500 years on, what would Luther say?
by Reid Matthias
If the great reformer himself could have attended the Martin Luther@500 conference held in Melbourne recently, what would he think of everything being said and done in his name? We asked Pastor Reid Matthias, who attended the conference, to investigate.
He stands blockish and imposing, with his feet planted stolidly and his arms crossed in a posture of frustration. Unaware that I am watching, his brow is deeply furrowed and his concentration on the presenter is stark in the dimly lit hall.
Then he notices me. His frown deepens. Slowly, he beckons and I feel like Mowgli on his hypnotised walk towards the great snake, Kaa, in The Jungle Book.
‘So’, he whispers, ‘what do you think?’ ‘It’s …,’ I wait to see if he’ll fill in the blank, but he does not, ‘… different’.
He nods, once again concentrating on the presenter’s words. ‘Ja, this is very interesting. I never knew it would last this long.’
Then it hits me – here is Martin Luther straight out of the 16th century. His once tonsured head is covered with hair; his strong, prominent jaw boasts a shadowy stubble. He looks exactly like the miniaturised statue brought in for this Martin Luther@500 conference from 28 June to 3 July 2016.
Almost 200 Lutherans have descended on Melbourne to hear lectures about the theology of the man standing beside me.
‘What do you think of the proceedings here at the Catholic Leadership Centre?’ He snorts, the irony is not lost on him. ‘I have some thoughts about everything, but I sometimes choose to keep quiet.’
It is my turn to snort. According to my Luther knowledge, holding his tongue was not his greatest strength. ‘But, how do you feel that we’ve all come together in your name 500 years after your challenge on the Wittenberg doors?’ ‘I wish they would have listened when I said “please don’t call yourself Lutheran, but Christian. What is Luther? The teaching is not mine! … How could it happen that I – poor stinking bag of worms that I am – end up having the children of Christ called by my miserable name? … Let us get rid of all party names and call ourselves Christians, after Christ, whose teaching we hold”.’ (as relayed by Dr Oswald Bayer)
‘Don’t be too hard on yourself’, I say, trying to comfort the reformer. ‘You’ve given such wisdom to the church.’ ‘Wisdom! Many of these people have much more wisdom than I. Did you hear Dr Franz Posset? “Today, then, let us look for what unites, and not what divides … Without one, strong, ecumenical voice there will be no meaningful Christian impact on the world”.’ I nod. ‘It would be a wonderful thing if the denominations of the world could band together under the common banner of what we share as Christians rather than what divides us.’
‘Think of the gift we could give to the world’, he says. ‘Dr Risto Saarinen – he hit the nail on the head. “Giving” is in many cultures and in the Bible connected with … the hands … God’s hands are considered as the vehicle, the instrument through which God gives good things.’