and from the Diet. It still wasn’t very safe: 106 years earlier the Czech forerunner of the Reformation, Jan Hus, was burned at the stake for speaking out against the pope and indulgences, even though he was likewise promised safe passage.

Luther was summoned to appear before the assembly at 4pm on 17 April 1521. A collection of his books was laid out on a table and he was asked to confirm whether the books were his, and whether he was ready to recant of them. He asked for time to consider. He appeared before the assembly again at 4pm on 18 April, was asked the same question and responded with these famous words:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.

It was a magnificent statement of trust in God’s word, even if the whole world stands against you. It took incredible courage. Mercifully the emperor kept his promise of safe passage (at least out of Worms), but Luther’s prince knew his life was in danger. And so he arranged for Luther to be kidnapped on his way home from the Diet and kept him safe in Wartburg castle (where Luther got to work translating the New Testament from Greek to German – which subsequently had as much influence on the German language as Tyndale’s Bible had on English). A month later the emperor issued an edict that made Luther an outlaw.

1 Timothy 3:15 calls the church ‘a pillar and buttress of the truth’. Martin Luther is a great example of ‘holding up and holding out’ the word of the truth courageously and faithfully. May we have the same conviction as Luther and continue the work of holding out the beautiful truth of the true gospel that ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ (1 Timothy 1:15).

In Christ,
Gerard O’Brien

P.S. In keeping with the spirit of the Reformation the 8am service will celebrate the Lord’s Supper on Sunday using Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer. There will be some small but important changes made that will take us back to Cranmer’s genius in producing a service that is unmatched in its expression of the glorious doctrine of justification by faith alone rediscovered at the Reformation. It is worth quoting Gregory Dix, the world’s foremost expert on Christian liturgy:

‘Compared with the clumsy and formless rites which were evolved abroad, that of 1552 is the masterpiece of an artist. Cranmer gave it a noble form as a superb piece of literature, which no one could say of its companions; but he did more. As a piece of liturgical craftsmanship it is in the first rank-once its intention is understood. It is not a disordered attempt at a catholic rite, but the only effective attempt ever made to give liturgical expression to the doctrine of “justification by faith alone”.’ The Shape of Liturgy (1945) Come and join us to see the Reformation in action!