Luther in the 1527 pandemic

FROM THE STANDS - Domini M. Torrevillas - The Philippine Star

Attending church during the pandemic online, parishioners of the Church of the Risen Lord in UP Diliman listened to the guest preacher speak about Martin Luther last Sunday, which Protestants all over the world observe as Reformation Sunday. It was a timely topic, bringing to the virtual listeners’ minds and hearts  the story of Luther as an example of a “frontliner” during the bubonic plague of 1527.

The speaker, Rev. Immanuel Ilagan, has a Master of Theological Studies from the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, California and an engineering degree from the University of the Philippines. He was ordained by the Lutheran Church in the Philippines and commissioned to head an international Christian humanitarian organization in Cambodia. He and his wife are currently residing in Carmona, Cavite.

Rev. Ilagan said Martin Luther served as a “frontliner” during the epidemic in his home town.

The 1527 bubonic plague or Black Death had killed millions in Europe and afflicted Luther’s home town of Wittenberg. The plague did not infect all of Germany but only certain cities. “Medical science was not yet developed at that time so the best way to avoid the deadly plague was to escape to an uninfected place,” said the pastor.

The people, including the church leaders, were naturally afraid for their lives and that of their families. Pastors faced the ethical question of whether to leave their parishes to save themselves or stay and continue their ministry. They asked Luther for his advice. Said Rev. Ilagan: “Luther said that saving one’s life was not bad in itself; the Apostle Paul and King David escaped to save themselves when their lives were threatened. Pastors could leave but they must ensure there was someone to take care of their flock. Otherwise, they must stay. “Meanwhile, the pastors who decide to stay and continue their ministry must take necessary precautions to avoid infection.”

During the time of the epidemic Luther was 44 years old, his wife was pregnant and his young son was sick. But Luther decided to stay. He converted his house, which was a small monastery, into a temporary hospital and provided pastoral care to the sick and dying. He became a “frontliner.”

Let’s listen to Pastor Ilagan: “Luther did not spiritualize his response to the plague and think that his Christian faith would make him immune from the disease. He took health precautions by fumigating the areas, purifying the air, taking medicines and avoiding places where his presence was not needed.

“For Luther the ‘bottom line’ was LOVE for one’s neighbor. Whatever one did, LOVE was to be the motivation.

“Today the pandemic has caused us much hardship and pain. People have gotten sick or even died; some have lost their jobs or closed down their businesses. One pastor in Cavite whom I know had to take a pay cut of 70 percent.  And now the pandemic is taking a toll on our mental health as we quarantine ourselves, miss our friends and relatives or restrict even worshipping together in church. In a sense the pandemic has become like a ‘thorn in the flesh’ – a source of pain, suffering and hardship that prevents us from living life in its fullness.

“St. Paul had a thorn in the flesh. It bothered him so much that he asked God three times to remove it. But God said ‘No’ to Paul; instead God said, ‘Paul, my grace is sufficient for you.’”

“Grace” is one of the key words of the Reformation, said Ilagan. “Lutherans and other Protestants talk about the three ‘SOLAS’ – Sola Gratia, salvation by God’s grace alone; Sola Scriptura, Scripture alone as source of faith and conduct; and Sola Fide, salvation through faith in Christ alone.”

After the plague subsided in Luther’s town the people criticized Luther and the pastors who stayed for being too reckless; they accused Luther of risking the health of his pregnant wife, his son and his own.

But they also criticized the pastors who fled to other towns to escape the plague. They accused the pastors of deserting their flock.

The behavior of the critics is an example of what grace IS NOT, said Ilagan. It is “ungrace” – the lack of gratitude, bad-mouthing others or passing judgment on the motives of people. Perhaps “ungrace” has been done to us; or perhaps we have done acts of “ungrace” to others. “Ungrace” seems to come naturally to us human beings.

We are all familiar with the Benediction that says: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all (II Cor. 13:14).” What is this “grace of the Lord Jesus Christ”?

Ilagan told of the day Jesus and His disciples attended a wedding celebration – a big event for the Jews. In Jewish wedding celebrations, wine was essential to the festivities. Running out of wine was not an option; it was totally unacceptable, a gross violation of hospitality.

And so it happened that wine ran out during this wedding celebration and Jesus was informed about it. Jesus knew the impact of the problem – the blame-fixing by the bride on the groom for poor planning, the groom blaming the bride’s family for their unreasonable demands, in-laws arguing, the embarrassment and shame of the two families, and so on.

“So Jesus came to help; He turned the water into wine. That is the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ – He is sensitive to our needs. He is concerned about our mundane needs like food and drink – our daily bread. He cares about our relationships with loved ones and other people. He cares for both our material and spiritual needs (John 2:1-11).

“Today we talk about ‘social distancing.’ The disciples of Jesus also tried to practice social distancing but for the wrong motive. They tried to prevent children from going to Jesus. They thought children would just bother Jesus from His teaching.

“But Jesus rebuked them and told them ‘Let the children come.’ That is the grace of Jesus. He reaches out to the lowly and the disadvantaged and those in the margins of society. He welcomes everyone who comes to Him in humble faith (Mt. 19:13-15).

“The Christian author Philip Yancey makes this observation: In the stories that Jesus tells, He makes the ‘wrong person’ the hero. For example, the prodigal son turns out to be the hero, not the responsible older brother; the Samaritan is the one Jesus lifts up, not the temple priest; the beggar Lazarus is the one who goes to Abraham’s bosom, not the rich man.

“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ reverses our understanding of who should receive praise and adulation. The grace of Christ is not for those who are strong and satisfied with themselves and consider themselves ‘deserving.’ The grace of Christ is for those who admit their spiritual poverty and need for God.

“The Lord Jesus Christ demonstrated the ultimate act of grace on the cross. What happened on the cross was not fair; it was not just. It is us who should have been there on Calvary. But Jesus offered Himself on the cross for our sake, not because of any merit on our part but simply out of His great love for us. Let us not look for any logic or reason for His sacrifice on the Cross. There is none.”

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Email: [email protected]

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