500 years on: Zwingli to Aussie freedoms

This week, 9th March 2022 marks 500 years since the famous ‘Affair of the Sausage’ – the event which sparked off Reformation in Switzerland. In 2014, Mary and I travelled to Switzerland and had a short stay in Zurich. We met an Australian friend there who gave us a tour of the city. One of our first stops was to have a bratwurst sausage in Zurich. Our guide knew the place to go – we found ourselves buying cooked bratwurst in this small, busy sausage cafe almost underneath the historic Grossmünster church. We consumed our sausages and proceeded to walk around to the great doors of the church and survey this Reformation landmark. It was a lovely tour but, while our guide knew that Zurich and sausages went hand in hand, she knew very little about the history of the link. 

Martin Luther and John Calvin are two names most well-known in Reformation history. But in Zurich in 1522 it was Ulrich Zwingli who set things alight. It was Lent and the church of the day was insisting upon fasting and was quick to rebuke any who did not fast. Zwingli and his friends responded by smoking up a few sausages and sharing them around. It was a deliberate move to drive home the freedom found in the gospel of Christ. That first Sunday of Lent Zwingli preached in the Grossmünster church on the subject of Christian freedom declaring:

If you want to fast, do so; if you do not want to eat meat, don’t eat it; but allow Christians a free choice. If you are a person of leisure, you should fast often and abstain from food that excites you; the worker moderates his desires by hoeing and ploughing in the field … If you would be a Christian at heart, act in this way. If the spirit of your belief teaches you thus, then fast, but grant also your neighbour the privilege of Christian liberty, and fear God greatly, if you have transgressed his laws, nor make what man has invented greater before God than what God himself has commanded.

Zwingli took up his position in the Zurich pulpit in 1519 and his preaching was distinctive for its move to preaching with a new confidence in the biblical texts themselves:

We should hold the Word of God in the highest possible esteem…and we should give to it a trust which we cannot give to any other word. For the Word of God is certain and can never fail. It is clear and will never leave us in darkness.

The Sausage incident became the catalyst for reform in Zurich. You can read further about the theology of freedom, as well as the events of that time in this article in the Eternity magazine by Rev Michael Jensen (Michael is the Rector of Darling Point Anglican church which is a neighbouring parish to us here in the Eastern Suburbs.)

All this fuss over eating sausages. Yet, here in Australia we are all too aware of how the humble sausage can cause controversy. And remarkably, it has been connected with democratic freedom…we’ve even coined a phrase for it: the Democracy sausage. It was our word of the year back in 2016:

Democracy sausage: A barbecued sausage served on a slice of bread, bought at a polling booth sausage sizzle on election day.

Over the past 30 or so years there have been lots of debate around sausages being cooked up for Aussies as we vote for our politicians. Nowadays that has simmered down but the core of Zwingli’s message is now a sizzling debate for Australians. Freedoms that Christians have long taken for granted are being threatened. In Australia we’ve resolved the sausage sizzles, but ironically, in our present day the Government has not been able to secure legislation which ensures freedom of religion.

We are 500 years on from Zwingli’s reformation era but we find ourselves up against those who would seek to contain and confine the gospel. It can be disheartening but the story of Zwingli and the Reformers is a pointer to where the power lies. Opposition to the gospel of God is destined to fail – a truth which those opposed to Reformation in Europe in the 16th century discovered. The messenger might be chained ‘But the word of God is not bound!’ (2 Timothy 2:9).

Half a millennium on, as we savour our sausage freedoms and remember Huldrych Zwingli, let us pray for a similar confidence to hold fast to the power of that word and the apostolic dedication to preach the gospel freely (1 Corinthians 9:15-18). And so let us pray:

“Almighty, eternal, and merciful God, whose word is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path, open and illuminate our minds, that we may purely and perfectly understand thy word and that our lives may be conformed to what we have rightly understood, that in nothing we may be displeasing to thy majesty, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.”

    A prayer Ulrich Zwingli would use when he began his Bible lectures in Zürich each day.

Leave a Reply