What Did Jesus Mean?
On the long walk up the steep hill of the historic castle in Marburg, Germany, nostalgia throbbed through every vein. If only the stones could speak and resonate with the voices that held forth within those confines–what rapture that would provide! Within the rooms of that castle a memorable meeting was held in October of 1529 at which a handful of men, principally Luther and Zwingli, were present. What occasioned that auspicious gathering, and why were the emotions so intense as the moods swung from castigating outbursts to heartfelt apologies?
The question before them was one of consolidating their theological convictions and of presenting a unified platform on what they believed and why they believed it. We read in the summation of those proceedings that of the fifteen points under debate they agreed on fourteen but with great anguish disagreed on the fifteenth. The issue that strongly divided them was the meaning of Jesus’s words “This is my body,” and the significant implications of those words upon the Christian celebration of the Lord’s Supper. To Luther it appeared to be as clear as the day—”This is my body” could only be literal. “Jesus said, ‘This is my body,’” he kept thundering forth. He was not arguing for transubstantiation, although Zwingli saw it as a capitulation to that. To Zwingli the words were only symbolic of Christ’s spiritual presence.
One has only to read the points and counterpoints made between the two and the spirit is stirred by the passion of the reformers. The contest of two different convictions, and the harshness of the words spoken in the heat of argument prompted tears and regret in each as they parted with the hope that the sharp edges of their verbal outbursts would be blunted and gentler words would prevail. Unfortunately, subsequent history unfolds a reality different to their hopes.
Today we marvel at such diatribe between people committed to Christ. But let us not lose sight of something so close to the eye that we may lose focus. For both Zwingli and Luther the fundamental question was unmistakable: What did Jesus mean? That was of supreme importance. To be absolutely sure of the answer to that question on the Lord’s Supper we may have to await the Real Presence when eternity is ushered in. But I strongly suspect that both Zwingli and Luther will be applauded for their unswerving commitment to determine God’s intent.
With the twists and turns of history, Marburg has a more sobering warning to us than a debate in a castle by a handful of reformers. The prestigious University of Marburg was founded just two years before that colloquy. In more recent times it has been the spawning ground for schools of thought that have brought havoc into theological institutions—typically not the intention of the thinker, but sadly often the consequence.
After decades of ministry, one of the deepest concerns I have lies in this twin-headed dilemma—how we approach the Scriptures and how we apply them. So much of faith today is muddied by spiritual jargon. Time and again we hear, “God spoke to me”—a mind-boggling statement, to be sure, not only to the skeptic but to many a serious student of the Word. Could such a claim not just as equally be the spiritual clothing of ambition with the verbiage of inspiration? I have seen some of the most incredible behavior justified with the words “God spoke to me.” How does one argue with that? The only way is to turn to the Scriptures and to verify whether the truth deduced is in keeping with the truth of Scripture, not just personally wrested but objectively revealed to all humanity. Further, if the life and conduct of the one to whom God is “constantly speaking” belies a disjunction between practice in day-to-day living and a precept that is harnessed to justify specific behavior, that one too has amputated the organ of fact from the feeling of faith.
From the beginning of time, the most difficult question confronting humanity was in the words of the tempter, “Did God really say… ?” In a tragic and sometimes subtle sort of way we can jettison that revealed authority or else give lip service to it, breathing our own inspiration into self-chosen paths. May I suggest the latter is more dangerous, for while the former may deny the existence of God, the latter in the name of God, plays God. This may be the most important lesson to learn from the stones of Marburg. To Luther and Zwingli it was important to know what God meant when God said what God said, not what they might like it to mean. Their disagreement was based on the importance of truth. I have little doubt that to many professing Christians the choice between the two schools of thought is clear. The terrifying reality may be that in life and conduct we may be closer to playing God than we realize.
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