Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Martin Luther or Philip Melanchthon…How Do You Vote”
The Commemoration of the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession (June 25, 2017)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City
I’m sure you could stand up here right now and wax eloquently about Martin Luther: how he boisterously banged 95 theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany; how he defiantly declared, “Here I stand; I can do no other;” how he raged against Pope Leo X saying outrageous things like, “After the devil himself, there is no worse folk than the pope and his followers.”
But what would you say about Philip Melanchthon if called upon? You could report that he said of Martin Luther, “I would rather die than be separated from this man;” that Melanchthon was a lay person—like most of you—and not a pastor; and though not a pastor, he taught Greek, New Testament, and theology at the same university as Luther in Wittenberg.
While dear friends, Luther and Melanchthon’s personalities were worlds apart. Luther came off as arrogant and cocksure while Melanchthon was a peaceful sort, frequently seeking harmony with people who disagreed with him on key religious matters.
Luther once wrote: “I had to fight with rabble and devils, for which reason my books are very warlike. I am the rough pioneer who must break the road; but Master Philip comes along softly and gently, sows and waters heartily, since God has richly endowed him with gifts.”
It’s odd, really, that we know so little about Melanchthon for he wrote the most significant Lutheran document of faith. How many of you, when reading this morning’s bulletin cover, “The Commemoration of the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession,” wondered what’s up with this?
Here is a little history lesson about the Augsburg Confession, not because I am so bright but because I was ordained on this day forty years ago; I served a church named “Augustana” (Latin for Augsburg) where our son, Caspar, was baptized and our other son, Sebastian, was an extraordinary thurifer who could create more clouds of incense anywhere south of heaven; I was installed at another church on this day; and yes, today, you celebrate with me on my 40th anniversary of ordination. Is it any wonder I finally was able to learn what the Augsburg Confession is? And yes, all along the way, on all these Augustana occasions, my dear wife, Dagmar, has supported me and guided me.
The Holy Roman Emperor wanted to know why the Lutheran reformers were making such a fuss in the 1500s and so, like any school teacher would do with unruly school children, Charles V asked the reformers to write a paper on what they believed and to present it in Augsburg, Germany, on June 25, 1530 (487 years ago). The Augsburg Confession is the result and is one of seven confessional documents included in our Lutheran confessional book, “The Book of Concord.”
Understandably, some of you are murmuring right about now, “Pastor, preach about Jesus and skip the Lutheran lecture.” You may even be boiling: “Pastor, today is NYC Pride. Preach something that touches our lives, something that is relevant!” I understand, honestly I do, and yet I believe the Augsburg Confession is a wondrous invitation to live vibrantly in our church and world, especially in these contentious days.
It is vitally important to know that Philip Melanchthon, rather than lambasting the opponents of the reformation, sought to illuminate the similarities that Roman Catholics and the emerging Lutheran movement shared. The Augsburg Confession exudes Melanchthon’s humble spirit, often referred to as irenic in character.
I like that word “irenic” though I must confess when I first heard it, I had to pull out my Webster’s to see what it means. Irenic means “aiming for peace.”
I dare say some of us who call ourselves Lutherans don’t fancy ourselves as particularly irenic. We delight in Luther’s bluster as he angrily shakes his fists at his detractors. Even though Luther championed Christ’s love for all people, we must be honest: his firm stands helped fracture the church in ways that have menaced us for 500 years. You know that: you have attended a funeral only to hear, “Only Catholics can come forward to receive the body and blood of Christ.” You married a Roman Catholic and horrified poor grandma for ages unto ages.
Admittedly, there are occasions when we must stand up for the truth and yet, sadly, there are inevitably necessary losses that ensue. If individuals, congregations, and entire denominations end up divided because of our beliefs, we must admit we have fallen pathetically short in achieving the vision for which Christ prayed on the night he died that his followers might be one as he was one with his heavenly Father.
It seems to me, in these days when families and congregations, religions and nations, are so frightfully divided, we do well to look at Philip Melanchthon. He shows us how to seek a better way with our adversaries through respect and humility instead of bluster and swagger. As long as Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox, let alone Jews, Muslims, and Hindus, quarrel and kill one another, we have much to confess and precious little to celebrate. As long as we, the body of Christ, endlessly squabble with one another, Jesus continues to be ripped asunder on the cross.
The prophet Isaiah said: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” Yes, God’s deepest longing is for peace to prevail among all people.
I have spent forty years now as a minister of the Church in the Holy Office of Word and Sacraments. As I reflect over those years, I must confess there have been occasions when I should have been far more like Philip Melanchthon; all too often, humility and understanding of others have eluded me and that deeply saddens me. On other occasions, when I should have been far more daring and adventurous, like Luther, I have been a cowardly lion.
I have discovered over the years that the Christian life—at least for me—is an endless struggle between cowardice and courage, bombast and humility. At least I never seem to get it quite right. Whenever we err on the side of cowardice and bombast, let us fall to our knees and pray for the godly gifts of courage and humility and for the wisdom to know which is the necessary gift at a particular time.
On this day of New York City Pride, I am mindful how our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has fought, sometimes ferociously, for and against our Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender brothers and sisters. While we have made significant strides in recent years to open our Lutheran doors wider, we still need to pray that we might open them even wider. This is where the seemingly cobwebby Augsburg Confession is so important. Our central Lutheran confession claims that the church is present wherever the gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the gospel. When we preach and eat and baptize together, we all taste the gifts of heaven, whether gay or straight, black or white, Republican or Democrat, young and old, rich and poor, yes, even Lutheran or Roman Catholic.
So, on this day, how do you cast your vote…for Martin Luther the bombastic one or Philip Melanchthon the humble one? I can assure you these two giants of the faith would urge you to vote only for God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.