Searching for the Real Martin Luther

c. 2012 Religion News Service


DURHAM, N.C. (RNS) Protestants have traditionally celebrated Oct. 31 as the anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation, a movement that divided Western Christendom and gave birth to such diverse religious groups as Lutherans, Presbyterians, Anglicans and Mennonites.

On Oct. 31, 1517, an Augustinian friar named Martin Luther nailed 95 theses for debate on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, and so sparked a religious reform even he could not control.    But Luther’s public life actually began five years earlier, 500 years ago this week, on Oct. 19, 1512, when he finished his formal theological education and was installed as a professor of Bible at a relatively new and still unprestigious Catholic university in Saxony.

No one, least of all his patrons, expected this soft-spoken young man with a tenor voice and a bubbling sense of humor to turn into a religious bomb thrower, whose theological convictions would alter the religious and political structures of Europe for five centuries. Indeed, no one could have been more astonished by this unexpected development than Luther himself.

Luther’s enemies once described him as a seven-headed monster and suggested that he had been conceived by a prostitute through sexual union with a demon. Others, somewhat more temperate in tone, characterized him as a man utterly lacking in religious seriousness, an arch-heretic who attacked Catholic teaching concerning indulgences in order to win a bet.

At the same time, no one inspired a more ferocious loyalty among his followers than Luther. His friends called him a prophet and teacher of true Christianity, who inaugurated a new age in the history of the church. He was hailed as a champion of the freedom of the human conscience, as a defender of German national identity, and as the skilled translator whose German Bible lies at the foundation of the modern German language.

Mass media in the English-speaking world have found Luther’s story fascinating. No less than three movies have been made of his life over the last 60 years. Yet each fails to capture Luther in all his charismatic complexity.

The first appeared in 1953 and cast Irish actor Niall MacGinnis in the title role. MacGinnis captured the warmth of Luther’s personality, though not his irrepressible sense of humor. His portrayal underlined Luther’s stubborn and uncompromising refusal to bow to the worried pleas of his friends or the threats of his enemies.

The second movie, released in 1974, featured an impressive cast, including Stacy Keach as Luther and Dame Judi Dench as his wife, Katherine. The original play by John Osborne portrayed Luther as an angry young man in a hurry, whose conflicts with the Catholic Church seemed to be an extension of his fierce conflicts with his father.

The third movie, directed by Eric Till in 2003, featured Joseph Fiennes as Luther and Sir Peter Ustinov as Elector Frederick the Wise. Till saw in Luther’s story a conflict between a repressive conservative institution (in this case, the medieval Catholic Church) and a more liberal and liberating movement (in this case, the Reformation, which with all its violence and disorder marked for Till an advance over the conservative structures it attacked). For Till, Luther is a symbol of an enlightened spirit in an unenlightened age, an age not altogether unlike our own.

Perhaps out of respect for the serious tone of the plot, Fiennes played Luther as an intense, uncertain, humorless and generally liberal cleric, who could tear a passion to tatters, but whose claim to suffer fits of depression sounded more like acute dyspepsia than a bout of soul-wracking melancholy.

Still, there must have been more to the “real Luther” than the uncertain young friar Fiennes creates. Neurotic introverts seldom change the world. And whatever his flaws, Luther was no introvert. He was a great rollicking figure, a creature larger than life, who filled a room with his presence before he uttered a word. He enjoyed good beer, lively conversation, and the sound of hearty laughter. Till’s Luther was certainly brave and in many respects admirable, but remained throughout a diminutive and monochromatic copy of the colorful and boisterous original.

In the end, only MacGinnis in the 1953 film portrayed a leader someone would be willing to follow. Twenty years later, Keach’s leadership, such as it was, was all passion and angry denunciation with no clear direction forward. And Fiennes seemed far too uncertain to lead. But MacGinnis’ Luther attracted followers by the force of his personality and set them in motion on the trail he was blazing.

Judging from these three movies, finding and portraying the “real Luther” in film has not been a task for the faint of heart. Yet wherever the German language is spoken, wherever Protestants (and Catholics) gather for religious services or social action, and wherever the political history of Europe is told (including its darker sides), the ghost of Martin Luther is present and cannot be avoided.

It’s too bad that no movie has as yet been able to capture more than a small part of that culturally important story.

About the Author: (David C. Steinmetz is the Kearns Distinguished Professor Emeritus of the History of Christianity at the Divinity School of Duke University in Durham, N.C.)

Editor’s Note: The 1953 film is owned jointly by the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in the form of Lutheran Film Associates. The 2002 film received financial backing and production assistance from Thrivent Financial for Lutherans.

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Pastor’s Blog April 9

PenguinsHi,   come hear Pastor Don Piper tomorrow night, you’ll be blessed more than a pack of penguins. In fact, you will be surprised and so will your family! We are looking forward to seeing you then. Don’t miss it!

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Don Piper was our special guest in April

On his way home from a church conference in 1989, Don Piper’s Ford Escort was struck head-on by an 18-wheeler. He was killed instantly — pronounced dead by four sets of paramedics. Shortly after the accident, a pastor from the same conference arrived on the scene and began praying for “the man in the red car.” God worked a miracle and sent Don back to a now-broken body. To date, 34 surgical procedures have taken place. He walks only as a result of miraculous and in some cases medically unexplainable circumstances. During the time he was dead, Piper was granted the extreme privilege of glimpsing Heaven itself.

Since the release of his bestselling book co-authored with his writing partner Cecil Murphey,90 Minutes in Heaven – a True Story of Death and Life (Fleming Revell, 90_minutes_in_heaven2004), Don has traveled across the country and around the world sharing his amazing story. His message is simple … We can have a better life now and an eternal life someday through faith in Jesus Christ! In three years, Don has reached millions of people through his writing and speaking. A second book released in late 2006, Daily Devotions Inspired by 90 Minutes of Heaven(Berkeley), contains heartwarming stories compiled from his extensive travel and personal ministry. Don’s third book, Heaven Is Real: Lessons on Earthly Joy, from the Man Who Spent 90 Minutes in Heaven (Berkeley), was released in August 2007.

Don Piper Ministries is dedicated to spreading the Gospel through one-day rallies, conferences, and revivals via Don’s remarkable testimony delivered in print and in person. Currently booking dates into 2011, Don Piper Ministries continues to trust the Lord as He guides these efforts, changing lives and healing hearts.

Don Piper Ministries is a non-profit 501(C)3 organization.

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Faith Lutheran Carpentersville

Faith Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod

Sunday Services 10:00 AM

2525 Helm Rd Carpentersville, IL 60110

(847) 428-2079.

Come visit this Sunday! We would love to see you. A Church home in your neighborhood. Many events coming this Spring and Summer. Please stop in for a Sunday visit.


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Abortion and the Gospel

I recently had the opportunity to hear a presentation by a well-known prolife speaker on abortion. The argument against abortion, he said, lay in the answer to the question “Is the fetus a human being or not?” In meticulous fashion he presented his case which in substance said that if you can prove to an abortion proponent or a woman considering abortion that the fetus is a human being you have won your argument. Winning means that the proponent will give up his case or a woman considering abortion will not submit to an abortion.

Perhaps it is that I spent twenty years as hospital chaplain counseling, among others, women in their decision making that I find this argument overstated. Of all the women I counseled who were considering abortion I never had one tell me she did not believe the fetus within her was a human being. In fact, she would have thought it naive of me that I would even press the point. She would have said, “Of course, it is human, but I don’t want to be pregnant.”

In the non-Lutheran presentation referred to above, what struck me was the overbearance of Law and the absence of Gospel. Hammering away with rational explanation, the speaker concluded with an in-your-face video hideously depicting torn fetal body parts, all of which shattered any further reasonable discussion of the issue. Lutheran theology claims, and rightly so, that Law doesn’t transform people, the Gospel does. Women considering abortion are usually in crisis and the crisis needs to be addressed with attempts at healing. If addressed with compassion and truth spoken gently in the name of Christ who gave himself for desperate sinful men and women, the heart might be won over. Even if not, the path has at least been prepared a way for repentance to follow later. The Church needs to speak boldly against abortion, but more boldly still about the love of Christ for sinners considering and perhaps even participating in abortion.

About the Author: Dr. Richard C. Eyer is the retired director of pastoral care for Columbia Hospital, Milwaukee, Wis., and emeritus professor and director of the Concordia Bioethics Institute at Concordia University Wisconsin. He is the author of Marriage Is Like Dancing (CPH, 2007).

Reprinted from May 2000


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A Response to the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife

by Paul L. Maier

As for the so-called “Wife of Jesus Gospel” (so-named by its discoverer, Harvard professor Karen King), while the document is in-teresting, it is only another of the long string of Gnostic writings that have been surfacing ever since 1947. Like all the others, it is of little or no use as authentic source material on Jesus. All Gnos-tic writings are late derivatives from the true Gospels and regular-ly offer information that runs counter to the mass of reliable evi-dence on Jesus.

This notion of a married Jesus–even if the recent text proves authentic–has no value whatsoever, other than to show how aberrant were some of the views among heretical quasi-Christians in the second, third and fourth centuries after Christ. This zero-value as authentic history is typical of all such Gnostic writings that re-cently have received far more attention than they deserved by those who promote sensation rather than scholarship. The Early Church had a big problem dealing with heretical groups that tried to pervert the image of Jesus, and the modern church is now encountering the same.

While Professor King is careful not to make claims beyond the evidence, one wonders why she announced her find before any authen-ticity tests were conducted on the document. And why did she give the document so sensational a title? I also find it significant that some in the faculty at Harvard Divinity School are known propo-nents of the Gnostic writings as reliable sources for the life of Jesus. Professor King herself wonders if the traditional information on Jesus was not a “mastery story” that forcibly excluded contrary views, such as those in the Gnostic gospels.

It is high time that any thralldom to the Gnostic writings be abandoned. Most of that material is recondite, visionary, hydra-headed, apocalyptic, mostly incomprehensible and riddled with impos-sibilities. Let one example suffice: The Gospel of Thomas, which is universally regarded as the most cogent and important of the Gnostic literature, ends with the claim that Jesus will turn Mary Magdalene into a man so that she may attain to the Kingdom of God. Such a ri-diculous statement is now paralleled with the claim that Mary was Jesus’ wife . . . evidently before he turned her into a man!

About the Author:

Dr. Paul L. Maier is third vice-president of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.


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Born again!

by Paul Sieveking


In his autobiography, the actor Sir Alec Guiness wrote about his confirmation day. His head was full of Bible stories and doctrine. The church was filled with parents, sponsors and friends. “I remember white hands and shaggy black eyebrows, a pale green light filtered through the windows, and at the age of 16, one early summer day, I arose from under the hands of the bishop a confirmed atheist. With a flash, I realized that I had never really believed what I had been taught.”

His story bothers me because it sounds too familiar.

His story is much like the story of Nicodemus, another man who struggled to believe. Nicodemus was a Jew, a teacher, a Pharisee and a member of the Jewish ruling council. He knew the right answers. He kept all the rules. He performed all the rituals. Yet, something was still missing. He wanted more.

He went to Jesus to talk about religion. He simply shared the reasonable conclusion he had drawn from what he had seen, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.” Now it was up to Jesus to sell Himself and His cause.

Nicodemus was searching for something many people today—maybe even you—are searching for: faith that means something and does something. The question people are asking is, “So what? God loves me . . . so what? Jesus died for me . . . so what? He has risen . . . so what?”

Nicodemus didn’t need Jesus to convince him there is a god or that God had created the world or even that all the words of Scripture are true. He believed all of that. His question was, “So what?” He wanted more than empty rituals and pat answers that he had memorized. He wanted a faith that had meaning for his life.

Do you ever feel that your faith is bogged down? Are you just going through the motions? Are you looking for some power, joy and life in your faith? Maybe you need to slip away for a secret meeting with Jesus.

St. John wrote that Jesus “knew all men . . . He knew what was in a man” (2:24, 25 NIV). He knew the struggle in Nicodemus’ heart. He knows what’s in us too. Despite what we say and do, Jesus knows our motives, our desires, our inner thoughts, our secret sins. He knows them well, for He took them all from us and paid the penalty for them by dying on the cross.

Jesus didn’t talk to Nicodemus, nor does He talk to us, about rethinking our theology or changing our attitudes or cleaning up our act. He didn’t say, “Just try a little harder, do a few more good works or get more involved in your church.” He said, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” Born again—starting all over with a new heart and a new life.

That sounds pretty drastic!

Is our problem really that serious? Is it even possible to start over, to be born again? Nicodemus asked, “How can a man be born when he is old? Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!” Wouldn’t it be wonderful to start all over again, only this time do things differently and do things right? But the past cannot be undone. Everything you’ve done or failed to do, every word you’ve spoken, every thought you’ve had has made you who you are today. You cannot change that.

Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit (John 3:5, 6).” You cannot change drastically enough to enter the kingdom of God. You can’t go back and undo, then redo your life any more than you could enter your mother’s womb and be born again.

But the Good News is that God can do it for you. God works this new birth through water and the Spirit in Holy Baptism. St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God who has reconciled us to Himself” (2 Cor. 5:17, 18). You are a born again Christian. You are a “new creation.” God has given you His Holy Spirit to work this radical change in your life, to give you a vital faith!

Jesus said, “You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:7, 8). The Spirit works in you even though you may not feel it. Faith isn’t a feeling! The Spirit works in you even though you can’t see Him. You can’t see the wind either, but you can see its effects. The Spirit changed Nicodemus. He is mentioned two other times in the Bible. When his colleagues wanted to arrest Jesus, Nicodemus spoke in His defense and encouraged a fair hearing. The other time was at the cross. He bought the spices and helped prepare Jesus’ body for burial. Was Nicodemus born again? I believe so.

You shouldn’t be surprised that the Spirit can bring about that kind of change in you too. Born of the Spirit, you believe in God, and He produces that faith that is vital and powerful. Born of the Spirit, worship isn’t a dull routine but joyful praise. Born of the Spirit, you have the power to do some important things in the Lord’s work, to make a difference and bring some change to the world.

Alec Guiness may have been confirmed as an atheist, but some years later he returned to the church. He didn’t write much about the years in between. Occasionally, he read a religious book and went to a worship service. Then, one day, he went back to the church, “a quiet believer, 41 years old . . . born again.” He wrote, “There has been no emotional upheaval, no great insight, certainly no proper grasp of theological issues, just a sense of history and the fittingness of things, something impossible to explain.”


About The Author: The Rev. Paul Sieveking is president of the LCMS Iowa District West.

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Real life Hunger Games

by Philip B. Wolf

For many, it is the latest fascination. For those washed shameless in God’s Sacrament of Baptism, it is the latest divine dinner bell calling from Camp Calvary to us, the satisfied, to serve those yet unsatisfied with the permanent solution to their hunger for life and love. For everyone, it’s The Hunger Games.

The Hunger Games is the first of the Suzanne Collins’ trilogy of books, which also includes Catching Fire and Mockingjay, and its fan base is large and pervasive, especially since the book is coming to the big screen this month.

While the hunger games actually started in Gen. 3:6 in the Garden of Eden (and in Gen. 3:23-24, immediately east of the Garden of Eden), this latest version takes place in the not-so-distant future in the fictional country of Panem. The science-fiction/action/drama novel and movie portray a war-ravaged Panem still reeling from the effects of battle. Nearly 75 years later, the citizens are still under the control of the Capitol, which overtook the 12 surrounding districts and forced them to support the Capitol with their resources.

Life is one long party of super-abundance and unbridled self-indulgence for residents of the Capitol. But those in the districts suffer great deprivation, little freedom and ferocious punishment from the Capitol “peacekeepers” for infractions of any sort.

To make matters worse, the Capitol keeps the districts under control in a horribly gruesome way: by annually “reaping” one male and one female from each district to serve as “tributes” in the Hunger Games. The games are annual reminders to the citizens of Panem’s districts that they are never again to rebel against the Capitol, as they did during the war.

In The Hunger Games, tributes compete in the gladiator-like, nationally-televised arena, where the last living competitor is the winner. This futuristic reality TV is graphic entertainment for the citizens of the Capitol but heart-wrenching, psychological oppression for the district’s residents.

The main character of the story is 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, whose 12-year-old sister, Primrose, is selected as the girl tribute from District 12 in the reaping. Katniss lovingly volunteers to take her sister’s place. When Katniss leaves for the games with the male tribute from her district, Peeta, the movie’s tension skyrockets in the uncertainty of whether theirs is a relationship of love or not. Throughout the book and the movie, readers and viewers learn more about the hunger for real, true life and, therefore, also real, true love, both of which are universal and timeless.

This world’s original parents, Adam and Eve, knew this hunger from the moment they sinned in Gen. 3:6, and it only grew stronger by verses 23–24. They did not realize they already had what they thought they were acquiring. Because of their mistaken and misguided hunger, they and all their descendants came to know real, true death and lovelessness. They were now in a survival situation along with the citizens of Panem and us.

Thankfully, we have the promise of ultimate survivor status. This guarantee was fulfilled in Luke 2:11 and John 19:30. We see in Rom. 5:1–11 that the one, truly sufficient “tribute” justly due God has been paid by God’s Son, Jesus Christ, who died for us while we were yet sinners. The waters of Baptism have washed away all the damning shame of our sin. God declares us just, as though we never sinned. We have peace with God in His Son, Christ Jesus, and in the sacrifice of His life-blood on Calvary’s cross. His empty tomb on Easter is our receipt from God, guaranteeing that Jesus’ eternal life is also our eternal life with Him in heaven. Because God gave us faith at Baptism, we are guaranteed survivors of our “hunger games” with all their life-threatening perils. But that’s not all. “We are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom. 8:37)

Real life and love seemed more like fiction than fact to Katniss in The Hunger Games. Things seldom were the way she thought they should be. She was confused and unsure of herself throughout The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay.

But by God’s grace, we stand in certainty of God’s gift of His eternal life and love. Because of our Baptisms, we are perfectly confident that we have God’s eternal life and love in faith in Christ Jesus. And since we are so confident of being far more than survivors of this life’s “hunger games,” we are free. We are free to witness our new hunger for God’s Word of life in His Word and Sacraments, which most certainly give God’s real, eternal life and love.

Here, all hunger for life and love is satisfied in Christ. Here, life and love are not games at which we play. Here, life and love are pure, perfect reality with no uncertainty, no illusions or deceptions and no fine-print escape clauses. Here, Christ stands in our place. Here, we are blessed.


About the Author: The Rev. Philip B. Wolf is pastor of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Purdy, Mo.

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Why should the average kid go to church?

(A Letter to My Two Teenage Boys)

Okay, guys. I’ve never told you that “you are the future of the Church.” And I never will. The Bible says the Church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20). Jesus is the future of the Church. Jesus is “the same yesterday, today and forever” (Heb. 13:8). Jesus has a future, and so every person connected to Jesus has a future.

That’s why, more than anything else, your mom and I want you connected with Jesus. That’s why I baptized each of you. That’s why we read all the Bible stories to you as toddlers. That’s why we have a time of devotion when we can actually eat together. That’s why we’ve prayed for you from day one. That’s why we sent you to a Lutheran grade school. That’s why we made sure you knew the catechism. That’s why we always go to church. And that’s why we are LCMS Lutherans. The LCMS is simply the best thing going because for orthodox Lutherans, it’s all about Jesus—all about being connected to Jesus.

The Church has a profound responsibility to pay attention to young people. The Bible teaches that all over the place. Today, the Missouri Synod has just less than half the high-school-age young people that it had when I graduated from Sioux City, East High in 1980. Why? Mainly because we’ve just followed the national trend of European-descent Americans who are having fewer children.

In any case, as LCMS young people, you are a precious commodity, indeed! But don’t let that go to your heads. The Bible teaches that young people are very much prone to particular and serious sins. “Remember not the sins of my youth” (Ps. 25:7). And I hardly have to tell you what they are. Luther said the sins of youth tend to be sexual, while the sins of old age are greed. All sin condemns. “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). I’ve never pulled any punches in teaching you what the Bible says about sin. We deserve hell, pure and simple. “But the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:23). And so we’ve always spoken forgiveness at home to each other. We’re sinners. We are forgiven sinners. And so we sinners forgive others who sin against us. We are Gospel people to those around us. Christianity is not about ethics. It’s about Jesus.

The Sunday liturgy shows you why we go to church. Luther said we are beggars who stand before God with an empty sack. What happens in the liturgy? The pastor starts us off in the Name of the Triune God. God’s there to do His stuff! Then in the confession of sins, “I, a poor miserable sinner . . .” we say, “Dear God, I’ve got an empty sack!” If you don’t think you’re a sinner, if you don’t think your bag’s empty, you’ll never understand why we go to church. “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins,” says the pastor. He drops a load of forgiveness, grace and mercy into your bag. And you say, “Amen! Yup! It’s in my bag!” Then the Scriptures are read, and more grace and Gospel and mercy is dropped in. Then the sermon is preached, and you are told that you are damned by the Law, but that Jesus comes only for sinners. Hooray! “I came not for the righteous but the unrighteous!” (Mark 2:17). And at the end of the sermon, you say (and don’t leave this to the pastor), “Amen! Got ‘er in the bag!” Then you kneel at the altar to receive the body and blood of Jesus. “Take and eat, Christ’s body and blood for you, for the forgiveness of all your sins.” And you say again, “Amen! It’s in my bag!” This continues right through the Aaronic blessing: “The Lord bless you and keep you, make His face shine upon you, and give you peace.” Amen! Amen! Amen! It’s in the bag. I’ve got it tied up and hoisted on my shoulder as I head out of church.

Now, how shall I live with that big bag of forgiveness, grace and mercy? When my dad sins against me, what do I do? I open my bag and say, “Here, Dad, you misunderstood me and thought ill of me, but I forgive you ’cause I’ve been forgiven.” Then that teacher at school drives you crazy, and you open your bag again. Then that awful bully harasses and embarrasses you, and when your emotions calm, you open your bag of grace and pray, “Forgive him, Lord. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. And he’s hurting inside big time.” Then you run into a friend who’s really in need because her home life is chaos, and you show her love and compassion like Jesus. In fact, the mercy of Jesus is the greatest compelling factor for you to live a meaningful life of service and love to others.

This happens all week long. Then comes Sunday morning, and you find yourself in church again confessing, “Dear God, I’ve got an empty sack.”

Honestly, boys, I’m frightened for you. This world is an absolute mess. But I’m also confident. Jesus grabbed you at the font, and He won’t let go. “No one can snatch them out of My hand” (John 10:28). I’m proud of how you’ve grown. I’m proud of how you’ve stood the test. I’m proud of how you’ve kindly witnessed to Jesus in your young lives. And I’m absolutely sure the Church has a future because Jesus has a future, and He’s made you His very own for eternity. “Be thou faithful unto death and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10).


Pastor Matthew Harrison
“Let’s go!” Mark 1:38
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