On the evening of May 24th, 1539 Martin Luther stood before a crowd at the Castle Pleissenburg, Leipzig. The following morning would mark the inauguration of the Reformation in Ducal Saxony. Another part of the world had been won over by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
That ground had not been won easily. Luther’s home territory of Electoral Saxony, the birthplace of the Protestant Reformation was right next door. In Electoral Saxony, Fredrich the Wise supported and protected Luther as the Reformation gained steam. But here in Ducal Saxony, Fredrich the Wise’s cousin Duke George ruled. Though Duke George himself was in favor of some degree of reform within the Catholic Church he viewed Luther’s teaching as apostasy, motivating him to act as one of Luther’s greatest detractors and opponents. He turned over Lutheran monks and priests to Catholic discipline, confiscated Luther’s writings found within the territory, expelled those holding views contrary to the Roman Catholic Church, and even denied burial to their dead.
Despite his zeal, the Reformation gradually took hold of the territory. Upon his death in April 1539, Fredrich was succeeded by his brother Heinrich, a Lutheran. Duke George’s work was a significant impediment to the geographic spread of the Reformation. Would the Gospel of Christ be able to gain more ground in such a hostile world?
Luther preached on John 14, the appointed Gospel reading for the next morning: “If a man loves me he will keep my word…” In Luther’s inimitable style, he preached of the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ in all things. He summed up with these timeless words, which beckon us still today:
“…Christ Himself here says: He who hears my Word and keeps it, to him will I and my Father come and make our home with him. This is the end of Jerusalem and Moses; here there is to be a little band of Christ’s, who hear God’s Word and keep the same and rely on it in every misfortune. This is my church. This Lord we shall believe…”
Rather than presenting Christ’s words as a rule or a threat, Luther reveals it to be the promise of God. Where God’s Word is heard and kept, Christ is present for the sinner. This Word which enters the ears and takes root in the heart is not a new article of faith to be memorized, but a promise to be kept by God and lived in by you. It is not by the power or will of the hearer, but by the power of the Word that this promise is effective. It is not obedient hearts that must be won over to the Gospel. Disobedient sinners are won over by the obedience of Christ who is always faithful to His promise.
The Gospel took the kingdom out from under Duke George. Land means nothing compared to the allegiance of the hearts of those who live within it. It happened then as it does now; in the preaching of the Gospel, which is nothing more than the forgiveness of sins and the promise of new and eternal life in Jesus Christ, faith is created where it was once opposed. This is the power of God.
As he opened his mouth to preach that evening Luther looked out on the crowd. In that crowd was a “little band of Christians” wherein the Word of God had been heard and kept, and Christ had come to make His home. No doubt he understood in that moment the power of God to save. Luther could see that which we must realize. The battle for the world that our Lord has commended to us is not won by establishing a Christian nation, but by the Word of God winning over each human heart.
On Reformation Sunday 2005 I was won over by the Gospel of Christ. In the water of Baptism, God took territory. It is that faith in God’s redemption which laid hold of me as I was laid low in the depths of my sin and misfortune. By God’s grace I was joined to “a little band of Christ’s, who hear God’s Word and keep the same and rely on it in every misfortune.” Christ made His home in me by faith and called me out of death and into a new life.
He has called you into that new life, too. A life which hears God’s Word and keeps it and relies on it in every misfortune. Jesus Christ has called you to be a part of a little band of His own. You are His, and you are one of us.