Wednesday, March 29, 2017

"Scriptures in the Vernacular...also known as God Talks Like Us" - Lent 2017 series, Lent with Luther: 1517 Ideas through 2017 Eyes

A reading from Acts of the Apostles, the 2nd chapter:

1When the day of Pentecost had come, [the disciples] were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 11b in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power." 

And a reading from Philippians, the 2nd chapter:

5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
 6who, though he was in the form of God,
 did not regard equality with God
 as something to be exploited,
 7but emptied himself,
 taking the form of a slave,
 being born in human likeness.
 And being found in human form,
 8he humbled himself
 and became obedient to the point of death —
 even death on a cross.
 9Therefore God also highly exalted him
 and gave him the name
 that is above every name,
 10so that at the name of Jesus
 every knee should bend,
 in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
 11and every tongue should confess
 that Jesus Christ is Lord,
 to the glory of God the Father.

Our Lenten series this year has introduced us to central theological ideas that Martin Luther wrote about and spoke about during the Protestant Reformation, ideas and concepts which were not new, but which he unearthed and rediscovered to help reform the Church in his day and set it back on the right gospel track. The idea that we look more closely at this week was not really something Luther so much wrote about as it is something he wrote. That is, one of the most lasting contributions Martin Luther made to the church’s life—and many historians would say it is the single-most profound contribution of Luther’s—is his act of translating the Holy Scriptures into German, the language of his people.

In 1521 and 1522, when Luther was holed up in the Wartburg Castle in Saxony in order to gain protection from the authorities who wanted him imprisoned or possibly executed, Luther sat down with a Greek translation of the New Testament provided by the Dutch scholar Erasmus and began writing it in the German he heard spoken in his day. In fact, that’s precisely how he worked on his translation of the Bible. During the day he would roam the streets of the nearby town of Eisenach, often in disguise, visiting taverns and markets to hear what words and phrases people were using on an everyday basis and weave them into the document he was producing. His complete version of the Bible was eventually published in 1534, but his New Testament by then was a blockbuster success. Printed in large quantities by the recently-developed and improved printing presses, his Bible spread like wildfire in the German provinces.

In an age of digital communication and Google translator, this might seem like no big deal to us, but it was a huge deal at Luther’s time. In order to understand just how groundbreaking this was, we must imagine for a moment what it was like to be a Christ-follower in the late middle ages and early Renaissance. If you lived in northern Germany and attended worship on a Sunday, you have to imagine that not one word was spoken that you would understand, unless you had been fortunate enough to receive an education in Latin, which was extremely rare for the common person. As you listened to the priest chant the liturgy, you might not have known when the Scripture readings began and ended, since it would have all been one long stream of a language you didn’t know. There were no hymnals or books in the pews to follow along with; you were most likely illiterate, but even if you weren’t, you really weren’t expected to say anything, anyway. The main worshiping was done by the priests and cantors; as a lay person, you were just there basically to eavesdrop.

Don’t get me wrong—worship was undoubtedly divine and transcendent, but there was very little you could take away from it other than the experience of hearing it and being moved by its beauty. If you wanted to know a verse of Scripture, you likely had to rely on a priest, who was probably poorly-trained, reciting it for you, and it would probably have been taken from the Vulgate, the official Latin translation the church used. The Vulgate had been translated in A.D. 382, almost 1200 years earlier!

Luther's translation is still used as the base for German
Bibles to this day. This is the Bible I received about 20 years
ago when I lived near Wittenberg.
In contrast to this, Martin Luther wanted everyone to hear the Word of God. He wanted worship to involve the people, from letting them partake of the wine in Holy Communion (along with the bread), to hearing Scripture readings and the songs and hymns of the faith in their own language. He even developed large-print versions of Scripture so that people with poor eyesight could see. The Bible that he translated ended up becoming so popular and so widely-used that it is credited with creating the modern German language. In effect, it was a continuation of Pentecost. By streamlining and bringing together into one linguistic warehouse of a book all the diverse Germanic dialects spoken across the country, Luther created a form of German that everyone could understand and adopt. As a result, he is known as the father of the German language.

So, why did he do all this? These changes were much more sweeping and drastic than just changing a few words and lines of the Lord’s Prayer, which is something many of us still struggle with. For Luther, if the church constantly used language that sounded nothing like the language the people used and communicated with, it didn’t just potentially make church boring. It sent a message contrary to the very gospel itself. That is, keeping the language of Scripture frozen in one particular language or dialect suggested we humans had work to do in order to be understood by God, as though our natural speech wasn’t good enough. It sent the message that humans had to speak a certain way, or that we had to pass a vocabulary or grammar test, in order to be reconciled to God. It made God seem distant, and that we could climb to him on a Babel tower built of the right words.

And to Luther, that was the exact opposite of the message of Jesus, who had shown us God descends to us, becoming flesh to dwell among us. To the reformers, the fundamental life-saving message of grace was that even though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. God desires to be understood, and not simply admired or revered. God so wants to make himself known to us that God strips himself of divine pretentiousness so that and we can respond to him and confess him as Lord in our own tongue.

"The Tower of Babel" (Pieter Bruegel the Elder)
Just as we believe God has become human as a first-century Jew who spoke a language called Aramaic, so do we understand that God’s Word can bring life and wisdom in German, in English, in Spanish, in Creole—in whichever speech people are using at any moment. God is so alive, so present, that God can talk like us…and like those people over there! His is a living word, fully transparent, thoroughly “enfleshed,” taking on all the jargon and grammar devices of humankind. Even a Hip Hop paraphrase of the 23rd Psalm from something called the Hip Hop Bible, gets the point across, even if it’s not something you or I would use:

The Lord is all that, I need for nothing
He allows me to chill.
He keeps me from being heated
And allows me to breathe easy.
He guides my life so that
I can represent and give
Shout-outs in his Name.
And even though I walk through
The Hood of death,
I don't back down
For you have my back.
The fact that you have me covered
Allows me to chill.
He provides me with back-up
In front of my player-haters
And I know that I am a baler
And life will be phat
I fall back in the Lord's crib
For the rest of my life.

And our own hymnal contains the evocative words of a Christmas hymn written by French Jesuit missionaries when they taught the gospel to the Huron Indians in the early 1600’s. If you’ll turn to hymn 284, “’Twas in the Moon of Wintertime,” and look at the second and third verses, especially:

“Within a lodge of broken bark the tender babe was found;
A ragged robe of rabbit skin enwrapped his beauty round;
But as the hunter braves drew high, the angel song rang loud and high:
Jesus your king is born! Jesus is born, in excelsis Gloria!

And in the third verse you’ll see that it is chiefs from afar that bring gifts not of gold, frankincense and myrrh, but of fox and beaver pelt, valuable riches to the Huron people.

Martin Luther did not put the Scriptures in the vernacular just for shock value or to be cute. It was an extension of his theology of the cross, his understanding of being saved by grace alone. It was also dependent on his understanding of what the Scriptures were. First of all, they were not just inspirational words that had no original anchor. Each of his translations were careful, scholarly interpretations from the original Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Greek of the New Testament. For whatever reason God had chosen those languages to reveal his Word in, so they must be taken seriously.

Secondly, Luther thought that the point of Scripture was to point us to the Christ. It was not principally a rule book, or a science or history book, but a holy set of writings that revealed to us Jesus. As he once famously said, “the Bible is the manger wherein Christ is laid.” This strikes at the very humble nature of our Lord and the simple ways he comes to us. Faith is not best ignited in people by inspiring them to rise to a certain kind of holiness or liturgical atmosphere, or by getting them to worship a set of sacred texts. Faith arises, rather, whenever it is shown that Christ is given for you. And, in some instances, hip hop can do that even better than the Queen’s English.

My seminary preaching professor, Dr. Tom Ridenhour, always stressed that sermons should be both profane and vulgar. That’s a provocative statement, but he wanted us to take him seriously, His point was classic Luther: we were to keep the language of our preaching unchurchy, not too “of the temple,” which is what profane really means. And we were to speak in the pulpit like people speak in their everyday conversations, which is what vulgar means. Ironically, the word “vulgar” is taken from the title of that old Bible, the Vulgate. It’s Latin had once been the language of the people, but by the time of Luther no longer was.

It reminds me of a saying by Eugene Peterson, a popular and wise pastor of our time who, like Luther, has gone back to the original Hebrew and Greek and come up with a translation for our time known as The Message. Peterson says, “In making your speech sound more religious, it becomes less true.”

Language is always changing, evolving, perhaps even now more than ever before. I remember the reaction when the Pope created his own Twitter account and began tweeting.

But now he has over 10 ½ million followers! We are all about a Word that became flesh, a God who is eternally giving himself to us, so issues about how people of faith speak and the way we use and translate Scripture will always be relevant.

How many people nowadays attend church and have absolutely no idea what’s going on because pastors have kept it a little too churchy?

How many in our time question Christian authenticity when they hear us speaking in what sounds like a secret code?

How do we stay true to the original texts and a common understanding that Scripture primarily leads us to Jesus?

How do we balance respect for God in our words and speech with the need to show God’s own accessibility?

Where do we draw the line with use of language that is gender-specific for God?

Has this sermon even met its own standard of being plain-speaking and ordinary?

Can we somehow balance the old language of hymns and prayers that flow off our lips from years of blessed use with the new songs and linguistic offerings that are arising by the power of the Spirit every day?

One of the big problems that Lutheran reformers encountered when the Bible went so public was that each person felt called to interpret the Scriptures their own personal way. How do we ensure that interpretations and translations are normed by what the whole community understands and holds true?

Each of these questions—and the others like it—is not superficial to the gospel. We may not think we’re engaging in serious theological discussion as we tackle them, but, as Luther knew, speaking for God is speaking about God. And if you have a printing press, or a printer, or a pen, a handheld device, or even if you have a tongue then you are able to confess, you are able to profess, you are able to witness to the Word become flesh.

And to that, all we can really say, is “WORD.”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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