Generations will reap what we sow.
- Sara Groves
Until I attended the Reformation Day conference at Emory University a few days ago, I didnt realize Martin Luther is remembered for much more than ushering in the Protestant Reformation. Besides changing the direction of the 16th-century church, two centuries later he would influence the founders of Methodism, John and Charles Wesley, and guide the music of their contemporary, Johann Sebastian Bach. Like Luther before them, each of these later giants sought a deeper faith for himself, and a more effective way to share that faith with others.
In the 30 years between excommunication from his former church and his death, Martin Luther had 30 productive years. Though denied his former pulpit, his continued preaching and leadership would become the foundation of the Lutheran Church. At the same time, realizing his own spiritual awakening came through personal study of the scriptures, he spent years translating the Bible from Latin to German so its message would be as available to ordinary people as it was to Latin-reading priests. His other writings included commentaries to help clergy and laity alike understand the Bible better, and hymns to encourage congregational singing in the church.
Oxford University graduates, John and Charles Wesley, were young men when they left England for the American Colony of Georgia to become missionaries to the Indians. But after three years of limited success in America, the brothers doubted their own faith was strong enough to preach to others, and returned to England. Soon, Johns faith would be deepened through his association with a group of Moravian Christians, while a similar experience for brother Charles took longer. Ive been to America to convert Indians, he said, but whos going to convert me?
Charles Wesley's story is far from unusual. Many a spiritual leader has had a similar experience, perhaps fearing with the Apostle Paul that, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway (I Corinthians 9:27).
The younger Wesley didnt just endure his depression; he did something about it. With a Bible in one hand and Luthers commentary on the New Testament in the other, he began to search for the assurance that he, too, was a child of God. He found his answer in Luthers thoughts on the second chapter of Galatians which, coincidentally, includes the seed phrase for Luthers awakening, The just shall live by faith, (verse 16). Finally, all doubts about his standing with God were erased when he read verse 20: I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
For me, for me, Wesley repeated, over and over, grasping for the first time what Luther had understood 200 years before, that salvation doesnt depend on man's works - even missionary work - but on God alone.
The works of John and Charles Wesley, however, are well-known. Like Luther, they, too, left one church and founded another. John is remembered for his preaching, leadership and extensive writings, while Charles, the poet and musician, wrote an estimated 9,000 devotional poems and hymns, many of which are still found in the hymnals of every Christian denomination.
Many also contain those two, intimate words which so altered his life, for me. For example, from O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing, the first hymn listed in all Methodist hymnals: He breaks the power of canceled sin, he sets the prisoner free; his blood can make the foulest clean; his blood availed for me; and from And Can It Be: Amazing love! How can it be that thou my God shouldst die for me?
And, can it be that Martin Luthers 16th-century hymns would inspire not only Wesleys hymn writing, but also the music of Johann Sebastian Bach? Proclaiming that all his music was written for the glory of God, Bach was known to capture the mood and content of one of Luthers hymn texts in his own instrumental compositions.
As we celebrate both the Reformation and All Saints Day this week, I am inspired by the words of yet another hymn writer:
O God, to us may grace be given to follow in their train! - Reginald Heber
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to seabara at aol.com.)
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