The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
Speech by Bishop Dr. Munib Younan
delivered in Canada at the ELCIC Eastern Synod Assembly
“Liberated by God’s Grace”
First, I would like to thank the Eastern Synod of the ELCIC for being in a companion synod relationship with my church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, and for inviting me to be with you here in Canada. As partners in mission, it is very important that we not only pray for one another and support one another, but also visit one another. This is truly what is meant by “accompaniment” – praying for one another, loving one another, and walking together, in mutuality and respect. We can accompany one another from afar, but it is very special to be together, in the same place. Like the disciples who discovered Christ had been walking alongside them on their way to Emmaus, as we walk together we pray our eyes will be opened to see the ways Christ is at work in the Lutheran churches of both Canada and the Holy Land.
I am so very pleased to be walking with you in these days, learning of your church’s projects, passions, and plans for the future. The ELCIC has made a very strong statement through your plans to honor 500 years of the Reformation. As President of the Lutheran World Federation, I am encouraged to hear of your commitment to plant five hundred trees, to sponsor five hundred refugees to your country, to fund five hundred scholarships to the Lutheran schools in my country, and to give $500,000 to the Lutheran World Federation endowment! This is truly an outstanding and impressive way to honor 500 years of the Reformation. On behalf of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land – and on behalf of the worldwide Lutheran communion—I thank you for your generosity, for your faithfulness, and for your powerful witness to the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
2017 THEME AND SUB-THEMES
As you know, this autumn we begin celebrating a very important landmark in the history of the Lutheran Church – the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. For many years now, the Lutheran World Federation has been planning and preparing for what we have called simply “Luther 2017.” As part of our preparations, we have reflected carefully on what the theme of such a celebratory year should be. What should be our message to the world? After 500 years, what does it mean to be a Lutheran today? What is a Lutheran vision for the future of the church and of the world? After much discussion, this simple but direct theme was adopted: “Liberated by God’s Grace.”
Of course this theme, “Liberated by God’s Grace”, did not come out of our own heads, but is taken directly from the theological writings of Martin Luther. Of great importance to the Reformation movement is the doctrine of justification by faith, which states that in Christ, God’s grace is given to us as a free and unconditional gift. This has been called “the doctrine by which the church stands or falls”. Many young Lutherans learned this doctrine by heart through this simple phrase: “For we hold that we are saved by grace through faith, apart from works.” This is what we mean when we say, “Liberated by God’s Grace.”
Just as this anniversary theme did not come from our own heads, it is important to note that the doctrine of justification did not come from Dr. Martin Luther’s head. It comes from Holy Scripture. Luther’s careful study of Scripture, especially the book of Romans, led him to an exegetical break-through, and a new understanding of the word “righteousness.” Luther came to understand that righteousness is never something we achieve on our own, or even in cooperation with God, but is Christ’s own righteousness gifted to us through the cross.
In the “Smalcald Articles”, Luther writes:
The first and chief article is this:
That Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins, and was raised again for our justification (Rom. 4:25). And He alone is the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world. (John 1:29) and God has laid upon Him the iniquities of us all. (Is. 53:6). Likewise: All have sinned and are justified without merit [freely, and without their own works or merits] by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood. (Rom. 3:23f)
(Smalcald Articles, Part II, Article 1)
The understanding that sinful humans are saved through the work of God alone remains the cornerstone of our faith as Lutheran Christians today. In fact, Luther went on in the Smalcald Articles to write: “Of this article nothing can be yielded or surrendered…even though heaven and earth, and whatever will not abide, should sink to ruin.”
Indeed, Christians in the Lutheran tradition have not abandoned this most important article of faith. Five hundred years later, the Gospel message of grace through faith, apart from works, still holds power, and sounds as fresh and radical as it did in Luther’s time. For this reason, during our anniversary year, Lutherans across the world will stand firm on the foundation of this belief. The message of grace, freely given, provides our church with a clear identity for the next five hundred years. Liberated by God’s grace, through the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, the worldwide communion of the Lutheran Church has much to offer to our broken world today.
As grateful recipients of the free gift of grace, the next question for Christians must always be: “What does this mean?” or “Was bedeutet daß?” Those of you who learned Luther’s Small Catechism in Sunday school or Confirmation classes will be familiar with this question! So we are saved, and we have received this salvation as a gift: Now what does this mean? What do we do with it? For what purpose have we been saved? Such a generous gift must not be kept to ourselves! For Jesus said: “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others.” (Matthew 5:15-16)
For this reason, as we celebrate 2017, we will not spend our time looking to the past five hundred years. Instead, we believe that God is calling us forward into the next five hundred years. In a time when religious extremism, greed, hatred, and division are trying to kidnap not only the church but the entire world, we have a responsibility to let the light of God’s free gift of grace shine, for the sake of our neighbors.
We live in a world of merit. Everything costs and everything has a price. As a Christian, engrafted into the Body of Christ by the waters of baptism, it is great wealth to know that my relationship with God is not built on my merits, but on liberation by God by grace through faith. This is the reason that we Lutherans can offer to the world of merit a word of liberation. We want the world to know they are children of God by grace, never by merits, positions, or wealth.
The three sub-themes of our Luther 2017 celebration are the LWF’s invitation to reflect carefully on that question: “Liberated by God’s Grace: What does this mean – for me, for my neighbors, for the world?” You can find very good study resources at www.lutheranworld.org for the use of your congregations in the coming year. I am pleased to see that this synod assembly is built around these themes! As an invitation to your individual congregations to participate in this year of reflection, I will briefly introduce each of these themes today.
The first sub-theme is this: Salvation—Not for Sale:
And what does this mean?
Although grace is a free gift of God, there are many influences in the world which attempt to convince us otherwise. Preachers of the so-called “Prosperity Gospel” are popular in countries across the globe. These false shepherds trick their flocks into believing they will receive money, cars, houses and good health if only they will fill the preacher’s pockets with money. They preach that the pleasures and priorities of the world should be ours to enjoy, and have conformed the message of Jesus to fit within their own desires. Sadly, this type of message is wildly popular in some of the poorest places on the planet, where people can least afford its consequences.
There are others who sell us the idea that salvation is something that can be purchased, earned, or deserved. The rise of religious extremism is one. Leaders of extremist movements may not ask for money in return for salvation, but they do ask for other currency: absolute loyalty to their cause, for example, or acting to create a homogeneous society, or even committing acts of terror. Truly, it is not even correct to call this “religious” extremism, for these movements have nothing to do with God. These leaders--whether they claim to be Christian, Muslim, or Jewish—are actually promoting their own agendas, not God’s agenda.
But we would be mistaken to believe that it is only prosperity preachers or extremists who are in the business of selling salvation. All too often, we find similar theology in our own churches. All too often, the free gift of grace is perverted into a set of laws, cultural norms, or a political platform which all are expected to follow. Whether preached from the pulpit, or implied within a church community, this message that the Gospel is a formula to achieve happiness, acceptance, worth, or righteousness, is no different from the one preached by the fundamentalists we find so easy to accuse.
I assure you, dear sisters and brothers, that the only Savior is our Lord Jesus Christ, and the only formula for salvation and worth is the one he has already completed for your sake. For as Scripture says,
“For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all.” (1 Timothy 2:5-6)
Together, we must proclaim to all: Salvation is not for sale.
The second sub-theme for our 2017 celebration is “Human Beings—Not for Sale”.
And what does this mean?
Although we have made many advancements as a human community in the past five hundred years, it is a sad fact that in so many places today, humans are still considered to be only commodities, whose only value is seen in terms of profit. child labor, child marriage, and child soldiers are found in many places. Human trafficking and slavery still run many economies. While we may like to think that slavery is a thing of the past, the reality is that exploitation of workers is just done in a quieter, less visible way today. We can call them migrant workers, temporary workers, or undocumented domestic help, but in the end this is economic slavery.
We also see human beings treated as commodities today at the borders of the countries of the world. Over the last year we’ve seen many thousands of refugees seeking safety and welcome outside of their war-torn nations. Many countries are opening their borders, and many people of goodwill are opening their hearts and homes, including here in Canada. I thank you and your people for that! But at the same time, the way many speak of refugees today reveals that they are seen only as political commodities, or considered to be economic liabilities. How many times must we hear of “hordes”, “waves”, or the “crisis” of refugees? These are not hordes – these are people. These are not waves – these are families. These are not only an economic problem to be solved – these are brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers.
In such a time, our role as a church is to raise our voices for the human rights of all people. God created all of us in God’s image: black, white, yellow, brown, woman, man, indigenous, immigrant, refugee, rich, poor, child, or elderly. For as Scripture says, the God of creation knew us before we were formed in our mothers’ wombs. We were knitted together, created in love, and all of us are precious in God’s sight. (Jeremiah 1:5, Psalm 139:13)
For this reason we proclaim: Human beings are not for sale!
The third sub-theme for reflection this year is “Creation—Not for sale.”
And what does this mean?
It is very timely for us to be considering this theme after the landmark meeting in Paris at the COP 21 conference. The outcome of that meeting, called the “Paris Agreement”, has been signed by 174 countries so far, and signals a global understanding that the earth is the responsibility of every nation. We are all caretakers of the precious gift of our earthly home, and of every creature that lives upon it.
Just like the grace we have received through the cross of Christ, creation is a free gift from God our Creator. We did nothing to deserve such beauty, such diversity, such abundance. Care for creation is a fundamental commitment of our Christian faith, growing out of the first article of the Nicene and Apostolic creeds. This is God’s creation and human beings are to care for it; we are to tend to God’s beautiful garden. There are times, however, when we can distract ourselves with theological language; it is time that the church speaks plainly about the looming crisis of climate change. I have become even more convinced that the crisis of climate change is an area beckoning for church involvement in order to provoke societal response.
It is at this point, however, that religious traditions can hinder rather than help our ability to respond constructively to the challenges of climate change. Resistance to scientific knowledge is a key characteristic of some forms of religious commitment. Misguided resistance could lead toward disaster. The crisis of climate change provides an important new opportunity for our global Lutheran communion to recommit to constructive engagement with scientific knowledge.
If we are to be like trees planted by streams of living water, we must do our best to preserve the climate in which those waters flow. If we are to be deeply rooted, we must do our best to address the interlocking systems that could lead to much greater displacement patterns than we have already seen in climate-related disasters. Our calling is to be deeply rooted so we can follow God’s law, the law to serve the poor and to shelter the vulnerable.
Just as we have seen with economic growth alone, climate change will bring even greater inequalities. Countries in the Global North will become even more food secure, while the Global South will become more barren. How can the church start now to speak out for fairer food distribution? We cannot be content with the fact that the rich will become richer while the poor become poorer.
For this reason, one of the best things we can do to honor 500 years of the Reformation is to join the people of every nation in saying “Creation is not for sale.”
GLOBAL, ECUMENICAL, ALWAYS REFORMING
As I mentioned, the Lutheran World Federation has worked very hard to focus our worldwide 2017 Reformation celebration on the future of the church. We want to think about the next five hundred years, and where the Holy Spirit is leading us. I would like to offer several points today that may help us move into the future together as fellow member churches in our global communion.
1. The Reformation is Global
The fruits of the Reformation have touched the entire globe. Lutheran Christians in the Global South are quite happy to recognize that the Reformation began in Germany with the deep concerns expressed by Martin Luther. When he translated the Bible into the language of the people, it was in German, not Arabic or Kiswahili. This cannot be denied. But the Bible is today translated into thousands of languages.
There are times, however, when our Reformation celebrations have given the impression that western Europe is the center of the conversation or even the center of the world. I would never suggest that Europe—including Germany—should be minimized. But I do hope that during 2017 we will celebrate the vibrant witness of the Reformation not only in the sixteenth century, but of today. And when we look at the beauty of the witness of today’s church, it stands solidly alongside younger churches throughout the world witnessing to the freedom of the Gospel emphasized in the Reformation. Many of these younger churches came into being through the faithful work of churches in the Global North. Church members here in Canada faithfully supported missionaries to share the love of God in places they would never see in person. This has contributed to the richness of the Lutheran church today, and now it seems that the future of Christianity is in the South. In fact, recently there was a study released by Purdue University which says that by 2030, Christianity will be a religion mainly of Africa and China. This is the reason that Lutheranism is global, and we are global citizens of the world.
2. The Reformation was and is Ecumenical
In our Reformation celebrations, we can focus on just our fellow churches in the Lutheran communion alone, with its 145 churches totaling over 70 million Christians from 98 countries throughout the world. Or, if we broaden our scope to include other evangelical Protestants who also carry forward elements of the tradition we claim, many millions more are added to our number. The gifts of the Reformation have extended to every corner of our globe, Soli Deo Gloria, to the glory of God alone. The vibrant work being done today in God’s name through the freedom of the Gospel gives us good reason to look forward, even as we look with appreciation in our past.
It is clear to all of us that Luther’s actions that led to the historical movement known as the Reformation came out of love for the Roman Catholic Church, not in spite of it. While he did indeed grow in conflict with the leaders of the church during his time, he always intended to call the church back to its origins and its true vocation.
We Lutherans sometimes like to imagine the image of Martin the Augustinian monk hammering his 95 Theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg beating out the announcement of a new beginning. Luther, on the other hand, intended to criticize a practice he felt was harming the witness of the Roman Church.
For the past fifty years, Lutherans have had a constant dialogue with the Catholic Church, for Luther loved his church. We together published the Joint Declaration on Justification by Faith in 1999. We have also had over thirty years of dialogue with the Orthodox family, as well as with the Anglicans and Mennonites. In Stuttgart, Germany, during the Eleventh Assembly of the LWF we took the historic step of asking Mennonites for forgiveness for past persecutions. Assembly delegates unanimously approved a statement calling Lutherans to express their regret and sorrow for past wrongdoings toward Anabaptists.
Our Lutheran celebrations of the Reformation cannot be complete without our ecumenical partners. I cannot understand these celebrations apart from our sisters and brothers in Christ from other traditions, even if we do not agree on every point of doctrine. It is not possible to erase 500 years of history and division through these past 50 years of dialogue alone. Nevertheless, we must celebrate 2017 ecumenically. We must be aware that a Lutheran is an ecumenist. The future of the Christian will be one which honors our commonality with other churches, not our differences. For we have one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one eucharist, one church—the Body of Christ.
3. Ecclesia Semper Reformanda: The church always reforming
It can appear to others outside of our communion that Lutherans are gathering around the anniversary of October 31, 1517, just to show our triumphalism. There could be a sense—and we need to be careful not to feed this misinterpretation—that we claim to understand the Gospel of Jesus Christ better than other churches.
But it must be made clear that in these anniversary celebrations we are not celebrating ourselves. We do not celebrate the Reformation to claim that without us nothing good could have happened in the world. We do not set up Luther as a false idol. In fact, we know and confess many of his faults. At the same time, we do not claim that our communion is more perfect or more faithful than any other.
Instead, the Reformation calls us into the discipline of always reforming, semper reformanda. This is not just an administrative and structural call. Very often, our churches and church-related organizations go through changes in structure and staffing in order to meet financial challenges. But the call to be the church semper reformanda is not about availability of money. In fact, we often see that churches that are poor are progressing in the cause of the Gospel. The call to reformation is a discipline that calls us back to the heart of the Gospel: sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura. Grace alone, faith alone, Word alone.
The discipline of being ecclesia semper reformanda is a call to humility. If we are to be ecclesia semper reformanda, we must ask serious questions of ourselves and our fellow Christians. Are we succumbing to certain traditions that take us further from the Gospel? Are we giving in to cultural structures that diminish the Gospel? Are we simply accepting the patterns in the world that work with human logic alone and ignore the inconvenient truths or the Gospel? Do we need to reintroduce the Gospel, even with our own churches? Since we are facing the same problems, how can we do this together rather than within our own communities alone?
Whether your context is Canada, or Palestine, or Hong Kong, or Namibia, Christians in every place are facing these basic questions. This is why we celebrate 2017 in a spirit of humility. We do not yet have every answer to every particular question. We instead cling to the Cross of Our Lord, Jesus Christ. This basic act of trust will carry us another 500 years focused on the Gospel of love and nourished by the sacraments.
FROM CONFLICT TO COMMUNION
Recently, an important document entitled “From Conflict to Communion” was published jointly by the Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. This document is grounded in a shared re-telling of the history of relations between Lutherans and Catholics. In it, baptism is confirmed to be the “basis for unity and common commemoration.” Holy Baptism is the foundation of our shared witness. Our human tendency—in the church as well as in political relations—is to emphasize what divides us rather than what brings us together. My sense is that we have often put too much emphasis on who is at the table or who is in the pulpit, and we ignore the basic unity we find in Holy Baptism. While differences in ordination and communion practices cannot be ignored, baptism is what unites us. Through Water and the Word, we are engrafted into the church, the Body of Christ. In baptism, we are sent out into the world together for the sake of God’s holistic mission, in diaconal purpose. This shared emphasis on baptism is the foundation for our continued ecumenical dialogue.
“From Conflict to Communion” makes important contributions to the ongoing dialogue between Lutherans and Catholics. Along with reaffirming our unity through baptism, it also encourages Lutherans and Catholics to look to what unites before looking at what divides us. It asks churches to be open to transformation as a result of knowing one another. It encourages us to be in mission together, achieving “visible unity” for the sake of our neighbors. And it sends us out to rediscover and proclaim the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ for our time.
Amen and amen! The legacy of the Reformation is nothing if it is not about the beauty of the Gospel. To do this alone, for ourselves alone contradicts the fullness of the promises God has made to the whole world.
But this document, “From Conflict to Communion” also has important lessons to teach us about seeking good relations with other churches. Sometimes our most strained relationships are with our Lutheran brothers and sisters, for example! And it is important for us to consider how, in an increasingly global context, our Lutheran identity can help us to engage in interfaith dialogue. How can dialogue with our Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or atheist neighbors help us to rediscover the power of Jesus Christ for our time? Perhaps it is time for us to seek “visible unity” among ourselves first as human beings, each of us created in the image of God.
I am aware that this Lutheran-Catholic dialogue, and indeed interfaith dialogue, is something very new and still very challenging for many in our Lutheran communion. Still, we remember that the spirit of the Reformation calls us into the discipline of always reforming, semper reformanda.
JOINT PRAYER IN LUND
In the spirit of ongoing Reformation, on October 31, 2016, Pope Francis, the President of the Lutheran World Federation, and the LWF General Secretary, will co-host a common prayer in Lund, Sweden. Together, we will participate in a joint prayer service to commemorate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. This is the first time in history that such an event will happen. Isn’t it really marvelous that a Palestinian, an Argentinian, and a Chilean could bring our two churches together in prayer and reconciliation?
Of course this prayer service does not signal that we are reuniting with Rome, and our theological and historical differences will remain. But this will be a powerful witness to the world of what it means to be “Liberated by God’s Grace.” Through this common prayer, our hope is that the world may see that when you are liberated by God’s grace you are not hostage to the past. Neither are you afraid of the present nor the future!
When you are truly free, you cannot help but respond in thankfulness and humility. Such freedom can never be kept to one’s self – this is the reason we speak of “Liberated by God’s Grace” as being connected with the liberation of human beings, the liberation of creation, and indeed the liberation of religion itself. This is a clear sign that religion is not the problem, but religion is the solution, as long as our liberation by grace drives us to serve the cause of the church and to serve humanity in love.
For this reason, the year 2017 will be celebrated as an anniversary of our freedom. By God’s grace, neither sin, nor oppression, nor injustice has any power over us. By Gods’ grace, we are freed to liberate others from the chains that bind them. By God’s grace, we are brokers of justice, instruments of peace, defenders of human rights, and apostles of love in the world today.
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, the Reformation did not stop when the reformers passed away. The reforming work of the Holy Spirit continues in the global church today, including here in the ELCIC and the Eastern Synod. We must allow the Holy Spirit to mold us, change us, transform us, and guide us.
The next 500 years of the Reformation are upon us. Are you ready? Are you ready to be missionaries of love and grace to the world? Are you ready to be prophetic voices, standing firm on the foundation of human dignity and respect given by God our creator? Are you ready to welcome the stranger, feed the poor, pray for your enemies, and in all things glorify God who has liberated you from sin and death?
The call of ongoing Reformation is not an easy one. And yet, liberated by God’s grace, and filled with the Holy Spirit, together we will be the new reformers of the church, and of the world. This is the call of the Reformation to you and to us.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.