Andreas Karlstadt: The Forgotten Reformer Remembered

We are coming upon the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, the 500th anniversary of Luther nailing his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenburg church that looked more like a castle. This act was just that – a symbolic act. The actual work of resisting the corruption of the church and its abuses of power, its theological arrogance and secrecy, its matchless wealth and endless displays of it, the resistence was years in the making. And it would be years in the continuing.

What’s also clear Martin Luther was the only reformer, and some argue not even the most significant. The Reformation is full of figures whose name most would not know, figures that nonetheless are intriguing, complex, and powerful, figures that were influential but now are lost to history.

Andreas Karlstadt was such a figure. He is also a figure that is a great example of what to do when ambitions and hopes and dreams went unrealized and shattered even.

Karlstadt was like Luther a professor and priest teaching at Wittenberg University in Germany. He soon joined Luther in his stand against the Catholic Church. But soon Karlstadt grew a little more ardent when it came to the question how far do we move away from the Church as it exists with its corrupt power-politics and theology. He would come to disagree with Luther in this regard. Karlstadt wanted radical change from top to bottom. Karlstadt’s radical stance amounted to the first seeds in what would become known as the Radical Reformation which both the Catholic church and Luther agreed was a step too far.

The Radical Reformation in actuality became more important to America. Those early immigrants who made their way here were Anabaptists, Baptists, Methodists, Quakers, Unitarians, and Universalists. Our young country’s development happened thanks to children of the Radical Reformation.

Still, Andreas Karlstadt is an all but forgotten father of the Radical Reformation.

Anyway, here are some of his views that really changed the conversation and became central to the Radical Reformation and to scores of churches to this day:
  • He rejected the use of clerical vestments, choosing to wear the garb of a peasant even in the pulpit. I wear sneakers and dress casually in the pulpit in his honor, actually. He also rejected being called Father Karlstadt, preferring simply Brother Karlstadt.
  • He called for clerical matrimony, himself marrying. Being happily married for some 23 years and counting, I am thankful for this.
  • He rejected the use of any images – crucifixes, Mary icons, etc. – or overt displays of wealth or even art outside simply crafter wooden pews, pulpits, and structure.
  • He rejected the practice of infant baptism, instead calling for adult baptism for those freely able to express Christian belief
  • He called for Baptism by immersion
  • He called for the minister to expound on scripture in a low-key, meaningful way and for the laity to discuss it in turn.
  • He called for the church to be responsive to the people’s needs and in solidarity with the plight of the common people.
  • He believed Communion was simply a way to remember Jesus and not about the body and blood sacrifice per se.

Karlstadt for a short time ministered a church in the small town of Orlamunde where he enacted all of these reforms. At this church, he officiated the first Reformed communion service.

All of this was a bridge too far for Luther and for Ulrich Zwingli, the other twin tower of the Reformation. It led to ongoing debate between liberal reformer Luther and radical reformer Karlstadt.
When the Peasant Wars arose, Luther felt the heat tremendously. He was blamed for stirring up the masses with his talk of protest and reform. He passed the buck and relieved some pressure by blaming the radicals, namely Karlstadt and another radical reformer named Thomas Muntzer. But Karlstadt, unlike the by-any-means-necessary, including violence, Muntzer was a pacifist who did not condone violence in his advocacy of the peasant class. That did not stop Luther. Karlstadt received the brunt of Luther’s blame and pressure. He was removed from the pulpit, was exiled in no uncertain terms

Things got pretty hard for Karlstadt. So hard that when farming did not suffice in supporting himself and his family, he resorted to street vending to get by.

To end his exile, Luther demanded a published apology for his radical stances, even though the apology was not really true. But even that did not settle the matter. Karlstadt was still despised by the Catholic church and viewed suspiciously by Luther and his supporters. His farming and street vending life wasn’t over.

Imagine yourself in Karlstadt’s peasant shoes. Once a professor and priest with prestige and power. Once standing side to side with Luther and toe to toe with Catholic church leaders countering Luther. Once an important voice in the beginnings of a movement quickly changing the world. Now selling goods on the street and farming to survive.

His name in history followed suit. No one knows his name. Few will mention him as we celebrate the 500th year of the Reformation.

What do you do when all your youthful dreams and ambitions are now memories and unrealized? What do you do when your heart cries out like Terry Malloy in the film On The Waterfront, “I coulda been a contender, I coulda been somebody.”

Karlstadt in the remainder of his life gives us one way to respond, an admirable way, a Jimmy Carter kind of way.

Karlstadt fled the scene and moved to Switzerland and returned to ministry. He ministered to people living lives not unlike his. He took his perceived nobodiness, saw that it mirrored the poor and the peasants around him and in the pews. He joined them, ministered to them while walking beside them. He pastored not just in peasant clothes but in actual solidarity, as one of them, born of the same heartache and hurt.

Karlstadt exemplified this in his death too. He died on Christmas Day 1641 after being infected with the bubonic virus during the time of the Bubonic Plague. He gave his life ministering to the dying. “No greater love than this, than a man lay down his life for a friend.”

Yes, this world tends to not long remember these kinds of act that do not reward with fame or fortune. History is written by the winners about the winners.

Thankfully, heaven goes first to those who gave away their life, who emptied their self for the sake of another. And one of the tasks of the church is to remember kindness and sacrifice in a world that forgets these things.

As for us, amid our own real hurts and unrealized hopes, we are presented with the same all around us. We are in turn moved by God, perhaps with an inner voice that says “Go to it. Give of yourself for the sake of others.” Go to it, Terry Malloy. Yes, you are sad about what could have been, but go help bring down the criminal racket around ruining the neighborhood. Yes, Jimmy Carter, you’ve lost the presidency and are heartbroken, but go build homes for the homeless even at 92, even if you are fighting cancer, even if the risk is dehydration and collapse. Yes, Andreas Karlstadt, yes, you are not Martin Luther nor remembered much in history, but go, stand with the poor and minister to the sick.

Yes, we may be sad. Yes, we may be weary. Yes, we may be hurt or horrified or heartbroken. But let us go and see the same in others all around us and walk the journey together. This is how hope – lasting hope, heavenly hope – is secured.

The Anti-Family Values of Jesus

For I have come to turn
‘a man against his father,
    a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
  a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’
Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me." 
  -  (Matthew 10:35-38)

Jesus’ take on the family in Matthew 10 seems from an initial reading as rather harsh, doesn’t it? Remember hearing a lot about family values in our politics? Interestingly, you don’t hear as much about it anymore. I wonder why?But Jesus seems to be dismissing family values. In fact, he seems to be condemning family values. He seems out to destroy families. In the least, he seems out to divide families. What is this about?
Well, let’s look a little deeper at what Jesus is really criticizing. It’s something he criticizes a lot in the gospels.

Do you all know what a pyramid scheme is? Basically, it is an illegal but common business scheme where there is one guy at the top who is in control and wealthy. This guy gets people to sell something of his and he takes a big portion of the money they sell. More levels of people selling things follow with the money flowing up through all those above and a lot into the big guy at the tops pocket. It is sort of trickle-down economics in reverse. Most of the money made at the bottom levels through the sale of a product, that money trickles back up, filling the coffers of those above.
This kind of pyramid scheme, but on a society scale, is everywhere in Jesus’ time.
The result is rigid, institutionalized hierarchy. This hierarchy that society’s pyramid scheme has built, it means a huge divide between those at the top and those below. The Big Man is at the top, there is a clear line between the top and the levels below. And whatever power, wealth or betterment there is to be had, a big portion goes to the top. 
This structure applies even to the family in Ancient Palestine. In fact, it starts in the family of Jesus’ time. The father ruled the roost. It was a heavily patriarchal society. The father was the king in the family. The mother was well below, followed just a little bit in the order of things by the oldest son. Younger sons follow, then the oldest sister, then younger sisters. At the very bottom are daughter-in-laws, beginning with the one who marries the oldest son and lives with the immediate family.
And Jesus does not like this set-up one bit! He deplores it, in fact. This is the style of family Jesus is referring to in Matthew 10. It was basically a family pyramid scheme. He hated all pyramid schemes even though they defined how things were in his society. He hated this set-up so much that he wanted to topple it, turn things on their head, upend the pyramid. And he calls on his disciples to join him in toppling, in this upending.
Jesus talks over and over again about a new paradigm. One to replace the pyramid schemes everywhere. The new paradigm of the Kingdom of God.
This new paradigm begins with God as Father not above us but with us.
The Father God Jesus shows us is unlike the fathers defined by his culture. In fact, the Father God Jesus shows us is countercultural. This Father God possessed motherly qualities. This Father God, according to Jesus, was as feminine as he was masculine by his culture’s standards. This was revolutionary to those listening to Jesus. It is no wonder the religious authorities were shocked and offended. The way Jesus referred to God as Father and as a father that was so motherly, it was a shock to the religious system.
What’s more, this God comes down to the lowest levels of society and lifts-up the lowest, the least, and last. This God comes down to earth to topple and crush the pyramids everywhere. Crush the pyramids into a road leading to the Kingdom of God, a kingdom marked by equality among all, by justice for all and compassion toward all.
This toppling Jesus calls for must happen from top to bottom. This toppling means the traditional family system is upended. The traditional family system, based on rigid hierarchy and a pyramid scheme like approach, Jesus has come to turn this kind of family on its head.
The aim of this upending is that love itself becomes the center of the home. The aim is family life built on the equilibrium and equalizer of Love. In this new paradigm, Father-Mother comes down to the children’s level and collaborates to create a new way. Children are no longer obliged to adorn the patriarch with honor and respect but instead look to the reality of a loving relationship with their parents for meaning and purpose, and out of relationship honor and respect naturally comes. Mother-in-law and daughter-in-law join hands and throw the letter of the law away for the spirit of Love.
Jesus envisions a beloved community, beginning with a new way of doing family and moving outward, a beloved community where all meet at the center of Love, where God equalizes and evens out all disparities and divisions, where authority is shared and collaboration is a way of life, even between parent and children.

I close with maybe the most difficult verses of Matthew 10, vs. 37-38, where Jesus says if you love your parents or your children more than me, you are not worthy of me.
The love Jesus wants, the one he wants his disciples to have toward their parents and toward him, their teacher, is not a sentimental, attachment sort of love. The kind of love Jesus wants us to show is the love that God shows. Jesus wants us to love others, including our parents or our children, with the same love that God loves us with. The Love that God loves us with is known as Agape Love. It is an eternal, unconditional love, the profoundest love marked by grace and forgiveness, by tenderness and tenacity. It is a love that knows no greater or lesser, no more or less. It is a love that knows no boundaries. If we love our parents and our children with this love and we love Jesus with this kind of love, it is the same love. 

So with Agape love there is no loving anyone more than another. With Agape love, there is no loving father or child more than loving our teacher. Love for parent or child, if a godly love, partakes of the same love shown for Christ or for God. There is just one love and the loving another with this one love. That is the goal a disciple of Jesus should have and seek after, a love that makes real equality, justice, and compassion. Will such a love ever be perfected in us? Not in this life. Will we naturally love our parents and especially our children more than we love an abstract idea of God? Of course. But know this: the journey of loving one another with the one Love of God, that is the singular destination. The better we love our parents and our children, the better we love God. For there is One Love and it works through all the universe and in our loving of another.

Father, Meet Defiance

Matthew 10:28 Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

Corey used to have this thing where he’d bolt out the front door of the parsonage. He’d bolt out and run right onto Creamery Hill Road. When it first happened, we were very firm and expressed our fear. When it happened again, we were beside ourselves.

Every parent regularly deals with this. It is the true test. It is the true test for anyone dealing with children. What do you do when a child defies your direction? How do you handle plain, ole defiance?

The Bible looks at this dilemma often in the Bible. There are stories and psalms that describes how God handles the defiant.

How does God handle it? How does the Father of all deal with it?

Well, for the really defiant, those who defy God without pause, I was taught growing up, maybe like you were, that God gets pretty severe. In the words of Max Lucado, “hell is reserved for those who defy God and rebel.”

Jesus in Matthew 10:28 seems to allude to this too. But does he?

Now there is so much to say about Matthew 10:28. For example, if we do a word for word translation of the ancient Greek, we get this:

“No afraid of the kill the body but no kill the soul. But rather afraid the capable destroy both body and soul.”

There are no pronouns in the verse. No “those” or “the one” specifically compared as we see in the English translation – don’t be afraid of those who can kill the body; be afraid of the who can kill the body and the soul.

Even if we add in the pronouns, it is still unclear who is the “those” or who is “the one.” It is not clear the one equals God.

The Greek words also have different translations. The word translated “afraid of” is not the word usually associated with fear of God. It is not a strong fear in the original Greek. More like a significant concern.

And you know the verse later in Matthew 10, whoever loses his life shall find it? Well, the same word translated loses – and thus able to found – in that famous verse is translated as destroys in vs. 28. Destroys is final; loses is not. And similarly the word translated “life” in vs. 39  is translated “soul” in vs. 28.

So we can translate the original Greek like this: Be not really concerned about the one who can lose the body but not the life, but rather be really concerned about the one who can lose both body and the life.

Again, the original Greek is much less clear-cut than the English translations we read.

Then there is the word translated “hell.” In the original Greek, the word is Gehenna. Gehenna was a real place outside of Jerusalem in Jesus’ time. It was a trash heap with a sordid present and an even more sordid history. In Jesus’ time, trash, animal carcasses, even crucified bodies were thrown in Gehenna. In the past, before it became a dump, it was the place where ancient Jews once sacrificed their children to Babylonian idols. In other words, it represented the most hellish place on earth for the Jews of Jesus’ day. It represented the place where bodies burned in the present and where the soul of the Jewish people once died in its worst sin in history.

The spiritual meaning found in Gehenna is this: in ancient Judaism, which Jesus is part of, Gehenna is for "the spiritual purification and correction of the wicked dead.” It is temporary and corrective, and eventually ends in reconciliation with the Father.

If I were to offer up an interpretation of Matthew 10:28, I would say Jesus is not referring to God at all in Matthew 10:28, but to the earthly authorities. Jesus, talking to his disciples, says do not be so concerned with the Roman Empire who can kill the body. Be more concerned with the religious hierarchy, the Pharisees’ sharia-like court called the Sanhedrin, which can kill both the physical body and the religious life like they did back in Babylon when they allowed the sacrifice of Jewish children to idols at Gehenna.


But let’s go back to the question what kind of Father God is and what the Father does with those who defy him.

Here are versions of the same story and you can choose which one describes the loving Father Jesus was at one with.

A father had two sons. The rebellious one demanded his inheritance early, took the money and ran off. He lived the wild and sinful life, wasted his money away, and fell from grace to profound desperation. He suffered in the pit with the pigs, a picture of hell (remember the demon possessed pigs in Matthew 8?). The son was starving on the outside and was dead inside.  His father eventually found him there. He looked at the shell of his son and judged him severely. As punishment, he left him there in the pig’s pit and assured that his son would not be able to leave but suffer there forever. The father returned home to his favored son and they lived happily ever after.

That is version number 1, the version traditional Christians with a traditional view of hell would tell.

Here is slightly tweaked version preferred by some traditions:

A father had two sons. The rebellious one demanded his inheritance early, took the money and ran off. He lived the wild and sinful life, wasted his money away, and fell from grace to profound desperation. He suffered in the pit with the pigs. He was starving on the outside and was dead inside.  His father eventually found him there. He looked at his shell of a son and judged him further by leaving him there to die alone for his defiance. The father returned to his favored son and they lived happily ever after.

Then there is this one, the one found in Luke 15:

A father had two sons. The rebellious one demanded his inheritance earlier, took the money and ran off. He lived the wild and sinful life, wasted his money away, and fell from grace to profound desperation. He suffered in the pit with the pigs but wasn’t even given their food. He was starving on the outside and dead inside.  The father eventually secured his location and kept track of him from afar, hoping the hell he was experiencing would change his heart. It did. The son realized how gone astray he was and returned home. The father saw his prodigal son in the distance, and ran to meet him. Fueled with grace, he welcomed him home with a feast. He talked to his other son who resisted this kind of compassion and said you too welcome him. For he once was lost, but now is found.

You choose. Which story describes a loving Father, the one Jesus saw?