Society was very different 500 years ago. Royals weren’t just ceremonial back then. They had real power and they worked closely with the clergy, many of whom were very well-to-do. Many “commoners” had little control over their own lives. Before the Reformation, people were grouped into three estates—clergy, nobility, and the common people. (This, by extension, is where we get the term fourth estate for the media, who in theory keep the others in check.) In medieval Roman Catholicism, these three estates were not just secular designations. In fact, nothing was considered particularly secular back then. Church and state overlapped, and everyone in every territory was under their rule. The clergy were considered closest to God (and most likely to get through purgatory to heaven faster). The nobility were also higher up the ladder of closeness to God. The ordinary folks, well, you get the picture.
While there were plenty of corrupt people ruling in church and state, the ultimate goal of both rulers and commoners, at least outwardly, was to get to heaven after this short life. Before the Reformation, most believed this involved getting an infusion of grace from God and then working hard to attain paradise. Since justification and salvation weren’t God’s free gifts but rather required our own earned merits, clergy, including monks and nuns, were considered to be doing more of the things that could add to the basket of credits God expected people to produce to pay off demerits assigned for sins. Kings, knights, mayors, electors, and emperors were ruling by “divine right,” serving in God’s stead. This was believed to make them closer to God also.
Everyone else was further from God. If you were married, unlike clergy and monastics, you were devoted to your spouse and children instead of fully to God (Demerit). If you were a merchant selling goods in a store, a miner or mine owner like Luther’s father, or worked sowing and harvesting grain out in the fields of some knight, you were considered to be devoted to unspiritual things (Demerit).
So it was a completely radical idea—one that forever changed the western world—when Luther rediscovered the doctrine of vocation, the teaching of the priesthood of all believers. St. Peter wrote, But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9 NKJV). Peter spoke those encouraging words to each and every person who believes in Jesus as his or her Savior, no matter what “estate” they were in. This newly rediscovered idea changed the world by telling lowly commoners how important they were in God’s eyes. Today, we take it for granted that “all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Yet those words from the Declaration of Independence would likely never have been penned had not the Reformation succeeded 250 years earlier.
More importantly, the doctrine of vocation—the priesthood of all believers—forever changes each of us. Through a proper understanding of justification, we know that we are declared completely righteous in God’s sight through faith in Jesus’ perfect life and merits in our place. We understand by faith that we are completely washed clean of our sins through our baptism into Jesus’ death on our behalf. Therefore, no matter what station or role we occupy in this life, there are no more merits left to earn to get into heaven. Thus, we understand that through faith, we are all close to God. God loves us all equally as His dear children for Jesus’ sake. After all, we are Jesus’ own brothers and sisters, and God is our dear Father in heaven. Now, as royal priests, we give thanks to God with our lives and our words. We “proclaim the praises of Him who called” us.
And here was perhaps the most radical part of Luther’s rediscovery: Everyone has a vocation—a calling from God—not just priests and monks. That means that the cobbler, the seamstress, the stonemason, and the miner—each of them is doing God’s work by bringing to their neighbor the gifts of God, such as shoes, clothing, housing, and heating fuel. In Luther’s explanation of the first article of the Apostles’ Creed, we confess that these things all come from God. But God gives them to us through our fellow men and women. Therefore, Luther taught that God is hiding behind the mask of our neighbor to give them to us. They are serving God by going about their daily tasks. Even more radical, but Biblical, Luther pointed out that they were doing more godly work than those ensconced behind monastery walls. Mothers nursing their babies, fathers changing diapers, daughters studying their lessons to grow up into useful citizens are all serving God, fulfilling their calling in life by doing God’s work for others.
This Scripture doctrine led monks and nuns to abandon their monasteries and convents. It led Katie von Bora to Wittenberg, asking Luther to find husbands for her fellow nuns who had, like her, escaped, smuggled out of their convent in herring barrels. The newfound doctrine of vocation finally resulted in Katie finding her own husband, Martin Luther, and doing the godly work of bringing children into the world, raising them, managing the garden and farm animals and household expenses, chiding Luther when he was a bit too generous, and brewing beer in the cellar for Luther and his table talks—all to the glory of God! What a glorious vocation she had!
Sadly, wherever the Gospel is proclaimed, the devil raises his hackles and rushes in. The newfound insight into the value of everyman led to the Peasants’ Revolt and ultimately to false propagandists of the former German Democratic Republic (communist East Germany) claiming Luther was the forefather of communism.
Luther’s doctrine of vocation ought to bring great joy into our lives today by reminding each of us that it is God who called us into the various roles and stations we occupy. Just as clergy can rest assured that God has called them to the people they serve, whether in a big city or a town that hasn’t yet been charted on Google Maps, so also every individual Christian can rejoice in the knowledge that they are serving Jesus right where God placed them by serving their neighbor as father, mother, son or daughter, farmer, educator, policeman, or store clerk. As we gather around God’s good gifts, offered us weekly in Word and Sacrament, God fuels us up to be His hands and feet to our neighbor for yet another week.
Do you remember Jesus’ description of the Last Judgment? “‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’ Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me” (Matthew 25:34–36, 40 NKJV).
Reverend Timothy H. Buelow
Faith Lutheran Church
* Member, ELS Board for World Outreach