Rev. Clifford A. Bahlinger
Hve you ever had an awkward conversation with your father?
You know, one of those conversations about how you accidently wrecked his car, your subpar grades in school, or how you need more money?
For Martin Luther a conversation occurred like this while he was in law school. You can imagine how proud Martin’s father must have been to have a son graduate from college, and be accepted into and enter law school. Martin’s father had never been to college. He was a copper miner, who had only recently moved up the social ladder to become a smelting supervisor of copper ore. He had invested heavily in his son’s education, a son who was bright and well regarded. Now this son with so much promise had come home to talk with his father. Martin wanted to tell his father that he was dropping out of law school, and not only that, he was entering monastic life, and he was joining the Augustinian Order.
When I was a senior at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, I took a short trip home to visit my parents. My dad and I were up watching the late local news on television. When the news ended, I turned off the tv, said good night and began to go to my room. As I walked through the kitchen my dad asked me to have a seat. Dad said he had something important he wanted to share with me. My radar went up, why this late night one on one conversation with dad? My father was not a man of surprises or midnight confessions. Both my parents were devout Roman Catholics. I was one of seven children baptized and confirmed in the Roman Catholic Church. We all attended Roman Catholic schools from kindergarten through High School. I was born into a family rich with religious vocation. Nine relatives were in Roman Catholic religious orders. My father’s brother Donald was a Jesuit priest, and two of his sisters had taken vows of service. My mother’s sister was also a nun and had been my high school guidance counselor.
Years before I had an awkward conversation of my own with my parents about attending seminary in the Lutheran Church in order to seek ordination as a Pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. But that was four years ago, I was about to graduate now. I had been living on my own for over ten years, I was married and had a child. What could my father want to say to me at this odd hour?
My dad started by saying Son, there is something I think you should know about our family. The Bahlinger family in Germany is not Roman Catholic as you have thought, but Lutheran. I just looked at him and no words came from my mouth. I was shocked and hurt that this had been hidden from me; yes, I was excited that I was not the only Lutheran in the family, but confused as to why I never knew the truth of my family’s history. Dad went on to say that Frederic Bahlinger, my great, great grandfather had been born and raised Lutheran in Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany. He fell in love and married Barbara Schmuger who was Roman Catholic. This mixed marriage must have been very difficult for them. They immigrated to Baton Rouge, Louisiana in the 1850’s only to have Frederic die of yellow fever in 1867. Barbara, now widowed and desperate with five children, went to a Roman Catholic priest for help. The children were re-baptized Roman Catholic and all Lutheran connections were lost. Here I was 135 years later, just months away from being ordained as a Lutheran pastor and hearing this family history, as news for the first time.
I share this personal history to show how deep the divisions have been for 500 years between Lutherans and Roman Catholics. In many places in Germany after the reformation, the children of mixed marriages were considered illegitimate depending on the religious authorities people lived under at the time. Deep and bitter divisions existed throughout Europe due to one’s religious affiliation. We have come a long way in 500 years. Thankfully now Roman Catholics and Lutherans recognize baptism in one another’s tradition. In 2016 Pope Francis visited the Lutheran Cathedral in Lund, Sweden and prayed with Lutheran clergy for unity in the body of Christ.
In 1517 Martin Luther did not begin his protest with any grand visions of dividing the church of Christ. Luther took a stand for pastoral reasons. While Luther held a Doctorate degree in Holy Scriptures at the small university of Wittenberg, he also had duties at the Castle Church in the town. It is was here, as a parish priest, that Martin Luther became concerned by the sale of papal indulgences. His own parishioners were purchasing these certificates of forgiveness. It is this real life situation that caused Luther to take up his pen and question by what authority the pope can sell Christ’s forgiveness through indulgences.
Years earlier, Martin Luther was called upon to travel to Rome. He walked three months to deliver papers and see the holy city. He saw with his own eyes the great wealth of the church and he left the city with deep concerns for his church. He knew that the sale of indulgences was more about money than concern for the souls of the faithful.
I can remember a trip to visit the local bishop of our diocese when I was a boy. My grandfather was a generous supporter of the bishop and the entire family was invited to a special reception at the bishop’s residence. My mother called it the Bishop’s Penthouse, as it sat high above a high complex called the Catholic Life Center. I also remember my grandfather and grandmother returning from a pilgrimage to Rome. They were proudly showing all the family a framed certificate signed by the pope. I learned years later it was in fact an indulgence letter signed by the pope! I can remember the family in the car ride home, the topic of conversation was all about “how much did they pay for that?”
Years later when I was a college student and taking a class on Europe History, the assigned reading included works by Martin Luther. When I read Luther for the first time I was so excited! Here was someone speaking truth. Here was a man of deep faith, conviction, and courage. I went on to join the Lutheran Church in 1983, which coincidentally was the 500th Anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther. Now here I am 34 years later at the 500th Anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation and I am serving as a Lutheran pastor. I still admire Luther’s faith, passion and courage, but now I also see his flaws; his sharp attacks on his critics, his inability to compromise and his horrible attack on the Jews.
Martin Luther was indeed a Saint and a Sinner and maybe this is what he would want for us to remember on this 500 anniversary. We are all saints and sinners. We all depend on God’s grace. We all seek a savior, because we cannot save ourselves. At his death in 1546, it is reported that in Luther’s pocket was a hand written note that read, “we are beggars, this is true.” When we understand our need for God and God’s unfailing love for us, then we can trust God all the more. We are not popes, princes or lords. We are beggars at the feet of a loving and merciful God. A God that is abounding in steadfast love. A God who loved us so much that he sent his son to us, not to condemn us, but to set us free. Free to worship God, free to serve our neighbor, free to forgive past divisions and free to make a future together in Christ.