Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Erfurt, Germany

My An Arkie's Faith column from the February 28, 2024, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

Someone who knew I had traveled to many places recently asked me a question. They wanted to know my favorite destination I would recommend visiting. That was a difficult question because many areas have left a lasting impression. The answer to that question might change from day to day, but the answer I gave that day was Erfurt, Germany.  

I still remember my first impressions of Erfurt. The tour bus drove down the narrow cobblestone street and stopped in front of an old church. Our tour guide, Bernd, told us that the church was St. Augustine's Church, built over 700 years ago. In 1277, Augustinian Hermits started to build St. Augustine's Church and the monastery complex. He said, "We will spend the weekend inside the historic walls and rooms where monks, including Martin Luther, once lived and prayed." 

Our tour had arranged for us to stay at the Augustinerkloster in Erfurt, Germany. It's a working Lutheran church and cloister used as a conference center with 51 visitor rooms. As I walked toward my room, I soaked in the history of the place and tried to imagine what it would have been like to live here as a monk over five hundred years ago.

After settling into the room, I headed out to explore the old town of Erfurt. The area has been inhabited for thousands of years, but no one knows precisely how old the city is. The earliest written records of Erfurt were from 742 A.D. when a diocese was established there.

German writer Arnold Zweig described Erfurt's charming old quarter as a "picture book of German history." Somehow, the medieval city center emerged relatively unscathed from World War II, after which it became stuck in the strange cocoon of East German communism for half a century. Because of this, Erfurt has a surprising time-capsule quality. Walking through the jumble of narrow alleys and open squares, I tried to visualize the same places during medieval times. 

The picturesque beauty of the Krämerbrücke, or Merchants Bridge, struck me. It's the oldest secular building in town and the longest-inhabited bridge in Europe. Half-timbered houses flank a beautiful cobblestone street. The bridge was constructed in 1325, though most houses date to the 15th century.

My walk through Erfurt culminated in the vast Cathedral Square, dominated by two old churches. As I sat down and soaked up the scene, The sounds of a busy German square enveloped me. Conversations surrounded me as people ate and socialized at the many open-air restaurants around the plaza. Children squealed with delight while they played. I sat on a bench, watching couples quietly conversing and teenagers congregating nearby. 

Even though I was alone, I felt part of a vibrant community. I sat quietly and tried to imagine what it was like five hundred years ago when Martin Luther lived here. The medieval charm of the old city made it easy for my mind to engage in flights of imagination and fill it with the sights and sounds of the 16th century.

After spending the night in the modernized rooms of the over six-hundred-year-old Augustinerkloster, our tour group met the following day to worship in St. Augustine's Church. We had been permitted to worship in the old church Martin Luther had attended as a monk. The church was closed to tourists for one hour, and we had it all to ourselves. Sitting in the beautiful old church and singing Martin Luther’s A Mighty Fortress, I was filled with awe and the history of the place. 

I was reminded of why Martin Luther became a monk who worshipped in this church. The day was July 2, 1505. Martin had recently completed a Master's degree and started his law studies at the University of Erfurt. He was returning to Erfurt after visiting his parents when he was caught in a terrible thunderstorm. Lightning struck near him, and he was thrown to the ground. Fearing for his life, he called to Saint Anne: "I will become a monk!" Much to his father’s dismay, Martin left law school and entered the monastery. 

In 1517, Martin Luther wrote a document attacking the Medieval Church’s corrupt practice of selling indulgences to absolve sin. His “95 Theses” had two central beliefs. The first is that the Bible is the central religious authority, and the second is that salvation is only by faith in Jesus and not by works. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” Ephesians 2:8,9 (NKJV)

As Christians, we want to make Jesus the center of everything. We shouldn’t focus on just portions of the gospel of Jesus; we should teach Jesus in the completeness of his life. Paul addressed this concept in 1 Corinthians 2:1,2 (NLV): "Christian brothers, when I came to you, I did not preach the secrets of God with big sounding words or make it sound as if I were so wise. I made up my mind that while I was with you, I would speak of nothing except Jesus Christ and His death on the cross."

Martin Luther was a champion of the Bible. He spent many years translating the Bible into the vernacular German of the common man. He believed every Christian should read the Bible for himself and that with God's help, each Christian could understand the truths it contained. He wrote, "We must make a great difference between God's Word and the word of man. A man's word is a little sound that flies into the air and soon vanishes, but the Word of God is greater than heaven and earth, yea, greater than death and hell, for it forms part of the power of God, and endures everlastingly." 

Gentle Reader, I want to leave you with these words penned by Luther. "There is no other interpreter of the Word of God than the Author of this Word, as He has said, ‘They will all be taught by God.’ John 6:45 (NCV). Hope for nothing from your own labors, from your own understanding: trust solely in God and in the influence of His Spirit. Believe this on the word of a man who has experience."

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