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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Catechization was not new to Martin Luther. The term catechism is a term for teaching that comes from the Greek term “kata-echo” which means to “echo back.” St. Paul used the word in his letter to the Galatians to designate teaching. By the Middle Ages catechism had come to mean the memorization and repeating back of three things- the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. Priests were required to teach these things during the weekday services four times a year. Martin Luther himself preached on these three principle parts, and the sermons became the foundation for the Small Catechism.
Last Wednesday we began our meditation on Luther’s Small Catechism with the reformer’s Explanation to the Ten Commandments and Cranach’s colorful portrayal of these sins. I noted that Luther intended for the Ten Commandments to be used to diagnose believers’ fundamental human condition, and their need for God. The purpose of the Apostles’ Creed was to learn and know the identity of God.
Now in spite of what every Confirmand believes, Martin Luther did not write the Apostles’ Creed. Throughout the Middle Ages it was generally accepted that on the day of Pentecost, while still under the mentoring and direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the twelve apostles together composed our present Creed. According to legend, each of the apostles contributed one of the twelve articles or statements of faith included in the Creed. It served as the baptismal over 1000 years. So the words of the Apostles’ Creed were very well established when Luther published his first catechism in 1529.
Luther did, however, affirm the structure for the Creed which we know today. His restructuring of the historic creed occurred in two stages. First, in 1520, Luther correlated the 12 articles of the Apostles’ Creed to the three persons of the Trinity and to their particular gifts and person. The First Article speaks of the Father; the Second speaks of the Son, and the Third speaks of the Holy Spirit. In 1528, a year before the first catechism was published Luther introduced each portion of the Creed with a question, “What kind of God do you have? What do you expect from him?” At that point, Luther summarized the Creed with the words, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier, or as would be spoken, “I believe in God the Father, who created me; I believe in God the Son, who redeemed me; and I believe in the Holy Spirit, who sanctifies me.”
Lucas Cranach may not have intended for his altar painting in Wittenberg to portray the Apostles’ Creed, but I believe the lower portion of the painting, known as the Predella, beautifully presents Luther’s understanding of the Apostles’ Creed, and his trust in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. At first glance, it may appear to be just one scene, but I would like to us to look at the altar as three separate images. We will begin with the portrait of Luther preaching from the pulpit. So let us turn to the First Article, and the right side of the painting.
The First Article: On Creation
I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
What does this mean? I believe that God has created me together with all that exists. God has given me and still preserves my body and soul: eyes, ears, and all limbs and senses; reason and all mental faculties. In addition, God daily and abundantly provides shoes and clothing, food and drink, house and farm, spouse and children, fields, livestock, and all property—along with all the necessities and nourishment for this body and life. God protects me against all danger and shields and preserves me from all evil. And all this is done out of pure, fatherly, and divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness of mine at all! For all of this I owe it to God to thank and praise, serve and obey him. This is most certainly true.
Luther’s goal in the First Article was to arouse faith in God’s creaturely and providential care. In Luther’s own words, the First Article teaches us that “we should know and learn where we come from, what we are, and to whom we belong.” For Luther, this knowledge is only to be found in scripture. It is why Luther’s hand is placed firmly in the Bible. It was a common understanding in the Middle Ages that God created everything out of nothing. “ex nihilo.” It was through the Word that God becomes flesh again and again. It is also important that we see Luther preaching from the pulpit with his hand pointing in the holy sign of blessing. Luther believed that God becomes real, material and flesh through preaching. It’s perhaps why the walls of the church are stark and empty. Luther believed that faith comes through hearing. Indeed, faith itself is created through hearing.
Let’s turn now to the center of the painting, and the words of the Second Article.
The Second Article: On Redemption
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
What does this mean? I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father in eternity, and also a true human being, born of the virgin Mary, is my Lord. He has redeemed me, a lost and condemned human being. He has purchased and freed me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver but with his holy, precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death. He has done all this in order that I may belong to him, live under him in his kingdom, and serve him in eternal righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as he is risen from the dead and lives and rules eternally. This is most certainly true.
Like the First Article, Luther chosen a single theme to illuminate the entire article. Luther had three options around which he could have centered his explanation: Jesus Christ; His only Son; or our Lord. So why would did his focus on the phrase “our Lord?” In part the language of lordship and kingship would have resonated with hearers living in a feudal society. But there were at least two other reasons. First, Luther wanted to draw out the saving work of Christ, and the paradox of life and death. And second, as one theologian declared, Luther wanted to emphasize the “pro nobis” character of Jesus, or the sense of all of the is done “for you.”
Lutherans in America are often surprised by a “crucifix” at the center of any sanctuary, much less on Cranach’s altar painting for the Mother Church of the Reformation. But there is something unique about Cranach’s depiction of the crucified Christ- and that is the loin cloth. He used the metaphor over and over again. Notice that the loin cloth is blowing in the wind. The Spirit of Christ is still alive even if the physical body is dead. The crucifixion was always a portrait of death and eternal life freely given for us- without merit. Cranach understood that Luther truly wanted the church us to know and believe that Christ was crucified, and that this truth is at the center of our Christian confession. It is through the crucified Christ that we redeemed.
Now let us turn to the left side, and the Third Article.
The Third Article: On Being Made Holy
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
What does this mean? I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith. Daily in this Christian church the Holy Spirit abundantly forgives all sins—mine and those of all believers. On the last day the Holy Spirit will raise me and all the dead and will give to me and all believers in Christ eternal life. This is most certainly true.
Again Luther selects one word from the Third Article and organizes his explanation around it. But this article gave him the most difficulty, for the Apostles’ Creed simply states, “I believe in the Holy Spirit,” and then suggests a series of five seemingly disconnected items, namely, “the holy Catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” It wasn’t until 1529 that Luther finally settled on a central theme for his Catechism. He took the name “Holy Spirit” and focused on the word “holy” or “sanctus” in such a way that the Holy Spirit becomes the sanctifying Spirit. The theme of the “sanctifying Spirit” or the Spirit which makes this life holy enabled Luther to weave the five items together. In other words, instead of using the word “holy” to describe a personal attribute of the Spirit, Luther uses it to describe what the Holy Spirit does for us and to us.
It’s why on the left side, you do not see a Holy Dove, burning flame or wind blowing. It is the Holy Spirt making the people holy. The work of the Holy Spirit it not easy. Yes, there is low hanging fruit. Notice Katherine von Bora, Luther’s wife in the front pew, and his first born son Hans taking it all in. There is Lucas Cranach himself in the picture. He actually occurs frequently in his paintings, rather like an Alfred Hitchcock cameo. There is even a baby completely naked, perhaps suggesting that we must be born again. But there is a challenge for the sanctifying Spirit. The congregation also has a story to tell. Here we see young and old, men and women. By preaching Christ in all the Scriptures the preacher is relevant to all, not just a particular group. Perhaps, however, you’ve noticed that not all the faces are looking forward. There are a few in the congregation who deliberately look away or are distracted. One lady seems oblivious as to what is going on, apparently more interested at looking out of the painting at the viewer rather than looking to the Cross. She misses what is happening by not paying attention to the sermon. She seems to be at church to see and be seen, rather than to hear God’s Word of grace in the Gospel.
This is the work of the Holy Spirit in sanctifying God’s people. “I cannot by my own understanding or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him.” Cranach also shows what true preaching is and how it affects its hearers. Those who have ears to hear are impacted and react, either by looking to Christ for grace, or by turning away from Christ and his Cross. Yes, “Faith comes by hearing.”
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.