He was a hated man. He was therefore maligned, threatened, publicly criticized, and privately rebuked. By his own admission he struggled vigorously with sins of the flesh. Especially outrageous anger. His debating disposition, wrote one biographer, caused his writings to "smell of powder; his words are battles; he overwhelms his opponents with a roaring cannonade of argument, eloquence, passion, and abuse." Sarcasm dripped from his pen.
He insulted a colleague by deliberately and repeatedly misspelling his name. He piled such vulgarity on him that one reputable historian said he could not translate its meaning into decent English. "One massive thunderclap" is an apt description of the man's style.
You may be surprised to know he was a Christian. He was, in fact, clergy. Once he admitted:
I never work better than when I am inspired of anger; when I am angry I can write, pray and preach well.
His maverick spirit led to his being excommunicated by the Pope when he was only thirty-eight. Rubbing salt into the ecclesiastical wound, he married a nun (in the sixteenth century, no less!) and became the talk of every monastery in Europe. Unintimidated, he stood alone like a bull in a blizzard . . . but silent he wasn't.
As is true of all such notorious characters, exaggeration and extravagance swarm around his story. It is difficult to filter out myth from truth, but one thing is for certain, Martin Luther was not irrelevant. Irreverent, yes; irrelevant, no. Out of step, yes; out of touch, no. Off base, yes; off target, no. Insulting and offensive, yes; impertinent and tedious, no.
With all his faults, Luther could never be criticized for being dull and distant. His philosophy could be summed up in his own timely words:
If you preach the gospel in all aspects with the exception of the issues which deal specifically with your time—you are not preaching the gospel
Don't misunderstand, he wasn't advocating a "social gospel," but rather a word from God that contains the solid ring of relevance. The gospel isn't to be changed. It is not ours to tamper with. But it is to cut into each generation like a flashing sword, sharpened on the stone of Scripture, tempered in the furnace of reality and need.
Of all the reactions a person may have to the gospel, I can think of none worse than a yawn . . . a sleepy "So what?" A bored "Who cares?"
I find it refreshing that Jesus Christ met people where they were. His words touched nerves. There was a lot more here-and-now than then-and-there in His talks. His attack on the hypocrisy and prejudice of religious phonies came through loud and clear. He met people as they were, not as they "ought to" be. Angry young men, blind beggars, proud politicians, loose-living street-walkers, ignorant fishermen, naked victims of demonism, and grieving parents were as clearly in His focus as the Twelve who hung on His every word.
His enemies misunderstood Him, but couldn't ignore Him. They hated Him, but were never bored around Him. Jesus was the epitome of relevance. Still is.
It is we who have hauled the cross back out of sight. It is we who have left the impression that it belongs only in the cloistered halls of a seminary or beneath the soft shadows of stained glass and marble statues. George MacLeod, who wrote the following piece, expresses my firm conviction.
I simply argue that the cross be raised again
at the center of the market place
as well as on the steeple of the church,
I am recovering the claim that
Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral
between two candles:
But on a cross between two thieves;
on a town garbage heap;
At a crossroad of politics so cosmopolitan
that they had to write His title
in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek . . .
And at the kind of place where cynics talk smut,
and thieves curse and soldiers gamble.
Because that is where He died,
and that is what He died about.
And that is where Christ's men ought to be,
and what church people ought to be about.
Jesus met people as they were, not as they "ought to" be.