Martin Luther: Father of more than just Lutheranism

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I’ve written about all kinds of big, grand-sounding Latin theological terms coined by Martin Luther 500 years ago in this column. I’ve hit on major historical events during the protestant Reformation that changed the course of history and thus the world. But it hit me this past week that perhaps the biggest influence that Luther had on the church is really something small that we see in quite small things — literally.

And what I’m talking about is in the form of children.

Now, you may say, Pastor Zach, you have finally gone too far. You’ve given some plausible arguments for innovations that Luther at least contributed to. But Luther did not invent kids.

Admittedly, this is true. And my full point (as is usually the case) is much more convoluted than my space allows. But, at least before Martin Luther, the Church in the West (Europe in short) was the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Church did not allow clergy to be married. Children could not be conceived except in marriage. Therefore, clergy could not have kids.

So, when it came to Hallmark holidays that fall on a Sunday like Father’s Day tomorrow, the clergy’s sermons were rife with errors and trite stories that rang hollow!

However, thanks to Martin Luther’s reforming and questioning ways and a semi-salacious little story that starts off with Luther the Priest running off with Katie the Nun (hey, I’m not making this stuff up) and ending up with half a dozen kids, Protestant clergy today can end up actually being fathers who can preach on Father’s Day.

And from Martin Luther, we see some legacies that show his devotion to not only his kids, but to all the children of the kingdom.

Baptism is central to the Christian faith in general, but infant baptism is iconic in the Lutheran tradition because it is the ultimate example of God’s grace at work without us as humans doing any work on our own behalf for the salvation that God offers.

The emphasis on infants who are unable to do much of anything on their own only amplifies that message that in baptism, God alone is the one doing the action and the human being is the receptor of that action of salvation.

It is surely a special sign when anyone is brought into the Kingdom, but there is something even more uplifting that Luther liked to highlight when a helpless child is seen as the example of the kind of faith the kingdom is made of.

It is also of note that of the vastness of Luther’s many writings, probably the most famous and most used of Luther’s works is the Small Catechism. Now, when I say small, I mean small. You can read the Small Catechism in about 5 to 10 minutes tops!

The subjects are the Ten Commandments, The Creed, The Lord’s Prayer, Sacraments, Confession and Daily Prayers. This tiny little book is the basis of what is often called Confirmation for teenage Lutherans and can become a very sophisticated two- to three-year-long church-run educational program.

But ultimately, Luther says that the Catechism is for the head of the household to teach their own children around the family table (a practice he preached around his own table himself). Rather than offload religious education elsewhere, Luther thought that the family was the place that such conversation and learning should occur.

Famously, the inverse of this is implied in his explanation of the Fourth Commandment: Honor your father and your mother, that it may be well with you, and that you may live long on the earth.

What does this mean? We should fear and love God, so that we do not despise our parents and superiors, nor provoke them to anger, but honor, serve, obey, love and esteem them. Just as the parents are expected to teach the children, the children are expected to respect the parents and those others in authority.

Which brings me to my last point along these lines which may not be exclusive to Lutherans, but which is certainly in the Luther lineage: Children’s sermons.

It has long been a contention of mine, to the chagrin of some more conservative colleagues, that a children’s sermon is the time in worship probably most like not only what Jesus would do, but what Martin Luther would do.

Some think this time of worship becomes too simplistic or off-point (which, trust me, they do at times!). But it is literally at this moment in worship when the service and its leader gets down on its knees to be with those of child-like faith and to show that for all our bluster about grace being for absolutely everyone with no restrictions on who is smart enough or strong enough or advanced enough, that we actually mean it!

As a Lutheran pastor, I have incorporated a children’s sermon time in all my regular services regardless of whether I had a regular expectation that there would actually be children present at any particular given service. I think that is a legacy of Luther who, though he was a pastor long before he became a father, henceforth was always a father before he was a pastor!

Pastor Zach Harris has been an ordained minister for 25 years and currently serves Ascension Lutheran Church in Wilson. His column, “Through a Lutheran Lens: A Pastor’s Perspective,” will appear regularly in The Wilson Times. Previous columns are available at WilsonTimes.com.