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By W. TERENCE ERBELE
Two possible understandings of “Diet of Worms” could be either an interesting menu choice (perhaps an effective weight loss program) or a reference to what worms eat. During the times of the Renaissance in Europe an Imperial Diet was a type of parliament which met at irregular intervals.
Worms is the name of a city in Germany where the Imperial Diet met in 1521. On the agenda was the trial of a priest who also was a professor at Wittenberg University. He was neither the first nor the last of those to protest the practices of the church and call for reform. He probably is the most well-known of the long list including John Wycliffe, Jan Hus, Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin. It is from these people that we get the name Protestant and the period is commonly called the Reformation.
As a terrified young man caught in lightning storm, he promised to become a monk if he survived. He left law school and joined the Augustinian order, devoting himself to fasting, long hours in prayer, pilgrimage and frequent confession and penance. He described this period of his life as one of deep spiritual despair: "I lost touch with Christ the Savior and Comforter, and made of him the jailer and hangman of my poor soul.”
He discovered the inescapable sinfulness of the human condition. He found that no matter how saintly he acted he still harbored sinful thoughts. He concluded that there was no way out of the dilemma, until one day as he was preparing a lecture on Romans 1:17 — “The just shall live by faith.” He realized that salvation comes through faith alone. God’s grace is a gift. He wrote, “I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise.”
Next Wednesday, October 31, is All Saints Eve and will mark the 500th anniversary since this professor is said to have pinned “95 Theses” to the door (the equivalent of a public bulletin board) of the Castle Church in Wittenberg objecting to the practice of indulgences. Thanks to Gutenberg’s invention 68 years earlier, the document was copied, printed,and disseminated throughout Europe within weeks.
He was called to the Diet of Worms three and half years later, April of 1521, and invited to retract what he had written. His reply: “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason 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.”
Expecting the verdict of being a heretic to be burned immediately at the stake, he and his friend, Frederick III arranged for him to be kidnapped by masked horsemen and whisked away to the safety of Wartburg castle. Sure enough, he was excommunicated and the emperor put out a warrant for his arrest. From his hiding place he spent the next nine months translating the New Testament from Greek to German and continued a his prolific publishing of tracts and treatises.
Over the past 500 years, his writings have helped millions reach a better understanding of faith and grace. Though the original idea of congregational singing was not his, he is the one who made it a standard part of worship. His most famous composition is “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
We commemorate this quincentenary thanking God for the life of Martin Luther.
The Rev. W. Terence Erbele is a pastor of the United Methodist Church.
Perspectives is a regular column sponsored and written by members of the Ketchikan Ministerial Association.