It was the year 1521. Mid-April. Martin Luther stood before the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, and the assembled princes of Church and State in the Empire. Luther was in hot water, because of his call for reform in the Church. And because he had put his thoughts into writing by his books.
Many of the dignitaries assembled on that day in 1521 were convinced that Luther’s ideas were a threat to the stability of the entire realm. He had to be stopped! So they piled a bunch his books on a table and asked him two questions…two entrapment questions: “Are these your books?” “Are you prepared to recant what you have written in these books?”
Well, depending on Luther’s answer, he’d either live or die. If he refused to recant, to take back what he’d written, he’d be declared an outlaw. (Rome had already declared him a heretic.) And if the empire outlawed him, Luther could be hunted down and killed by anyone, without any legal consequences.
Martin Luther’s answer has been carved into history: “To go against conscience is neither right nor safe, and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.”
Now as dramatic moments in history go, it is one of the best. A person can’t help but be impressed by Luther’s courage. Except…“courage” is not what Luther himself called it. Not courage, freedom. Martin Luther took his bold stand because, as he said, he was free. But paradoxically, his freedom came from the fact that he was not free. He was a captive. “My conscience is captive to the Word of God.”
This remained a constant theme in Luther’s life. He wrote a hymn about it, which we’re going to sing later: “Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word.” Which sounds like what Jesus says in the Gospel Reading. “If you abide in My Word, you are truly My disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Lord, keep us steadfast…captive…in Your Word.
This counterpoint of free in Christ yet at the same time captive to Christ…this counterpoint weaves its way through the Christian life like the polyphonic music of Johann Sebastian Bach, which we will hear in a few moments.
Bach and other Lutheran composers embraced polyphony for church music because, for them, life itself is polyphonic! Life is not simply one song repeated relentlessly. For the Christian, life is many songs, many voices, many things set in counterpoint: free yet captive, sinner yet saint, dead to sin yet alive to God in Christ. Not one or the other, but all together, like a multi-voiced fugue of Herr Bach.
Oh…but it can be work to listen to the polyphony of Bach; to listen as you are surrounded by the interweaving layers of music, wrapping you in sound…feeling at times as if it will swallow you up in its complexity…just like the Christian life itself.
It’s no surprise, then, that in faith and in life, we human beings retreat to the superficial. It’s easier! “Just give us one thing! That’s enough.” Banging out a few praise choruses with a 3 chord guitar is a lot more consumer friendly than the vast array of church music…500 years of it now since Martin Luther…and a millennium and a half of it before him! But God loves us too much to let us confine ourselves in the superficial…whether in life or in faith. (It’s one reason why Lutheran church music is at its best when it encompasses the whole spectrum of music…from Bach to rock; not just one thing or another, but all of it!)
So…to change the metaphor…Jesus Christ is like a skydiving instructor who hands us the parachute, tells us to hang on to it, and then tosses us out the door of the plane! “If you hold to My teaching…you will be free.” Sure, we can, in freedom, toss aside that chute. No one needs a parachute to go skydiving, if…you don’t plan to do it a second time. But for those who hold tight to that chute, oh, they speak of a freedom unlike any other. “Lord, keep us…captive…in Your Word.”
And the music of Herr Bach can be like skydiving: exhilarating, disorienting, heart-pounding, dizzying, a rare freedom set in the captivity of strict counterpoint. At the end, with our feet back on the ground, perhaps we vow never to listen to that again…yet, surprisingly, we are ready to jump once more when the plane comes back.
That’s our faith! We marvel at all God’s wonders, because He throws us out right into the midst of them. We marvel at His grace toward us, because He does not spare us from the effects of our own sin. We marvel at His strength by our side, because He does not prevent our own weaknesses from unsettling us. We marvel at His Christ, crucified and raised up for us, because God does not hide from us the dark, dark side of our own human nature.
“Here is My Word,” He says. “Hang on to it!” And then out the door He throws us! And we learn a freedom unlike any other! It is the freedom that is ours because, like Martin Luther, our conscience, too, is captive to that Word of God!