Today we commemorate a rather obscure saint – but a very significant one. When Luther was a monk, he didn’t have a pastor in the normal sense. Luther was himself a priest. He would celebrate the Divine Service. But he didn’t have a regular congregation. Basically, the monastery was a bunch of priests praying for themselves in hopes of earning God’s favor. But there were leaders in the monasteries – they went by various titles. But basically, they served as spiritual advisors for the monks. If not actually called pastors, they did perform a lot of the functions we normally associate with pastors for the monks under their care. Johannes von Staupitz was such a man to Martin Luther. He was effectively Luther’s pastor. But even more than that, he was Luther’s pastor during the time when Luther really struggled with the grace and mercy of God. Luther didn’t set out to be a reformer. He became a monk because he was trying to find a loving God. He had been given the Medieval picture of God as the terrifying judge, and hoped that by working hard as a monk, he could earn God’s favor. It was von Staupitz who told Luther to look to Christ for salvation. That was a problem – At the time Luther saw Jesus as a stern judge, who wanted only to condemn. Von Staupitz not only insisted that Luther look to Christ for mercy, but he also resigned his own post as teacher, and appointed Luther to the position, so that Luther would be forced to dig into Holy Scripture.
That was when Luther finally discovered that penance is not something we do. Rather, repentance is worked in the heart by God, when we turn away from sin, and hold fast to Jesus Christ as our Savior. That was what von Staupitz was trying to get Luther to see. And it’s what Luther finally did see – clearly. Jesus is not the stern judge. He will return to judge the living and the dead. But he wants to show mercy. That is why Jesus was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man, and suffered for us also under Pontius Pilate. So that he could redeem us from our sins, not with gold or silver, but with his Holy Precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death.
Holy Scripture calls Satan the accuser of our brethren, who accuses us before our God day and night. He wants to bring back your sin to remembrance. To convince you that they are too great, that God can not save you from them, that he wants to judge you. Satan wants to convince you to give up on God and his mercy. That’s where the word of God given in scripture is so important. Christ crucified. In Revelation, we hear that the accuser – Satan – is thrown down. He is cast out. His power is broken. He still whispers in your ear about all the terrible things you have done, trying to cast doubt on the goodness and mercy of Christ. Trying to make it seem like your sins are too big for forgiveness. But no matter how great your sin, the forgiveness Christ won for you is greater.
He whispers trying to convince you that God is uncaring – after all, look at the terrible things that happen in the world. How could a loving God allow such things? Better to be done with the whole mess he says. But it is a lie. The greatest injustice was done to God himself. Jesus was innocent of all crime, innocent of all sin – no one else can claim that. Even small infants are conceived and born in sin. Jesus, who is true God as well as True man, is innocent of all sin. And yet, God allowed him to suffer on your behalf. Jesus willingly took on himself the punishment you deserve. That is how we know that Jesus wants to be merciful. It’s the guarantee of his love and compassion. He died so that you could obtain mercy.
Now instead of the wrath of God over your sins, you have the mercy and love of God shown through Jesus Christ that forgives your sin. You don’t need to live in terror of God anymore. Jesus has paid it all. It isn’t about what you can do for God, but about what God has already done for you in Jesus Christ. That is a freeing thing. It is a great relief to the conscience. That is what von Staupitz helped Luther to see. We must let Christ save us, not try and be holy enough to save ourselves. We can not be that holy. We can not be righteous. We must just trust in the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ.
Thanks be to God that he gives faithful servants to his church. Those who look to Christ, and point others to Jesus as well. Because Jesus is our salvation.
For those who read all the way to the end, three things.