The story is told that as Luther was arriving in the town of Worms, five hundred years ago this week, the wagon he was riding in turned a corner near the wall of the city. There, someone, knowing that Luther would probably approach the city from that direction, had scrawled on the wall, “Luther: the Saxon Hus.”
Now for most of us today the line has little meaning, but it must have made Luther’s blood run cold, as well it should have. It was surely in his mind when he asked for time to consider his response to the demand made of him to abjure his books and deny their teachings. But what did it mean?
Most of us know Luther, but few of us know Hus. Jan Hus, Bohemian priest and scholar, who taught such concepts as sola scriptura and justification by faith a century before Luther traveled to Worms. Hus had read deeply in the writings of Wyclif, the English pre-Reformer, and had begun spreading the word in his homeland before being summoned to the Council of Constance with the promise of safe passage to give answer for his teachings before that council. Betrayed by those he had trusted, Hus was arrested and imprisoned, eventually forced to sit with a dunce cap painted with demons on it at a farcical trial where he was condemned, quite literally, for believing the gospel, and condemned to death. He was burned alive outside the city on July 6th, 1415.
And now Luther is going to appear before the Diet of Worms, with the same promise of safe passage that had lured Hus to his death. He, too, is being asked to answer for his teachings. It had only been a few years before (July, 1519) when the man who would be Luther’s life-long opponent, Johann Eck, had debated Luther at Leipzig, and in the process had made it clear to all that Luther was, in fact, repeating the same heresies for which Hus had been burned. At that time Luther only knew Hus as a heretic. He quickly retired to the Leipzig library, did some research, and discovered that, in fact, Eck was right: Luther was a Husite! Hus had been condemned for speaking the truth. This realization was vital in Luther’s coming to realize the direction his theology was taking.
So now Luther enters Worms, five hundred years ago today, and some person, known today only to God, had scrawled on the wall the message that Luther already feared would be true. He knew he was going to his death, he knew the cost of remaining faithful to the message of grace.
I truly doubt the representations of Luther boldly standing before the gathered leaders on the 19th of April (this coming Monday) acting as a bold and heroic rebel. I think when Luther gave his response, and said “Here I stand, I can do no other,” it was probably with a much more serious attitude than that of a heroic figure challenging the Empire. In any case, he gave the answer, whether boldly or seriously or quietly or fearfully, he gave it. He was ready to die for his convictions.
He did not die, of course. Frederick, the Elector of Saxony, had Luther snatched up and hidden away in the Wartburg Castle just outside Eisenach, where he would live for a period as “Knight George,” and work on his translation of the New Testament into German (and struggle with physical ailments!). He would eventually return to Wittenberg and continue the work of the Reformation there, always in danger.
Five hundred years have now passed. We now face a new foe. Not the sacral church and the corruption that came from that unnatural relationship between church and state. Not the corrupt Roman curia with its popes and bishops and all their riches. No, now we face “dehumanized man,” aggregations of star dust, fizzing beakers of chemicals, ugly bags of mostly water, whatever other sad but accurate phrases we can think of to describe “accidental man,” the comic accident with no meaning, no future, and hence no foundation for life. I truly believe there has never been a greater challenge to the claim “Jesus is Lord” than today’s “there is no Creator, there is no Lord, there is no future, there is no purpose, there is no truth, therefore the State is God.” In less and less subtle ways this enemy of mankind is demanding we abjure the Scriptures and their contents and submit to their self-proclaimed authority.
Luther did not stand at Worms because he was a naturally brave and strong man. No, it was God’s intention to do something through him, flawed and weak as he was. Luther stood by the Spirit of God, and we must realize that if we are going to stand, it will not be by our might or strength or boldness or bravery, but by His Spirit.