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Who was Martin Luther and why did he ‘rebel’ against the Pope in 1517-18?   Leave a comment

The Eve of the Reformation:

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Traditionally, the Protestant Reformation began on the eve of All Souls’ Day, 31 October 1517. On that day Martin Luther (1483-1536), professor of biblical studies at the newly founded University of Wittenberg in Germany, announced a disputation on indulgences. He stated his argument in Ninety-Five Theses. Though they were heavily academic in both form and content, and were moderate in tone, news of them spread rapidly throughout Germany as soon as they were translated into German and printed. But the 95 Theses were not by any means intended as a call to radical reformation. They were not even a proposal for reform of an abuse of the Church’s power, but were propositions put forward by an earnest university professor for a discussion of the theology of indulgences, the selling of ‘pardons’ by clergy and bankers’ agents in order to collect money for the upkeep and building of churches.

The dealings in indulgences (‘the holy trade’ as it was openly known), had grown into a scandal. To begin with, reformers did not oppose indulgences in their true and original sense – as the merciful release of a penitent sinner from a penance previously imposed by a priest. What they opposed were the additions and perversions which they saw as harmful to the salvation of men, and which infected the everyday practice of the Church. Medieval people had a real dread of the period of punishment in purgatory which was portrayed in great detail in the decorations within their churches. They had no great fear of hell, believing that, if they died forgiven and blessed by their priest, they were guaranteed access through heaven’s gates, the keys to which were held by the pope, as St Peter’s successor. But they feared purgatory’s pains; for the church taught that before they reached heaven they had to be cleansed of every son committed in mortal life. Once penance was made a sacrament, the ordinary person believed that an indulgence assured the shortening of the punishments to be endured after death in purgatory. The relics of the Castle Church in Wittenberg were reckoned to earn a remission of 1,902,202 years and 270 days!

Luther’s Early Life:

More books have been written about Luther, the great German Reformer, than about any other figure in history, except for Jesus Christ. Like the latter, not much is known about the first thirty years or so of his life. He was born at Eisleben and studied law at the University of Leipzig. In 1505 he joined the Augustinian Hermits in Erfurt, after taking a dramatic vow in a thunderstorm, and was ordained in 1507. After studying theology he was sent by his order to the University of Wittenberg to teach moral theology and the Bible. In 1511 he visited Rome on business for his order, and in the same year became a doctor of theology and professor of biblical studies at Wittenberg.

When. as a monk, Luther diagnosed the disease of Christian Europe to be the same as his own spiritual disease, he broke through to the gospel. In his monastery Luther had been searching for God’s pardon and peace. He faithfully obeyed his order, and observed punctiliously the spiritual techniques. Yet he found himself no nearer to God. He began to see that the way of the monk was merely a long discipline of religious duty and effort. Mysticism was an attempt to climb up to heaven. Academic theology was little more than speculation about God, his nature and his character.

Luther found one basic error in all these techniques of finding God. Ultimately they trusted in man’s own ability to get him to God, or at least take him near enough for God to accept him. Luther realised that it was not a matter of God being far from man, and man having to strive to reach him. The reverse was true. Man, created and sinful, was distant from God; God in Christ had come all the way to find him. This was no new truth, but simply the old gospel of grace, which had been overlaid. Luther’s discovery did not represent a break with traditional doctrines. The reformers held, within the Roman Church at first, all the orthodox doctrines stated in the general creeds of the early church, but they also understood these doctrines in the particular context of salvation in Christ alone. From Luther’s rediscovery of the direct and personal relationship between Christ and the believer came the three great principles of the Reformation; the primacy of the Bible as God’s word of authority, justification of the sinner by grace alone, and the belief in the ‘priesthood of all believers’.

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Luther’s views became widely known when he posted the Ninety-Five Theses on the church door at Wittenberg. He attacked the teaching behind the sale of indulgences and the church’s material preoccupations. But he also contrasted the treasures the treasures of the church with its true wealth, the gospel. Indulgences served not merely to dispense the merits of the saints but also to raise revenues. Roland Bainton, in his seminal work, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (1950), referred to them as the bingo of the sixteenth century. The practice had grown out of the crusades, as they were first conferred on those who sacrificed or risked their lives in fighting against the Ottoman Turks and were then extended to those who, unable to go to the Holy Land, made contributions to the enterprise. The device proved so lucrative that it was speedily extended to cover the construction of churches, monasteries, and hospitals. The gothic cathedrals were funded by these means, and even secular projects were financed in this way, including a bridge across the Elbe built by Frederick the Wise. However, indulgences had not degenerated into sheer mercenariness by Luther’s time. Conscientious preachers sought to evoke a sense of sin in the purchaser, and only those genuinely convicted would buy. Nevertheless, for many others, as for Luther, the indulgence traffic was a scandal, with one preacher characterising the requisites of the church as three-fold: contrition, confession and contribution.

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The Indulgence Sale of 1516-17

The cartoon above, by Holbein, makes the point that the handing over of the indulgence letter was so timed as to anticipate the dropping of the money into the coffer. This can be seen in the chamber on the right in which the Pope, Leo X, is enthroned. He is handing a letter of indulgence to a kneeling Dominican friar. In the church stalls on either side are seated a number of church dignitaries. On the right one of them lays his hand upon the head of a kneeling youth and with a stick points to a large iron-bound chest for the contributions, into which a woman is dropping her ‘mite’.  At the table on the left various Dominicans are preparing and dispensing indulgences. One of them repulses a beggar who has nothing to give in exchange, while another is carefully checking the money and withholding the indulgences until the full amount has been received. In contrast, Holbein depicts, on the left, the true repentance of David, Manasseh, and a notorious sinner, who address themselves only to God.

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The indulgences dispensed at Wittenberg served to support the Castle Church and the university. Luther’s attack therefore struck at the revenue of his own institution. The first blow was certainly not the rebellion of an exploited German against the expropriating greed of the Italian papacy. He was simply a simple priest responsible for the souls of his parishioners and therefore felt a keen sense of duty to warn them against the spiritual pitfalls of buying indulgences. As he put it, good works do not make a man good, but a good man does good works. He was determined to preach this, whatever the consequences for the Castle Church and the university. 

In 1517 Luther!s attention was drawn to another instance of the indulgence traffic, this time arising out of the pretensions of the house of Hohenzollern to control both the ecclesiastical and civil life of Germany. Every bishop controlled vast revenues, and some bishops were also princes. Albert of Brandenburg, a Hohenzollern, held the sees of Halberstadt and Magdeburg, and aspired to the archbishopric of Mainz, which would make him the primate of Germany. Albert was confident that money would speak, because the Pope needed it so badly. The pontiff was Leo X, of the House of Medici, whose chief pre-eminence lay in his ability to squander the resources of the Holy See on carnivals, war, gambling and hunting. The Catholic historian Ludwig von Pastor declared that the ascent of this man in an hour of crisis to the chair of St. Peter, a man who scarcely so much as understood the obligations of his high office, was one of the most severe trials to which God ever subjected his Church. Leo was particularly in need of funds to complete a project commenced by his predecessor, the building of the new St. Peter’s. Pope Julius II had begun the work, but though the piers were laid, work had stopped before Julius died and Leo took over.

The negotiations between Albert and the Pope were conducted through the mediation of the German banking-house of Fugger, which exercised monopoly on papal finances in Germany. When the Church needed funds in advance of revenues, she borrowed at usurious rates from the Fuggers, and indulgences were then sold in order to repay the debts, the bankers themselves supervising their collection. They informed Albert that the Pope demanded twelve thousand ducats for the twelve apostles. Albert offered seven for the seven deadly sins, and they compromised on ten, presumably for the Ten Commandments! Albert had to pay the money first, in order to secure his appointment as Archbishop of Mainz, and he borrowed the amount from the Fuggers. To enable Albert to reimburse himself, the Pope granted him the privilege of dispensing an indulgence in his territories for a period of eight years. One half of the returns was to go to the repayment of the Fuggers, and the other half to the Pope.

The indulgences were not offered in Luther’s parish, since the Church could not introduce one without the approval of the civil authorities, and Frederick the Wise would not grant permission in his lands because Wittenberg already had it own indulgences, for All Saints, so the vendors could not enter electoral Saxony, although Luther’s parishioners could go over the border and return with ‘concessions’ which would tempt others to do the same. Subscribers would enjoy a plenary and perfect remission of all sins, as well as restitution to the state of innocence they had enjoyed in baptism and relief from all the pains of purgatory. For those securing indulgences on behalf of the dead, the stages of contrition and confession could be by-passed. Preaching stations, marked by the Cross (see below) were set up so that all might contribute according to their capacity to pay. There was a set fee for each level in the feudal hierarchy, and soon so much money was going into the coffer of the vendor that new coins had to be minted on the spot.

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Those without even a single florin to give were allowed to contribute through prayer and fasting, so it is incorrect to suggest that the very poor were stripped of all coinage. The proclamation of the indulgence was entrusted to the Dominican Tetzel, an experienced vendor. When he approached a town, he was met by the civic dignitaries, who then entered with him in solemn procession. A cross bearing the papal arms preceded him, and the pope’s bull of indulgence was borne aloft on a gold-embroidered velvet cushion. The cross was solemnly planted in the market place, and a lengthy sermon began, in which the children of departed were implored to open their ears to their parent’s pleading from purgatory:

We bore you, nourished you, brought you up, left you our fortunes, and you are so cruel that now you are not willing for so little to set us free. Will you let us lie here in flames? Will you delay our promised glory.

The assembled were then reminded that for just a quarter of a florin they could secure the instant release of their beloved dead from the ‘flames’ and the transition of their souls into the ‘fatherland of paradise’. Tetzel used a familiar rhyming couplet to bring this home to even the most uneducated among them:

As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, 

The soul from purgatory springs.

Luther’s returning parishioners even reported Tetzel to have said that the papal indulgences could absolve a man who had violated the Mother of God, and that the cross emblazoned with the papal arms set up by the vendors was equal to the cross of Christ. The cartoon (below), published by one of Luther’s followers sometime later, shows the cross in the centre empty of all save the nail holes and the crown of thorns. More prominent beside it stood the papal arms above the preacher, and the Medici balls above the vendor, hawking his wares in the foreground.

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The Ninety-Five Theses:

So, on the eve of All Souls, 1517, when Frederick the Wise would offer his indulgences, Luther decided to speak out by posting, in accordance with the current practice, a printed placard in Latin on the door of the Castle Church. It consisted of ninety-five theses, or propositions, intended for academic dispute and debate. He directed his attack solely against Tetzel’s reputed sermon, not against Albert of Brandenburg’s transaction. Pope Sixtus IV had set a precedent on promising the immediate release of souls from purgatory, so Tetzel’s jingle did not represent a departure from accepted teaching within the Church, resting on papal authority.  However, Luther’s Theses differed from the normal use of propositions for debate in tone rather than content, crafted as they were in anger. The ninety-five ‘affirmations’ are crisp, bold and unqualified. In the discussions which followed, he explained his meaning more fully. There were three main points: an objection to the avowed object of the expenditure, the basilica of St Peter’s in Rome; a denial of the pope’s powers over purgatory, and a pastoral concern for the welfare of the individual sinner.

The attack focused first on the ostensible intent to spend the money in order to shelter the bones of St Peter and St Paul beneath a universal shrine for all Christendom. We Germans cannot attend St Peters, he wrote, suggesting that the pope would do better to appoint one good pastor and give the money to the poor folk who are being fleeced by the hawkers of indulgences. Certainly, he argued, it should never be built our parochial churches be despoiled. This went down well with the Germans, who had been suffering a sense of grievance for some time against what they saw as the corrupt practices of the Italian curia, whilst overlooking those of the German confederates. Luther himself accepted this distortion by ignoring the fact that much of the money collected by Albert was going into the coffers of the Fuggers, rather than to Rome. However, Luther was not concerned so much with the details of the financial transaction as with undermining the whole practice, even if not a single gulden was to leave Wittenberg.

His second point denied the power of the pope over purgatory for the remission of either sin or penalty for sin. The absolution of sin, in his view, was something that could only be given to the contrite sinner in the sacrament of penance:

Papal indulgences do not remove guilt. Beware of those who say that indulgences effect reconciliation with God. The power of the keys cannot make attrition into contrition. He who is contrite has plenary remission of guilt and penalty without indulgences. The pope can remove only those penalties which he himself has imposed on earth, for Christ did not say, “whatsoever I have bound in heaven you may loose on earth.”

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Luther argued that the penalties of purgatory could not be reduced by the pope because they had been imposed by God, and the pope did not have at his disposal a treasury of credits available for transfer. Thus far, Luther’s attack could in no sense be regarded as heretical or original. Even though Albert’s actions rested on papal bulls, there had as yet been no definitive pronouncement, and many contemporary theologians would have endorsed Luther’s claims. It was his doctrine on salvation which represented a departure from traditional Catholic teaching:

Indulgences are positively harmful to the recipient because they impede salvation by diverting charity and inducing a false sense of security. Christians should be taught that he who gives to the poor is better than he who receives a pardon. He who spends his money for indulgences instead of relieving want receives not the indulgences of the pope but the indignation of God… Love covers a multitude of sins and is better than all the pardons of Jerusalem and Rome… Christians should be encouraged to bear the cross. He who is baptised into Christ must be as a sheep to the slaughter. The merits of Christ are vastly more potent when they bring crosses than when they bring remissions.

The Road to Augsburg and back:

Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses ranged in scope all the way from the complaints of aggrieved Germans to the cries of a wrestler in the night watches. One portion demanded financial relief, the other called for the crucifixion of the self. The masses could grasp the first. Only a few elect spirits would ever comprehend fully the importance of the second. Yet it was in the second that the power lay to create a popular revolution. Complaints of financial extortion had been voiced for more than a century to no great effect. Men were stirred to deeds only by one who regarded indulgences not only as corrupt, but as blasphemy against the holiness and mercy of God.

Neither did Luther intend to start a popular revolution. He took no steps to spread his theses among the people. He was merely inviting scholars to dispute with him, but others surreptitiously translated the theses into German and gave them to the printing presses. They soon became the talk of Germany. Luther had meant them for those most concerned with the indulgence controversy in his part of the country, divided as it was into many ‘independent’ territories and cities within the Empire.  He had sent a copy to Albert of Mainz, along with the following letter:

Father in Christ and Most Illustrious Prince, forgive me that I, the scum of the earth, should dare to approach Your Sublimity.  The Lord Jesus is my witness that I am well aware of my insignificance and my unworthiness. I make so bold because of the office and fidelity which I owe to Your Paternity. May Your Highness look upon this speck of dust and hear my plea for clemency from you and from the pope.

These words, so many of them beginning with obsequious capitals, were hardly those of a revolutionary. Luther then reported what he had heard about Tetzel’s preaching that through indulgences men are promised remission not only of penalty but also of guilt. Nevertheless, rather than simply reading the theses and replying, as Luther requested, Albert chose to forward them to Rome. Pope Leo is credited with making two comments, neither of which can be claimed as authentic, but both of which can be claimed to be revealing in what they tell us as legends. The first was, Luther is a drunken German. He will feel different when he is sober, and the second was, Friar Martin is a brilliant chap. The whole row is due to the envy of the monks. If Luther was not a drunken German, he was certainly an irate one, who might be amenable if mollified. If the pope had issued his bull of a year later, clearly defining the doctrine of indulgences and correcting the most glaring abuses, Luther might have given way. During the four years in which his case was pending, his letters reveal no great preoccupation with the dispute. Instead, he continued to be fully engrossed in his duties in the university and his parish.

Yet the pope preferred to snuff out the opposition by appointing a new general of the Augustinians who would quench a monk of his order, Martin Luther by name, and thus smother the fire before it should become a conflagration. In December 1517 the Archbishop of Mainz complained to Rome about Luther. Luther felt constrained to declare himself more fully to the general public, since his Ninety-Five Theses had, by the spring of 1518, been published throughout the German states and read in German, though he had intended them only for fellow scholars. The many bald assertions called for further explanation and clarification. However, his summaries of sermons, The Resolutions Concerning the Ninety-Five Theses also contained some new points. In particular, he had made the discovery that the biblical text from the Latin Vulgate, used to support the sacrament of penance, was a mis-translation.  The Latin for Matthew 4:17 read as “do penance”, but from the Greek New Testament of Erasmus, Luther had learned that the original phrase meant simply “be penitent”. The literal sense of the verb “to repent” was “to change one’s mind”. That was all that was necessary for the sinner to be granted forgiveness by God.

In his dedication of the Resolutions, written to his mentor Staupitz, Luther described how, fortified with this passage, I venture to say that they are wrong who make more of the act in Latin than of the change of heart in Greek. This became what he called his glowing discovery. What he had discovered was something far more radical than his objections to indulgences, though arising from them and from his doctrine of salvation. He had discovered that one of the chief sacraments of the Church did not have any basis in scripture. From this point on, it was on the scriptures that he based his challenges to the Church’s practices.  He also questioned whether the Roman Church was above the Greek Church in authority. This was to claim that the primacy of the Roman Church was simply a historical development, or even an accident of history, rather than a result of divine ordination reaching back to the founding of the universal Church. The pope responded by banning Luther who, in turn, preached on the ban declaring that excommunication and reconciliation affect only the fellowship of the earth and not the grace of God. These alleged statements were printed by opponents and shown at the imperial diet to the papal legates, who were rumoured to have sent them to Rome. Luther was informed that, this time, the damage was inestimable. He wrote out and printed what he could remember of his sermon, but this only served to underline his rejection of the pope’s authority to sever spiritual communion. Quoting Paul’s epistle to the Romans, he stated that no creature can separate the believer from the love of Christ.

The printed sermon was not off the press until the end of August. In the meantime, the pope turned away from Luther’s own order, the Augustinians, and towards the Dominicans, to produce a reply to Luther’s reported statements. They asserted that the Roman Church was one and the same with the universal Church in terms of its authority.  The leadership of Church might consist of cardinals, but ultimate authority lay in the pope. Just as the universal Church could not err on matters of faith and morals, nor could the Roman Church, either in its true councils nor in the pope when he was speaking in his official capacity. Whoever did not accept the doctrine of the Roman Church and its pontiff as the infallible rule of faith from which sacred Scripture derived its strength and authority was a heretic, so that anyone who declared that, in matters of indulgences, the Roman Church could not do what it decided to do, was also a heretic. The Dominicans proceeded to refute Luther’s errors, describing him in the colourful colloquialisms of the time, as a leper with a brain of brass and a nose of iron. Luther retorted in kind:

I am sorry now that I despised Tetzel. Ridiculous as he was, he was more acute than you. You cite no Scripture. You give no reasons. Like an insidious devil you pervert the Scriptures. You say that the Church consists virtually in the pope. What abominations will you not have to regard as the deeds of the Church?… You call me a leper because I mingle truth with error. I am glad you admit there is some truth. You make the pope into an emperor in power and violence. The Emperor Maximilian and the Germans will not tolerate this.

The radicalism of this tract lay not in its invective, however, but in its affirmation that the pope and a council of cardinals might err, and that final authority lay in Scripture. Yet again, prior to the appearance of his declaration, the pope had already taken precipitate action. On the seventh of August, Luther received a citation to appear at Rome to answer charges of heresy and ‘contumacy’ (insubordination). He was given sixty in which to make his appearance. The following day Luther wrote to the elector to remind him of the previous assurance that the case would not be taken to Rome. This began a tortuous series of negotiations culminating in Luther’s hearing before the Diet of Worms in April 1521. The main significance of that event was that an assembly of the German nation came to function as a court of the Catholic Church. The four years leading up to this were merely a prelude to the main act of the Protestant Reformation.

Luther’s plea to the elector was transmitted via Frederick’s court chaplain, George Spalatin. Frederick opened negotiations with Cardinal Cajetan, the papal legate, to give Luther a personal hearing in connection with the forthcoming meeting of the imperial diet at Augsburg. The hearing was to be private, and not before the diet, but would at least be on German soil. Cajetan was a high papalist of integrity and erudition. He could scarcely tolerate Luther’s recent tracts, and was less inclined to moderation because the Emperor had been incensed by the excerpts from the reputed Sermon on the Ban and had himself taken the initiative on the fifth of August in writing to the pope to set a stop to the most perilous attack of Martin Luther on indulgences lest not only the people but even the princes be seduced. With the emperor, the pope and the cardinal against him Luther had only a slender hope of escaping the fate of Jan Hus, being burnt at the stake.

He began his physical journey to Augsburg with grave misgiving. He was in grave danger, far greater than three years later when he went to Worms as the champion of the German nation. In 1518 he was only an Augustinian eremite accused of heresy. He saw the stake ahead and told himself, Now I must die; What a disgrace I shall be to my parents! On the road he contracted an intestinal infection and almost fainted. Even more disconcerting was the recurring doubt as to whether the taunt of his critics might after all be right, Are you alone wise and all the ages in error? Luther’s friends had advised him not to enter Augsburg without a guarantee of safe-conduct, and Frederick eventually obtained one from Emperor Maximillian. Cajetan, on being told of this, was incensed, declaring If you don’t trust me, why do you ask my opinion, and if you do why is a safe-conduct necessary? But there was indeed a severe threat to Luther’s life, as the correspondence between cardinals, the pope and the elector Frederick show. The two letters, both written on the seventh of October 1518, reveal that the papal authorities were determined that Luther should be placed in the hands and under the jurisdiction of the Holy See. Cajetan’s instructions were also quite clear in this regard. He was limited to inquiry into Luther’s teaching, and was not permitted to enter into discussion with him.

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Three interviews took place – on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday the twelfth to the fourteenth of October. Staupitz was among those present. On the first day Cajetan informed him that he must recant. Luther answered that he had not made the arduous journey to Augsburg to do what he could have done in Wittenberg. Instead, he asked to be instructed as to his errors. When the cardinal answered that the chief of these was his denial of the Church’s treasury of merit, the doctrine of 1343 that Christ’s sacrifice acquired a treasure which, through the power of the keys, had been placed at the disposal of Peter and his successors in order to release the faithful from temporal penalties. Luther’s reply was both rude and irrelevant, but Cajetan realised that he was in danger of going beyond his instructions in debating the whole concept of the treasury of the surplus merits of Christ and the saints. Luther was trapped because he must either recant or give an acceptable interpretation to the bull of 1343. Since he had already refused to recant, he requested to be able to submit a statement in writing, adding that they had wrangled quite enough. Cajetan retorted, My son, I did not wrangle with you. I am ready to reconcile you with the Roman Church. But since reconciliation was only possible through recantation, Luther protested that he ought not to be condemned unheard and unrefuted:

I am not conscious of going against Scripture, the fathers, the decretals, or right reason. I may be in error. I will submit to the judgement of the universities of Basel, Freiburg, Louvain and, if need be, of Paris.

Again, these were undiplomatic words, aimed at challenging the cardinal’s jurisdiction. Luther then shifted ground on the content of the ‘charge’ by rejecting the authority of the pope who had formulated the decretal, or bull:

I am not so audacious that for the sake of a single obscure and ambiguous decretal of a human pope I would recede from so many and such clear testimonies of divine Scripture. For, as one of the canon lawyers has said, ‘in a matter of faith not only is a council above a pope but any one of the faithful, if armed with better authority and reason’.

The cardinal reminded Luther that Scripture itself had to be interpreted, and that the pope had to act as interpreter. In so doing, he was above a council and everything else in the Church. Luther retorted that his Holiness abuses Scripture and that he denied that the pope was above Scripture. At this, Cajetan flared up and bellowed at Luther that he should leave and never return unless he was willing to recant. Luther wrote home that the cardinal was no more fitted to handle the case than an ass was suited to play on a harp. Before long, the cartoonists took up this theme (see below), picturing the pope himself in this pose. Cajetan soon cooled off and had dinner with Staupitz, over which he urged him to induce Luther to recant. Staupitz answered that he had often tried to moderate Luther, but that he was not equal to him in ability and command of Scripture. As the pope’s representative, it was up to the cardinal to press the case. Staupitz then released Luther from his vow of obedience to the order. He may have wished to relieve the Augustinians of the responsibility for their friar, or he may have wished to release the restraints on him, but Luther himself felt that he had been disowned. He later joked that he was excommunicated three times, first by Staupitz, secondly by the pope and thirdly by the emperor.

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Luther fled the town when summoned to Rome. He complained that the citation to Rome  would submit him to the Dominicans and that Rome would not be a safe place even with a safe-conduct. Even Pope Leo had recently been the object of a poisonous conspiracy. In any case, as a mendicant, Luther had no funds for the journey. He wrote:

I feel that I have not justice because I teach nothing save what is in the Scripture. Therefore I appeal from Leo badly informed to Leo better informed.

Rumour then reached Luther that the cardinal was empowered to arrest him. The gates of the city were being guarded. With the help of friendly citizens, Luther escaped by night, fleeing in such haste that he had to ride horseback in his cowl without breeches, spurs, stirrups or a sword. He arrived in Nürnberg where he was shown the pope’s instructions to Cajetan. On the thirtieth of October, almost a full year after posting the Ninety-Five Theses, Luther was back in the sanctuary of Wittenberg.

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What was the significance of Luther’s Protest?

Luther saw that the trade in indulgences was wholly unwarranted by Scripture, reason or tradition. It encouraged a man in his sin, and tended to turn his mind away from Christ and from God’s forgiveness. It was on this point that Luther’s theology contrasted sharply with that of the church. The pope claimed authority ‘to shut the gates of hell and open the door to paradise’. An obscure monk challenged that authority. His contemporaries knew at once that Luther had touched the exposed nerve of both the hierarchy of the church and the everyday practice of Christianity. Christian Europe was never the same again, but in 1518 there was nothing to indicate that it was about to undergo a revolutionary change in both its religious and secular institutions and life. The only prediction that many were making on All Souls’ Eve in 1518 was that Martin Luther would soon be burnt at the stake. This was also the friar’s own prediction.

Luther’s discovery about the meaning of penitence led him to the belief that the believer came into a direct relationship and union with Christ, as the one, only and all-sufficient source of grace. His grace is available to the penitent believer by the power of the Holy Spirit, through the preaching of the Word of God. This eventually did away with the need for the Virgin as mediator, the clergy as priests and the departed saints as intercessors. In fact, the reformers were never innovators, as the papacy was so often to allege, but renovators. What they removed were the medieval innovations of Rome, in favour of the teachings of the Bible and the doctrines of the early Christian theologians.

 

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Beating the Bounds: Rogation Days to Ascension Day   2 comments

BEATING THE BOUNDS; SCANNING THE SKIES?

The ‘Rogation Days‘ are the days before Ascension Thursday, which is forty days after Easter Sunday in the Christian calendar. The days get their name from the Latin word ’rogare’ meaning ’to ask for’. For a long time these were ’petitions’ to the almighty which were chanted in processions around the church. In A.D. 511 the Council of Orleans declared that the three days before Ascension Day, commemorating Christ’s going up to heaven, should be holidays for prayer and fasting. The processions moved outside the church and circled the parish, pausing at the edge of fields where prayers were said petitioning for a good harvest of the particular crop growing there. These sojourns included a ’Gospel Oak’. A modern survival of these folk-customs is ’beating the bounds’, possibly originating in pagan Roman festivals, Terminalia and Ambarvalia. The statue of Terminus was not int he form of a man, but a wooden post or boundary stone, marking the end of one estate and the beginning of another.  From this, we get the idea of the end of a bus or rail route as a terminus. Ambarvalia, held at the same time of year, involved processions around the fields, with participants carrying sticks with which they beat the ground in order to drive away the winter frosts. Any grower will tell you that a late frost is very dangerous to the prospect of a good crop, especially if it comes after a prolonged spell of warm weather.

At ’Rogationtide’, a procession forms up at the church with the priest in charge at the front followed by someone bearing the ceremonial cross. The choir follows, dressed in their gowns and surplices, and a crowd of parishioners, including schoolboys with their masters. Most of them carry willow wands, topped with wild flowers. They stop at well-known ’landmarks’ around the route following the parish boundary, perhaps a gate, a tree, a bridge or a road crossing, so that the company can gather round for prayers asking for seasonable weather and a successful harvest. At some of these points refreshments will be waiting. At the ’Gospel Oak’, or some other prominent landmark, the wand bearers used to set about beating the landmark, then  transferred their wand-action to one of the boys, who was rolled in the grass or ’gently bumped’ against a tree, receiving compensation in silver for his ’suffering’.

Since accurate mapping is a comparatively recent development, this was a sensible way of marking boundaries between parishes, especially before the early twentieth century, when the parishes played a vital role in the administration of the Poor Law and other local ’secular’services. In England and Wales, the Parish Council is still the basic unit of local government. If there was a dispute between parishes as to where the exact boundaries lay, somebody could be found who would remember a particular landmark from having received a beating there. In the late twentieth century the custom revived somewhat despite the national government taking over welfare services, and especially in urban areas where the boundaries might pass beside, or even through, a number of public houses, breweries and other  places of interest forming  ’recent’ additions to the townscape!

At St Clement Danes in London, the procession of clergy and choir follows the beadle, an officer from medieval times, featured in Dickens’ Oliver Twist, who was responsible for  ratepayers’ meetings which were held in the ’vestry’ of the Church. The Beadle was also responsible for the relief and discipline of the Poor in the parish, especially the children in church. For this purpose, he carried a stick called a mace, and wore a blue uniform cloak. At the St Clement Danes procession, the choirboys follow his now ceremonial mace, themselves carrying willow wands topped with ribbons or flowers. With these, they beat the boundary stones, although the southern boundary lies along the bed of the Thames, for which the procession takes to boats.

Ascension Day, on the Thursday, is the day on which we think about Jesus being ’taken up’ to heaven from Bethany, as  Luke describes in both his gospel (chapter 24) and in The Acts of the Apostles (chapter 1, vv 9-11). Having witnessed this, he tells us, they spent all their days in the Temple, worshipping and waiting for the gift of the Spirit to come to them before starting their ministry.  In Acts, he tells us that, as they watched him, ’a cloud hid him from their sight’.  They still had their eyes fixed on the sky when two ’men in white’ appeared beside them and asked them why, as practical Galilean fishermen and farmers, they were stood there ’star-gazing’. So, in addition to praying, they set about other practical preparations for ministry, together with the women and the family of Jesus. Already a hundred strong, the believers meet together and a successor to Judas is chosen. This was an important appointment, as Judas had been the group’s Treasurer. After that, Luke moves on quickly to the dramatic events of Pentecost. So, even during this quiet period of prayer and refection at Ascentiontide, like the disciples, we cannot afford to be ’so heavenly-minded’ that we are ’no earthly use’. Heaven may be a beautiful place, and we know that we too have a place there, but, for now, we need to focus on the here and now. We won’t need to strain our eyes, scanning the skies for signs of Jesus’ second coming, as with his first. It will be as clear and ’transparent’ an event as when he left. For this reason, Christianity has often been described as ’the most materialistic of all world religions’.

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Gone Fishing! The Tale of Simon Peter.   1 comment

 

Unmistakable Identity:

English: Jesus, followed by Simon Peter and Andrew

English: Jesus, followed by Simon Peter and Andrew (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Unlike with Thomas the Twin and Judas Iscariot, we know exactly who Simon Peter is, even though Jesus changes his name. His character and personality never changes. He is practical, loyal and humble. He’s a son of Jonas, a native of Bethsaida, a fisherman and Andrew’s brother, working out of the port of Capernaum, where they had their home, according to Mark (1: 29-31). He was married, as Jesus healed his mother-in-law of her fever.  He becomes the third of Jesus’ disciples, introduced to the Galilean rabbi by his brother. Unlike his brother and Nathaniel, however, he makes no early declaration of Jesus’ identity as Messiah, despite being himself identified as ‘a rock’ (‘Cephas‘) by the teacher. Jonas’ sons were in a fishing partnership with James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who also joined Jesus’ growing band of disciples soon after (Mt 4: 18-22). The Gospel of  John tells us below that eight of the twelve went fishing, though they may not all have done it for a living. Peter, James and John become, and remain, the closest of the Twelve to Jesus, a sort of ‘inner triangle’, or trinity.

Jesus and Saint Peter, Gospel of Matthew 4.18-...
Jesus and Saint Peter, Gospel of Matthew

According to Luke (5: 1-11), Jesus began his ministry by using their boats as a pulpit, perhaps because he thought he and the disciples might need to make a quick getaway if a Roman patrol came along, or the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem sent out its men to apprehend him. Or perhaps it was just a way of controlling the crowds who came to hear him and be healed by him.

By this time, he had done the rounds of the synagogues in the area and news of his words and deeds was spreading far beyond Galilee. On one occasion, Peter and his crew had been out fishing all the previous night, catching nothing, so he was naturally somewhat sceptical when Jesus told him to go out into deep water again and put down his nets for a catch. However, he reluctantly agreed, leaving Zebedee’s boat anchored inshore, however. The catch was so great that they had to call the other boat out to help them, or they would certainly have sunk under its weight. Peter fell to his knees, partly in awe of his ‘Lord’ and partly in shame that he doubted Jesus’ word even for a minute. Of course, never missing an opportunity for an acted parable, Jesus promises them an even greater catch, of souls.

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Sworn to Secrecy:


Despite Peter’s humility, or perhaps because of it, he is one of only three disciples, the others being the more ambitious Zebedee brothers, to witness two major incidents. The first incident is when they accompany Jesus to the house of one of the leaders of a local synagogue, Jairus, after he learns of the death of his daughter as he is on his way to heal her. When they arrived at the house, the women mourners had already gathered outside, making their traditional wailing sounds. This shows that the girl had been dead for some time, and Jesus knew too well that, in bringing her back to life, he would be crossing a line which could only lead him into direct confrontation with the Sanhedrin. So, he orders Peter, James and John not to tell anyone what they have seen. His selection of these three reveals the trust he placed in them both to believe what they had seen, and to keep it to themselves. His words to the mourners outside, which at first they ridicule, were probably intended to conceal the miracle further, leaving it open for people to believe what they wanted to believe, rather than bringing the wrath of the religious authorities down on him at this stage. By keeping the number of witnesses to an absolute minimum, he seeks to protect his other disciples from such wrath. He chooses the strongest among his fishermen friends, including Peter.

The Transfiguration Lodovico Carracci 1594
The Transfiguration Lodovico Carracci 1594 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The second incident involves a mountain climb. Here is Mark’s account of what happened:

Jesus took his three friends, Peter, James and John, and led them up into a high mountain. They were alone.

High up in the mountains, Jesus was changed. 

His friends were still with him. His clothes were gleaming white; no bleacher on earth could make them whiter. His friends saw two other men talking with Jesus: Moses, who had led the people out of slavery, and Elijah, who had stood up to a king in God‘s name. 

Peter didn’t know what to say, so he began to talk like this:

‘Sir’, he said. ‘It’s grand for us to be up here. Do you want us to make three shelters, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah?’

Peter and James and John were terrified.

A cloud rolled around them. God’s words came into their minds.

‘This is my only son. You must do as he says.’

 The three men looked around. There was nobody there but Jesus.

As the went down the mountainside, Jesus told them not to talk about what they had seen to anybody, ‘until I have risen from the dead.’

It was this saying they could not forget. They talked again and again among themselves about what ‘rising from the dead’ could mean.

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We don’t know  exactly what happened on the mountain, but the three friends shared a tremendous experience, one which transcended even that of the raising of Jairus’ daughter. Perhaps it helped them to understand that first incident. Since then, Peter had argued with Jesus, only a week before his transfiguration, and it had been clear how little he, and they, had understood him or listened to his words. Peter had declared Jesus to be the Messiah, but failed to grasp the need for him to be the suffering servant prophesied by Isaiah, let alone what he meant by being ‘raised to life’.

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On the road to Jerusalem from Caesaria Philippi, he had taken Jesus aside and rebuked him, because he couldn’t get out of his head the widespread Jewish conviction that God’s chosen leader would establish a national kingdom, with a king and government. James and John were already applying to become his chief ministers. How could the Messiah suffer in any way or die in the hands of foreigners? Until now, it hadn’t made sense. Now their understanding had been transformed by this mountain top experience, but they were still puzzled by the idea of  ‘rising from the dead’. That’s why Jesus told them not to speak about his Resurrection until after it had happened.

The Armed Man in the Garden:

In an echo of the incident at Caesaria Philippi, Mark tells of how, after their Passover Supper, the disciples went outside, singing a hymn. They walked through the olive groves towards Bethany, where they were staying:

‘You will all let me down,’ said Jesus, as they walked along. ‘The Bible says:

‘I will strike the shepherd and the sheep will run away.

‘But after I am raised I will go to Galilee before you.’

‘Everybody else may let you down, said Peter, ‘but I won’t.’

‘I tell you, Peter,’ said Jesus, ‘that this very night, before dawn, you will say more than once that you’re no friend of mine.’

‘Say I’m no friend of yours?’ said Peter hotly. ‘I’d die with you first!’

Andrea Mantegna's Agony in the Garden, circa 1...
Andrea Mantegna’s Agony in the Garden, circa 1460, depicts Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The big man could hardly speak any more, but now he resolved on letting his sword do the talking, if he needed it to. No one had noticed when Peter had picked up the sword in the upper room, pushed it through his belt and arranged his cloak so it couldn’t be seen. As they climbed the Mount of Olives into the Garden of Gethsemane, they felt a chill wind that whispered cheerlessly through the olive branches as they fell silent. They had all echoed Peter’s words, but the master said nothing more until he told them to sit down and wait for him while he went to pray. Again, he called his inner circle of friends, Peter, James and John to go with him. He told them to wait, still at some distance from where he would pray alone, but within sight of him. They were to keep watch for him. He told them, his voice breaking with deep distress, that his heart was nearly breaking as well. They watched him go on a short distance and then fall to his knees. In the moonlight, they could tell from his posture in prayer that his mind was in anguish and, as he had said, his soul was overcome with grief to the point of death. Peter put his head into his hands, knowing that there was nothing he could do to help. Exhausted, in the darkness, he drifted into sleep.

He awoke with a start to a gentle touch on his shoulder. It was Jesus, and as the other two sat up rubbing their eyes, he said in a voice tinged with disappointment, “Couldn’t you three keep awake with me for a single hour?” Choking back his emotion, he added, quietly, “Watch, and pray that you may not have to face temptation; your spirit is willing, but human nature is weak.” He sat silently with them for a while and then returned to his solitary prayers. A second time Peter awoke to find Jesus standing over him, this time more composed. Peter tried to rouse himself as Jesus went back to pray alone. After a short time, Peter felt a firmer hand shaking his shoulder. “Wake up,” said Jesus, “the hour has come. In a moment you will see the Son of Man betrayed.”

Dazed, Peter jumped to his feet. Flaring torches dazzled him. In what seemed like another dream, he saw Judas step forward and kiss Jesus, and heard Jesus say, “Judas, is it with a kiss that you betray the Son of Man?” On the word, ‘betray’, Peter gripped his sword.

The capture of Christ (detail)
The capture of Christ (detail) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Who are you looking for?” Jesus asked the Temple Guards. “Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “I am he” said Jesus calmly, turning around to point at the disciples, ” so, since you have found me, let these others go.” Peter shouted, “Don’t worry, Lord, we can take care of ourselves.” In the glare of the torches came the flash of a blade and the cry, “watch out, the big fellow has a sword!” Peter struck out wildly at Malchus, the Temple Servant, as he moved forwards to oversee the arrest of Jesus. “My head!” Malchus shouted, “he’s hacked my ear off!” He was covered with blood and dazed from the blow. The Guard rushed forwards and there was a lot of shouting and scuffling, then calm returned as the Galilean spoke quietly, telling Peter to put his sword away, that “those that lived by the sword, died by it.” Someone put a bandage around Malchus’ head, holding the almost severed ear back in place. Then Jesus put his hands over Malchus’ head and healed the ear instantly. The Captain of the Guard inspected it, but, despite the blood, found no wound. Then he carried out the arrest, and the other disciples slipped away into the night, throwing away anything that might incriminate them, including the short-swords that one or two others, besides Peter, had been carrying. The Sanhedrin wasn’t interested in the Twelve. Having captured the shepherd of the flock, they knew the sheep would scatter, just as Jesus himself had predicted.

Treachery in the Courtyard:

As Peter crouched in the darkness of an olive grove, he was stunned by a mix of feelings: Fatigue, fear, uncertainty and, above all, a sense of guilt. He was acutely aware of failing his master, of having fallen asleep three times and failed to keep watch. How many times, on Galilee, had he been fishing at night and returned to the shore to accompany Jesus in his ministry the next day? The arrest had all happened so quickly, and yet he had seen the lights in the distance and fallen back asleep. In that moment, if he had managed to rouse himself and stand guard, as Jesus had asked, he could have woken ‘Thunder and Lightning’, the sons of Zebedee, they would have had time to draw the swords Jesus had told them to bring with them, and the three of them, surrounding Jesus,  might at least have put up a better fight and even shepherded Jesus away to Bethany, to the safety of locked doors. Now his solitary, futile sword-play had landed him and his master in even more trouble. Now, in the distance, he could see the torches of the Temple Guard and Roman soldiery taking an unresisting Jesus to trial. Why had Jesus told them to bring swords in the first place, if he didn’t intend them to use them? Where was the Legion of Angels Jesus had said he could call out of Heaven to protect him? Why hadn’t he done this?

003John and James joined him in the olive grove next to the Bethany Road and they decided to split up. James would take the other, remaining disciples to Bethany and hide out in Lazarus’ house with the women. They would bar all the doors. Peter and John would run down through the olive groves, overtake the arrest party, and try to find out what was happening to Jesus. Nicodemus was near the gate to the High Priest’s House, having been summoned in the middle of the night to attend ‘a hearing’, just as Jesus was led through. John spotted him, and Nicodemus passed him off as his servant to get him through the gate and into the judgement hall. Peter stayed in the Temple courtyard outside the gate and watched the members of the Sanhedrin arriving. There were quite a few people in the centre of the courtyard, but Peter hung back in the shadows, conscious of the blood staining his fisherman’s tunic. However, someone had lit a fire, so he removed it. hid it behind an olive stump and moved closer to the fire. As he did so, he suddenly saw Judas emerging from the High Priest’s House by torchlight. He found himself muttering and cursing “that traitor” out loud, unintentionally drawing attention to himself.

Peter's Denial by Rembrandt, 1660. Jesus is sh...
Peter’s Denial by Rembrandt, 1660. Jesus is shown in the upper right hand corner, his hands bound behind him, turning to look at Peter. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the serving girls sitting by the fire heard his thick Galilean accent and asked him if he was one of the followers of Jesus. She had heard the man from Nazareth preach many times and the Twelve were always with him, and he recognised him as the big man, a sort of bodyguard, who was always at his side. Peter denied even knowing Jesus. A member of the Temple Guard who had been in the arrest party also came over. He looked carefully at Peter, thinking he might be the big man who hit Malchus with his sword. “You are one of that man’s followers, aren’t you?” he said, pointing to the house where Jesus was being interrogated by Sanhedrin. Peter denied it with such a protest that the officer of the Guard grew even more suspicious.  However, there was no blood on his clothes and it had been dark in the garden. There had been a lot of confusion.

The officer went inside the House for a short time, and about an hour later Malchus himself came out to where Peter was sitting and asked him to stand. More than a head taller than Malchus, Peter was able to look down at the bloody bandages on the Temple servants’ head. Malchus asked him officiously for his name, trade and address. Peter answered that he was Simon-bar-Jonas, a fisherman from Capernaum. “I thought so,” said Malchus, “you’re a Galilean, the prisoner’s armed bodyguard who did this to me earlier when we went to arrest him in Gethsemane, on the Mount of Olives. Come on, speak up! I’m in no pain, no thanks to you, but I can’t hear so well, just now,” Peter answered that he rarely went to the other side of Galilee, let alone to Nazareth. He had heard of Jesus of Nazareth, but had never seen him and the man meant nothing to him. He had come on his own to the City for the Passover, together with his friend John, who was in the Temple, praying. He was waiting for him.

Brooklyn Museum - The Third Denial of Peter. J...At that moment, Jesus was brought out of the High Priest’s House. He stood on the steps and looked straight over at Peter: a sad look, but nothing to prove he knew him. John was with Nicodemus, not far behind. Near at hand, a rooster crowed as the sky grew lighter. In the half-light Malchus could see tears rolling down the big man’s face. He tried to speak, twice, then turned and broke into a run across the courtyard and out of the gate, weeping bitterly. John left Nicodemus and ran after Peter.

Behind them, the Temple Guards had blindfolded Jesus and began playing games with him by the fire, beating him and asking him to guess who had hit him, and hurling worse insults at him. Nicodemus tried to stop them, but was ushered away, and Malchus turned away and went back inside. The guards were far too preoccupied with their prisoner, whom they had been told to hold until the full Sanhedrin could be assembled in daylight, to bother about chasing after his Galilean fishermen friends. They could run all the way back to Capernaum, as far as they were concerned, and the Romans or Herod’s men could deal with them there, like they dealt with all the other troublesome northerners. Not their problem. They had their man.

From Bethany to Galilee: 

004But John and Peter did not return to Galilee. They ran to Bethany and joined the other disciples, who had decided to stay together, close to Jerusalem, at least until the worst was over. They kept the door locked, except for the women coming and going with other relatives, escorted by John and Joseph of Arimathea. Two days later, when Mary Magdalene brought news of the empty tomb. Fearing that the body had been stolen, Peter and John set off on one of their runs again, to Joseph’s garden cave, where Jesus had been placed after his crucifixion.

John got their first and waited for Peter, and when they saw the linen clothes lying there, they began to believe, John better than Peter, that the scriptures really had come true. But they didn’t really understand was resurrection was until Peter met the risen Jesus in person on the road near Jerusalem later that same afternoon. Two other disciples also met him on the road to Emmaus in the evening and when they returned to Bethany to tell the others, Jesus suddenly appeared to all of them, except Thomas.  A week after that, he had appeared to all of them again, this time including Thomas. After this, they followed the instructions of the angel and Jesus himself, who had first appeared to Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany outside the tomb, to return to Galilee to meet him there.

However, nothing had happened for weeks now, so Peter decided to go back to doing what he knew best….

John 21, 1-19:

After this, Jesus appeared once more to his disciples at Lake Tiberias. This is how it happened. Simon Peter, Thomas (called the twin), Nathanael (the one from Cana in Galilee), the sons of Zebedee, and the two other disciples of Jesus were all together. Simon Peter said to the others, “I am going fishing.” “We will come with you,” they told him. So they went out in a boat, but all that night they did not catch a thing.

As the sun was rising, Jesus stood at the water’s edge, but the disciples did not know it was Jesus….

….A third time Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter became sad because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” and so he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you!” Jesus said to him, “Take care of my sheep…..”….Then Jesus said to him, “Follow me!” 

The Drama of Jesus, by Paul White & Clifford Warne:

The late afternoon breeze was rippling the water of the Lake of Galilee. John and six of the disciples were walking along the shore. “Where’s Peter?” asked John.

“Whenever he wanted to think something over,” said Andrew, “he’d go down to the boats and mend the nets.”

“But we agreed we’d stay together while we waited for the Lord to arrive.”

Andrew shrugged. “An impatient man is our Peter.”

“Come on. Let’s find him,” said John….They found Peter sitting morosely on a pile of nets, looking over the lake. Gruffly he greeted them and said, “I’m going fishing”.

“Jesus told us to wait on the hillside,” answered John. Peter pulled irritably at his beard. “You can wait there. I’m going to the boats and nets and the lake, to work.”

“But what about His work?” asked John. “I’m sure the Lord has plans for our future.”

Without looking up, Peter muttered, “You can also be sure that He wants reliable men to carry it out. Not weaklings; not those who panic and are afraid. He called me the Rock and I turned out to be this….” He picked up a piece of rotten driftwood and broke it over his knee.

“You told me that He forgave you.”

“Forgave, yes,” Peter sighed. “But trust me – depend on me in the future – that’s different. Would you put your work in the hands of a person who openly denied he even knew you?”

“Is that all you remember of that terrible night? A night when we were all bewildered and afraid. We all failed him.”

“That may be,” said Peter, “but I gave him my word that I would never let him down.” He thumped his palm with his fist. “I said I’d die for him.”

“True,” agreed John, “we all said we’d die for him.”

“You didn’t swear you’d never seen him before and that anyhow he meant nothing to you.”

“So you feel ashamed and guilty,” said John gently. “It shocked you to catch a glimpse of the real Simon – weak, scared and unreliable. The truth took you by surprise, shook you and bruised your pride.” He put his hands on Peter’s shoulders. “Tell me, you miserable, short-memoried fisherman, did it take Him by surprise?” John spoke slowly and forcibly. “Did the truth about you shock him?” He turned to the others. “Andrew, do you remember what the Lord said to this bag-of-self-pity you call a brother, when he told us that Satan would sift us all like wheat?”

Andrew nodded. “He said, ‘Simon, Simon, I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you come to yourself you must lend strength to your brothers.’ “

Peter turned away. What John said was true. Jesus had known the worst even before it happened. He knew Peter better than Peter knew himself and he still loved him, cared about him and prayed for him.

Peter kept looking towards the lake. He didn’t want them to see his tears. He strode down towards the water, muttering, “I’m still going fishing.”

They sat in silence and watched him check the fishing gear. Then he put his shoulder to the boat and slowly pushed it into the water. Once aboard, he set about hoisting the sails. The disciples jumped to their feet and ran after him, shouting, “wait for us.”

They cast their nets all night and caught nothing. Slowly, they rowed back in the dawn mist…

A voice called from the shore, “Fellows, have you caught anything?”

Peter shouted back, “No.”

“Shoot the net to starboard and you will make a catch.”…

…They cast the net. In a second their tiredness turned into excited action. The boat jerked to starboard, the water had sudden turbulence. Peter took immediate control. He shouted orders. “Pull – watch it – carefully now – don’t tear the net…John, what are you doing?”

John had no thought for fish. He was staring through the mist. “The man on the shore He….”

“Never mind him, help with the catch!” But John was still looking shoreward. “Peter,” he breathed, “it’s the Lord!”

“Remember how he told us to cast the net on the other side of the boat?” Peter wasn’t listening. The moment he realised who it was, he grabbed his tunic, hauled it on, dived overboard and swam to the shore.

Andrew’s face was a study. “Oh-um-then what do we do with all these fish?”

“He helped us to catch them,” said John decisively. “We bring them in.” He grasped the net calling, “Keep rowing!”

The boat was soon in the shallows. The six disciples landed and started dragging the net up the beach.  They were at once aware of the smell of fish cooking and the warmth of a fire in the chill dawn. As John dragged in the net his mind was a whirl. What could he say to Jesus?  “I’m sorry, Lord. We waited and waited on the hillside. We had to do something so we went back to the nets.” But his dilemma disappeared when Jesus said, “Bring some of the fish you caught.”…

“Come and have breakfast,” said Jesus, and began serving them.

Apart from murmurs of thanks no one spoke during the meal. John looked at Jesus but looked away again. He was unwilling to meet his Lord’s eyes. He asked himself, …”What has He said to Peter? What are his plans for the future?” Peter sat there moodily looking at the fish. Then Jesus spoke using Peter’s old name. “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord,” came the husky reply. “You know I’m your friend.”

Jesus looked directly at him. “Take care of my lambs.”

Then realisation gripped him. “He still wants me,” Peter thought, “that’s the end of the fishing business.”

There was a long silence. The disciples barely stirred.  Jesus spoke again.  “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” 

Peter still sat there, his hands cupping his chin. Again he said, “Yes, Lord. You know I’m your friend.”

Jesus looked at him. Peter’s eyes met his. There was love and confidence in the order. “Then tend my sheep.”

The wind stirred the water. Small waves splashed on the sand. Peter was barely aware of the familiar smells of fish and nets.

Insistently Jesus’ voice came again. “Simon, son of John, are you my friend?”

Peter flinched. There were tears in his eyes. The words wounded him deeply. He blurted out, “Lord, you know everything. You know everything. You know I’m your friend”. His wet clothing stuck to his body. He shivered.

Again came the order, “Feed my sheep.” Jesus paused and then went on, “Peter, I’m telling you the truth. When you were young you used to get ready and go where you wanted, but when you are old you will stretch out your hands and someone else will take you where you don’t want to go.”

Peter’s gaze was focused on the Lord’s wounded feet. Slowly the words he had heard took shape in his mind. He looked at his own feet and realised that one day, when Jesus’ words came true, he too would have similar wounds…Jesus looked into his troubled face and said, “Follow me.” Then he stood up and walked away. At once Peter followed him…..

 

…..The guards grasped Peter and John and pushed them down the steps from the judgement hall. “Clear out,” said the captain. “And mind you do what you’re told.”…Hurrying towards them came Matthew. “Thank God you’re free. I have splendid news. Yesterday that big crowd heard you tell that Jesus is alive, Peter. …They believed, hundreds of them.”

“So things have been happening while we were in prison and in court,” said John.

“We’ve been busy telling people about Him and what He said. Scores of us were at it till late last night, and we started again early this morning.”

“Hundreds you say?” questioned Peter.

Matthew nodded. “You know how I like figures. Since he gave us his Holy Spirit and told us to go tell the good news, five thousand have believed.”

Peter whistled softly. “Fishers of men, that’s what he promised. Shoals of them!”

 

Follow Me!

Alan T Dale has pointed out that no story can simply be a record resulting from a historical enquiry. Whilst it must be subject to the proper analysis of the sources, texts and contexts it is set in, we are not merely asking historical questions. The whole story faces us with three questions which stem from Jesus’ thrice-asked question to Peter about brotherly love:

  • Isn’t love the real human adventure? The Story of Jesus puts a question mark against all our chosen ideals and ambitions…challenges us to look for the real source of fulfilment…
  • Isn’t love the clue? Jesus was never dogmatic, but crafted his convictions the hard way, struggling, as mankind always has, with the business of making sense of the tangled human experience…all he said and did was a product of this process…
  • Isn’t love the end? Men and women have always dreamed dreams and seen visions of a future common society in a common world. In Economics, in Science, and in Education, we seek the clue to this world. The Story of Jesus and his Disciples forces us to ask what kind of world we really want and how we expect to make it. He continues to make us scrutinise our common assumptions and encourages us to make a bolder enquiry. Isn’t love the clue to history, its meaning and its end?

Jesus’ ‘craft’ is summed up by those final words to Peter, ‘Follow Me!’ – the answers are to be found not only by thinking critically but by living boldly, experimentally and adventurously.  What if Peter, instead of breaking the driftwood and casting it away, had cut away the rotten wood and shaped the remaining soft wood into something useful or ornamental? The fishermen moved their nets to starboard even before they knew who was directing them, and that it would be as successful a catch as it had been before. ‘Tough Love’ isn’t a blueprint, it’s a ‘Rough Guide’! It’s true meaning can only be found experimentally. God’s world is a world in the making – to be explored, lived in, shared and enjoyed together. How this can be done can only be found in the doing, in following Jesus. Love is the greatest human experience, and friendship is the way we improve it. It is the attitude and emotion which forms the precondition to finding real answers to human questions. Jesus was the pioneer, and we often fall a long way behind, but He never lets us fall so far behind that we cannot see or hear him. We are his friends because we do what he commands; we love him and one another. We follow him to the ends of the earth, and from this world to the next where Love, his Love, is perfect. Easter is not just for one Sunday, or a week or two after, it’s for ever!

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John’s ‘Epilogue’ is not the only Galilean appearance of the risen Jesus recorded in the gospels. In Matthew’s gospel, the eleven disciples meet him on a hill. Matthew tells us that even now, some of them doubted what they were seeing, but Jesus drew near and told them to go out and make disciples of  ‘all peoples, everywhere’. He left them in no doubt that they were no longer fishing in a small inland sea in northern Palestine, but in the wide open seas beyond, and for a catch which none of them could number.

Prayers:

Simon

What have we done to deserve your appearing? Like Simon, we have denied you in the inmost secrets of our hearts. We have denied you with our lips, and yet you have marked our tears and read our thoughts. We thank you for that love which always comes to us. Help us never to forget your mercy and keep us, like Simon, faithful to the end. Amen.

(Ian D Bunting)

Make a Catch

Sometimes, Lord, you seem to us as a stranger on the shore. Then you remind us of our calling. You challenge us with hard commandments. You draw out our trust. And then, when we obey you, you reveal yourself – not as a stranger but as a friend! Help us to discover you again today, as we do what you tell us. For your name’s sake. Amen

(Ian D Bunting)

Alan T Dale, Portrait of Jesus. Oxford University Press, 1979.

Paul White & Clifford Warne, The Drama of Jesus. Sydney: Hodder and Stoughton, 1980.

David Kossoff, The Book of Witnesses. Glasgow: Collins, 1971.

Refreshment Sunday: The Feeding of the Five Thousand   1 comment

 Jesus Feeds Five Thousand Men

(Mt 14, 13-21; Mk 6, 32-44; Lk 9, 10-17; Jn 6, 1-14):

When Jesus heard the news about John, he left there in a boat and went to a lonely place by himself. The people heard about it, and so they left their towns and followed him by land. Jesus got out of the boat, and when he saw the large crowd, his heart filled with pity for them, and he healed their sick.

That evening his disciples came to him and said, “It is already very late, and this is a lonely place. Send the people away and let them go to the village to buy food for themselves.” They don’t have to leave,” answered Jesus. “You yourselves give them something to eat!” “All we have here are five loaves and two fish,” they replied. 

English: Jesus feeding a crowd with 5 loaves o...
English: Jesus feeding a crowd with 5 loaves of bread and two fish (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Then bring them here to me,” Jesus said. He ordered the people to sit down on the grass; then he took the five loaves and the two fish, looked up to heaven, and gave thanks to God. He broke the loaves and gave them to the people. Everyone ate and had enough. Then the disciples took up twelve baskets full of what was left over. The number of men who ate was about five thousand, not counting the women and children. (Good News for Modern Man)

The Gospel appointed for Refreshment Sunday, marking the half-way point in the forty days of Lent, the break in fasting, is this well-known story of Jesus’ miracle. In Matthew’s gospel it comes as a direct response by Jesus to the death of John the Baptist, at the hands of Herod, the ruler of Galilee. Rather than immediately mustering John’s disciples with his own, and leading them in vengeance against the despot, Jesus again finds a quiet place to mourn his cousin’s death alone. However, returning to the Lake for a fishing trip, he finds himself intercepted by a huge crowd of angry men, who have by now heard the news and have followed Jesus by land, hoping that he will now lead them in a holy crusade against Herod. Jesus knows, with the festival of Passover drawing near, he must deal with the unrest caused by John’s death before moving on to Jerusalem, where the Judean authorities were already preparing for a further confrontation with him, even plotting to have him killed too.

From The Historical Atlas by William R. Shephe...

This ‘incident in the hills’, as Alan T Dale has described it in his Portrait of Jesus, is reported by all four gospel-writers, and there is a remarkable similarity in their accounts of it, not just between the synoptic gospels, but also with John, who often has a very different spiritual ‘take’ on the material events of Jesus’ life. In this dramatic event we are shown Jesus at his most ‘materialistic’, and Christianity is ‘born’ as the most materialistic of world religions. Jesus, when tempted in the wilderness to turn the stones into bread had quoted the scripture, ‘man shall not live by bread alone’, but here he makes a symbolic statement by his acted parable that ‘neither can man live without it’. It obviously made a profound impact on all of his disciples, and John takes care to count the men, loaves, fishes and even the leftovers. Dale captures the scene vividly in his reworking of the gospel-writers common narrative:

The grass was green. It was a familiar spring day, dry and hot with an east wind blowing and a yellowish haze hiding the hills and washing the colour from sea and field. From early light the streets of the small lakeside fishing port – Capernaum – were crowded with men and loud gossip and argument. The soldiers at the small Roman outpost in the town were wondering what was afoot.

Somebody suddenly noticed a small boat putting out.

‘There he is!’ he called out. ‘There he is!’

The boat was making very heavy weather – an on-shore wind was blowing. The crowd – several thousand men – walking, pushing, running, made their way along the shore. The men in the boat saw what was happening; there would be no escape. They put the boat back to land.

Jesus climbed out. He knew the crowd: farmers from the hill villages, fishermen from the lakeside towns. He had grown up with some of them. They were men of the Resistance Movement – ‘zealots’, nationalists – farmers or fishermen by day, ‘freedom fighters’ whenever the chance came.

As he looked at them, he felt sorry for them, and some words from an old story came into his mind: ‘like sheep without a shepherd to look after them’….That’s what they looked like – a leaderless mob, an army without a general. 

He went with them into the hills, to a lonely spot out of sight and reach of the Roman garrison. The talk went on and on. They wanted him to become their leader – their ‘king’. Jesus would have no part in their plans. 

It was now late in the afternoon. He got everybody to share a common meal together, a meal in which they promised again to live as God‘s People. The men – under command – sat down in companies of fifty and a hundred each, rank by rank.

Jesus had to deal with both his friends and the men. He got his friends to go back to the boat and to sail across the Lake. He had to force them to go – they wanted to stay. He himself, under the darkening sky, climbed the hillside. He wanted to think things out in God’s presence – alone.

Mosaic in the Church of the Multiplication of ...
Mosaic in the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves und the Fishes at Tabgha near the Sea of Galilee (Yam Kinneret), Israel. According to the pious legend, in this place Jesus fed 5000 pilgrims with five loaves of bread and two fish (Matthew 14,13). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to John, Jesus knew that the men were about to seize him and make him king by force. So, according to Matthew, he agrees to another common meal with them again three days later, and sets off alone into the hills. These incidents, first his meal with five thousand in the hills, followed by the feeding of the four thousand a few days later on the sand-dunes down by the Lake, represent the turning-point in Jesus’ public career, after which he ‘sets his face’ to go to Jerusalem, knowing that it will lead to confrontation with the elders, chief priests and scribes, and to his suffering and death.

There must have been something strong and commanding, rather than ‘meek and mild’ which made the freedom-fighters think of him as a military leader and ‘king’. Their mass meetings with him in the hills, puszta and ‘deserts’ around Galilee brought matters to a head.

We can see how they came to think of him as a guerilla leader. He had great authority as well as charisma. He was indeed acting as if he had been called to lead the Jewish people to liberation, even if he didn’t openly declare this and also charged his disciples not to speak of it. His theme was ‘God’s Rule’ (‘the Kingdom of God‘), the same slogan as the freedom-fighters. However, what had become dramatically clear to him that day in the hills, and after the second meeting to his inner circle of disciples, articulated by Simon the fisherman, his ‘Rock’, was that Jesus and the freedom-fighters were polls apart. He had no use for a ‘Holy War’, even a ‘just’ one, and all the violence that would ensue, as indeed it did a few years later when war broke out between the Jewish people and the Roman legions.

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Neither did Jesus think of the ‘foreigners’ as they did. He didn’t hate them or stereotype them. When what Jesus really stood for dawned on them, they had no further use for him. Indeed, many of those who had called themselves his friends abandoned him. Jesus seems to have spent much of the last months of his life alone, or with his small band of close disciples. And in the last week, very few stood by him. Even the gospel-writer, John, when the soldiers came to arrest his master in the orchard, ran away.

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