Gospel for the Reformation Sunday
31So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 33They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?”
34Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. 36So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. 37I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you. 38 I speak of what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you have heard from your father.”
Phil grew up in a little community in rural Missouri. Densely populated with German farmers, it was an archipelago of Lutherans in a sea of Baptists, Methodists, Assemblies of God, and others. In one of the corners of that community was a church in the little gathering of houses which everyone called Flora. That church had a wonderful story to tell. In the days of the American Civil War the ancestors of those German farmers had stood up for abolition and the Union. This was not a distant issue for them. Their neighbors, who had migrated from Kentucky and Virginia, were largely slave-owners, raising hemp for the ropes that bound the bales of cotton. There were many slaves who toiled in fields close to those farmers. After the Civil War, the slaves were freed; fearing their former masters, they sought refuge among the Germans. Well into the 20th century, that little country church was thoroughly integrated.
The farmers in Flora saw God do something in those days of war and fear. After the war, the formerly slave-holding neighbors had tried violence and intimidation to cow the slaves and the German farmers alike. The violence probably served to drive them together but soon it was not fear but love that kept them there. Some of the members of Flora congregation had been freed from literal chains and bondage. Others, however, had been freed from a more subtle bondage to prejudice and freed to see the world through different, Gospel-oriented eyes.
The descendants of those slaves in Flora, for the most part, joined the great migration of their kindred to the industrial cities of the north in the early and middle part of the 20th century. There were jobs there and a promise of a better future for their children. They often worked in the factories that made automobiles. Those cars replaced horses and that meant that there was no need for a church every few miles. Eventually the little congregation in Flora closed. Several of its members joined Phil’s father’s congregation and he got to know them. “The folk from Flora are a little different,” people used to say. But they did not mean it in a bad way. They meant that the folk from Flora could see things a little differently, graciously. They always had room in their heart to lend a hand, forgive a sinner, or welcome someone. They heard Gospel calling them to love.
The Son has set you free. You are free indeed.
A MIghty Fortress…
His friends looked on with growing alarm that day in mid-April of 1521. Luther stood before the Emperor and the assembled members of the imperial nobility. He refused their demand that he disavow his writings. The Emperor was not used to being disobeyed, especially by a lowly monk. Luther could be somewhat politically obtuse. His friends grabbed him firmly by the elbow and escorted him out of the room and they just kept walking. They smiled at the guards, walked through the city gate, and came to the horses and cart which they had prepared for just such an emergency. They sent Luther out of town before he could be arrested. Somewhere outside of town, Luther’s party was surrounded, and he was taken “prisoner.”
Many people thought that was the end of Luther, but it was not. His prince, the Elector Frederick, sometimes called “the Wise” but perhaps the German is better translated “the Crafty,” had arranged for Luther to be kidnapped and brought to a secure fortress high on a hill in Saxony. It still stands and you can visit. It is called the Wartburg.
In the 10 months he spent in the Wartburg, Luther grew a beard and took on a new identity as Knight George. We even have a painting of him at the time. Psalm 46 repeats the phrase: “the God of Jacob is our fortress.” Those words would become the opening blast of Luther’s most famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” Luther likely prayed and meditated upon this psalm while in the Wartburg. People build fortresses like the Wartburg to defend against an enemy. Luther was safe there, at least from the emperor.
But the emperor was not Luther’s only foe. To be safe from those other foes like sin, death, and devil, would take another fortress, a fortress which Luther sings about in that hymn and Psalm 46 describes. Inside that fortress city the river of life flows. Outside is chaos and tumult. You have been brought to that fortress in your baptism and the promise of God to you. Here we may rest unmolested by the world, the devil, or anyone else. A mighty fortress is our God, a trusty shield and weapon; He helps us free from ev’ry need That hath us now o’ertaken.
Today’s “a devotion for you…” is edited, revised and adapted, with permission, from original content from colleague and friend, Phil Brandt.