Meditation for the Second Sunday in Lent at Gethsemane Lutheran
“We are beggars, this is true.”
These are the last written words of the Great Reformer and founder of the Lutheran heritage of faith, Martin Luther.
During his lifetime he had a distinguished career both as a parish pastor and a Doctorate of theology at the University of Wittenberg. An expert in the ancient languages of Latin, ancient Hebrew and Greek he translated the entire Bible from the original languages to the common language of German. Wrote numerous books on the Christian life, many great hymns, a full commentary series on theology and every book of the Bible, and both the Large and Small Catechism, the Small Catechism that can be found in the hands of confirmation students for hundreds of years. He was an advisor to Monarchs and prince, was the catalyst for not only the Protestant Reformation but for political, social, economic and educational reform. He was a devout husband and a tender father who died with good and loyal friends surrounding him.
I consider if I can accomplish one fraction, of a fraction of what Luther accomplished in the Lord’s name I will be doing great.
Yet it seems that this man whom it would seem had so much to be worthy of recognition in his final written words before he would come to face to face with his maker simply wrote, “we are beggars, this is true.”
This great man, who certainly had his flaws and share of mistakes, still must have something in his hand to present to God, to commend himself before God, to show what he had done, to somehow be worthy even in small way of glory.
But instead Luther confesses that before the throne of God, he is a beggar, empty hands without a shred or crumb remaining to give to God to commend himself before Him. But more than empty hands a beggar in Luther’s mind would be so poor as to not even have a penny to call his own and covered in the dirt of a broken world with nothing to present to the Lord but dirt, poverty and empty hands.
Luther in his last written words taught clearly and simply what it means to be saved grace alone through faith.
We don’t normally think of it this way out loud but being saved by grace through faith alone is a terrifying thought because there is nothing, nothing at all that I am carrying with me as a back up plan, just in case the works of Jesus are not enough. Sometimes we really want to cling to something else, just in case I need it before I see God on His throne in Heaven.
• Maybe it’s my sense of being a decent human being
• Or the persistent thought that I’m not perfect but I’m certainly not an Adolph Hitler. Which one of us would God rather take?
• Or it might simply be the thought that I just can’t believe something bad could happen to me eternally.
But if there is anything that I cling to, to present to God, to merit in some way my place with God in eternity, then I have begun to rely on my own works or my own goodness to save me and not the merits of Jesus Christ death upon the cross alone.
And if I begin to consider adding anything at all to the grace of God for my salvation then that thing I bring in my hand can change the way I see how my relationship with God works. Instead of being by grace alone now it becomes a work as well, and “work” is the perfect word because if I work then I expect a wage in return for my work. I work— I get a paycheck, that’s how it goes. It’s not usually this crass but the thought of doing good Christian work and then somehow earning that big mansion in heaven. But what kind of work could I do to even merit a glimpse of heaven? A Martin Luther I am not and if he considered himself a beggar, what should I consider myself?
St Paul even goes farther when he says in Romans 4:17, “in the presence of God, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” Apart from God’s grace the Bible oftentimes calls a person spiritually dead and how much farther can you get from not having anything to commend yourself before God than that?
The more I become I acquainted with the boundless depths of grace the more I see my own sin and helplessness and the more clearly I see my sin and helplessness the richer God’s depths of Grace are shown to me. Till we come to the full understanding that there is nothing at all in my hands to give to God to add to His grace. I am powerless and ashamed, with empty hands and no hope in myself apart from Grace alone. I am a beggar, this is true.
And this is grace: salvation given, maintained and sustained by God alone and received in faith which even that is not something that we do but a gift from the Holy Spirit. Grace must always and only be given and kept by God as an underserved gift that will last our whole life through and carry us into eternity.
But what then of the life I live right now, what of the good works I am to produce, how do these fit in?
One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.”
“A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
What are good works but the tears that flow unbidden from a grateful heart that has received the undeserved grace of God.
We are all beggars, this is true, but thanks be to God it is beggars that God gives salvation to.