April 18, 2021: The 500th Anniversary of the famous “Here I Stand” moment for Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms. Luther had arrived at the Diet on a Monday (April 16) and been questioned on Tuesday the 17th. He was presented with 25 texts he had written and asked to both claim authorship of them and recant from the heresies they contained. The titles were read and Luther, wisely, asked for time to consider. He was given until 4pm on Wednesday, the 18th to do so.
Brought back before the Diet on the 18th he was again asked if he would claim authorship and recant their heresies. Luther, defying advice of only answering directly, instead stated that they yes were his but they were not of one sort. That some had been well received even by his enemies and those he could not reject, the second were books outlining abuses committed by the church and he could not reject those lest he tacitly approve those abuses. A third category were attacks on individuals which he acknowledged had been often too harsh (ad hominem attacks are always a bad idea) but still could not recant the true teaching in them. He then famously said…
“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.”
In popular writing of the day Luther was quoted as saying “Here I stand, I can do no other” before his invoking the Divine’s assistance. The minutes of the court do not reflect those words, but as a Texan I am always open to the possibility of a good story being more valuable than absolute accuracy.
What is important is that Luther took his stand and it cost him and his friends dearly. After this he was forced into hiding at The Wartburg. The Edict of Worms, issued on May 25, 1521, by the Emperor Charles V stated the church and empire’s response to Luther clearly.
“We forbid anyone from this time forward to dare, either by words or by deeds, to receive, defend, sustain, or favour the said Martin Luther. On the contrary, we want him to be apprehended and punished as a notorious heretic, as he deserves, to be brought personally before us, or to be securely guarded until those who have captured him inform us, whereupon we will order the appropriate manner of proceeding against the said Luther. Those who will help in his capture will be rewarded generously for their good work.”
On this 500th anniversary of this vital moment in the history of Western Civilization I have two observations…
1) Luther got one “Here I Stand” moment. Whether he said it or not he got one opportunity in front of the empire to make his stand. This was after years of writing, teaching, and controversy. Too often I fear we Lutherans are particularly inclined to these “Here I Stand” moments over things that are actually, in the scale of history, quite trivial. And yet as bishop time and again I hear of “Here I Stand” being invoked by leaders lay and ordained. Sometimes over vital issues, sometimes, more often, about personal preference.
2) We cannot overstate the risks everyone involved were taking. Luther’s choices impacted his students, his protectors, the peasants in the fields, and they were made in a hall of immense privilege. Had Luther not had powerful protectors he would never even had been invited to that moment, instead dispatched like many other troublesome characters. Also, in our Lutheran conceit we should remember that there was a month’s gap between Luther’s moment and the edict. Luther was far from the only thing on the mind of the empire. Economics and political power still carried the day.
Yet an important day to remember. As Lutherans a vital day to commemorate. Despite my caveats above it is incredible that a monk, a Doctor of the church, born though of common stock, was invited to stand before the empire and give his testimony. A moment reminiscent of our reading for Easter 4 from Acts 4 when Peter is able to give his testimony before rulers, elders, and scribes.
And so it invites us to consider our moments of testimony: what are we willing to risk all for, to put our friends in mortal peril for, and to remember that Luther got this once. You get perhaps one “Here I Stand” moment. Make the most of it.
“This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.'” (Acts 4:11) #NTNL #InMissionTogether
(Art, by Anton Von Werner, 1877)