- Kurt K. Hendel, Translator
Martin Luther’s significance as a theologian and reformer of the church has been universally recognized. His theological writings and the reform movement that he inspired continue to be studied and discussed, especially by the theological and scholarly worlds, and important anniversaries of his life consistently inspire a variety of literary productions and celebrative events. The four-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of his death is no exception.
Luther’s final project brought him back to his birthplace, Eisleben. In spite of failing health, he accepted the difficult task of mediating a persistent and bitter dynastic feud that strained the relationship of the two Counts of Mansfeld, both of whom were loyal supporters of the Reformation. Previous attempts at finding a resolution had failed. Nevertheless, Luther decided to participate in another effort early in the year 1546 even though it necessitated a trip to Eisleben, where the Counts’ representatives agreed to meet. He left Wittenberg on January 23, accompanied by at least two of his sons and his secretary, Johannes Aurifaber. His former colleague at the University of Wittenberg and now bishop of Halle, Justus Jonas, also joined the entourage. It was a difficult journey for Luther, exacerbated by the inclement weather, the flooded river Saale, and especially his physical ailments. The party arrived in Eisleben on January 29, 1546.
The following weeks proved to be taxing ones for the already debilitated Luther. The discussions among the feuding parties were lengthy, often tedious, and at times contentious. While the disagreements were finally resolved by mid-February, largely due to Luther’s mediation, the negotiations took their toll on the Reformer. It is possible to reconstruct Luther’s final days on the basis of a detailed report prepared by two of his companions in Eisleben: his friend Justus Jonas and the court preacher of Count Albrecht of Mansfeld, Michael Coelius. On February 15, Luther preached what would be his last sermon, based on Matthew 11:25-30, in which he discussed the Christian’s calling to bear Christ’s yoke. He could not finish the sermon, however, because his strength failed him. During the evening of February 17, Luther experienced several episodes of chest pains, and his friends and children gathered around him, sensing the seriousness of his condition. In the early hours of February 18, Jonas asked him: “Reverend father, will you stand firm in Christ and the doctrine you have preached?” Luther responded with a clearly audible: “Yes.” Shortly after making his final confession, he died.
Two memorial services were celebrated in Eisleben at St. Andrew’s Church. Justus Jonas preached in the first, on February 19, and called the people to repentance at this time of great loss. A second service was held the following morning, with the Rev. Coelius echoing Jonas’ admonition. In the afternoon of February 20, the entourage that accompanied Luther’s body began its journey to Wittenberg and arrived two days later. Luther’s body was interred in the Castle Church, in front of the pulpit. During the service, also held in the Castle Church, Philip Melanchthon and Johann Bugenhagen eulogized the Reformer. The latter’s sermon is reproduced and translated in this pamphlet.
Bugenhagen was a logical choice to deliver one of the homilies. The Pomeranian Reformer had come to Wittenberg in 1521 in order to study with Luther and to join the Reformation movement. He quickly became a member of the inner circle of Wittenberg theologians and emerged as one of the most important leaders of the Lutheran Reformation. In 1523 he was chosen as pastor of St. Mary’s Church, the city church in Wittenberg, in part because of Luther’s strong recommendation. It was in this calling that he became Luther’s pastor and spiritual counselor. Bugenhagen cared for his mentor and colleague and provided him with sound practical and spiritual advice during Luther’s persistent spiritual struggles (Anfechtungen) . He also became a highly effective proponent of the Reformation, especially through his organizational efforts in various cities and territories of northern Germany as well as in Denmark. Luther trusted his friend and pastor with his most intimate spiritual concerns, while Bugenhagen deeply respected Luther’s powerful proclamation of the Gospel, his faithful witness to Christ, and his ardent opposition to all adversaries of the Reformation movement. Bugenhagen mourned the loss of his friend, but he also gloried and rejoiced in the blessings God had granted, particularly to the church, through Martin Luther. The Pomeranian Reformer’s profound faith, his pastoral sensitivity, his deep respect for his colleague, and his lofty opinion of Luther’s significance are all apparent in the sermon presented here.
Kurt K. Hendel