From Death into Life
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
“Comforter of priceless worth, send us peace and unity on earth… Lead us from death into life.” (ELW #517)
500 years ago, on October 31st, 1517 Martin Luther ushered in a period of radical reform and renewal. Historian Stephen Ozment has said, “[Luther] removed the barrier which had put priests nearer to God than lay people. Under Luther’s reforms, priests were encouraged to marry. Ordained ministry became defined by the tasks of preaching and teaching rather than acting as civil judge, tax collector, or steward of large estates.” Ozment continues, “Perhaps this helps explain one of the lessor known consequences of the Reformation. By the 1540’s and 50’s the overall number of clergy in Protestant cities dropped by as much as two-thirds.” Priesthood became less profitable. Empty monasteries became hospitals, hospices, or schools. The faithful could serve God just as well being a good shoemaker or blacksmith as by being a priest.
Theologian Diana Butler Bass is equally sanguine. “The heart of Protestantism is the courage to challenge injustice and to give voice to those who have no voice. Protestantism opened access for all people to experience God’s grace and God’s bounty, not only spiritually but actually. The early Protestants believed that they were not only creating a new church, but they were creating a new world, one that would resemble more fully God’s desire for humanity. The original Protestant impulse was to resist powers of worldly dominion and domination in favor of the power of God’s spirit to transform human hearts and society. Protestants were not content with the status quo. They felt a deep discomfort within. They knew things were not right. And they set out to change the world.” (Diana Butler-Bass, A Great Awakening, 10/28/2011)
For much of my life Reformation was observed as a kind of “Lutheran Pride Day.” Indeed, this Sunday is packed with beautiful images, deep-seeded ideas, and a rich history. I am proud that our Church affirms and embraces that it is fallen and in continual need of reform.
Yet, slowly the Holy Spirit drew us out of our cozy religious silo and into ecumenical dialogue. We have begun to change our tune. Our pride is tempered by stories of pain. The Reformation sparked wars of religion from 1524 to 1648 that consumed many lives and much treasure throughout Europe. The conflicts ended with the Peace of Westphalia recognizing three separate Christian traditions in the Holy Roman Empire: Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism, otherwise known as the Reformed tradition.
Today we cannot celebrate, but we recognize this 500th anniversary after working more than forty years to heal wounds caused, for example, by the brutal persecution of Mennonites at Lutheran hands. In 2010, ELCA Presiding Bishop and Lutheran World Federation President, Mark Hanson begged forgiveness on behalf of all Lutherans in a service of repentance. He said the church’s repentance is part of the “ministry of reconciliation” Christians are called to as “ambassadors for Christ.” The ELCA is now in full communion with six Protestant Churches, including, The Presbyterian Church, USA; The Reformed Church in America; The United Church of Christ; The Episcopal Church; The Moravian Church; and the United Methodist Church. Bilateral talks continue with four others.
This work of reconciliation continues in a small way here today. We are blessed to welcome our neighbor Greg Krohm from the Catholic Archdiocese as part of our Reformation series. Greg’s timely topic is Healing the Wounds.
In 1965, the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council under the leadership of Pope John the 23rd ushered in a new era of ecumenism and liturgical renewal across the Church. On May 13, 1989, the Metropolitan Chicago Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church and the Archdiocese of Chicago entered a historic covenant, the nation’s first such accord. On October 31st, 1999, in Augsburg, Germany, representatives of the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation signed a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. That agreement was celebrated in congregations around the world, including right here at Immanuel Lutheran by Cardinal Francis George and Bishop Ken Olsen. Last October, we celebrated another agreement, Declaration on the Way, with 32 statements of consensus where Catholics and Lutherans find essential agreement. On Tuesday night, Metro-Chicago Bishop Wayne Miller and Cardinal Blase Cupich will renew the covenant of agreement we have enjoyed locally between our two churches for 28 years, at Holy Name Cathedral.
Throughout these 500 years, the Spirit of truth has lead the church to deeper reconciliation and renewal, from death into life. Our Reformation scriptures testify that this spirit of truth lives in each of us. I have written the truth upon your hearts. “If you continue in my word…you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free. (John 8:31). At the same time, we know the truth is often painful. The truth is not always welcome at Thanksgiving dinner. In our politics today, telling the truth might not get you re-elected. Truth is a measuring stick. The extent to which truth is uncomfortable is a measure the dysfunction in our families, the church, our community, culture, civic, and political life.
As we confront so many challenges today, the daily news brings a belly ache and our hope begins to fade, we can draw inspiration knowing that Christians through the centuries and around the world have faced more dire circumstances. They too were under threat and confused. They lost confidence in worldly leaders. Belief in their own talent, power, and abilities to end violence and make a better future was at an end. They placed their trust in the leading power of God’s grace rather than democracy, progress, or worldly wisdom. They walked in truth just by keeping to Jesus’ way. They had no light to show them the way but the light of Christ.
The American Catholic writer, theologian and mystic, Thomas Merton, said, “the natural goodness of man, his capacity for love which must always be in some sense selfish if it remains in the natural order, becomes transfigured and transformed when the Love of God shines in it.” The human soul is like a crystal left in darkness. It is perfect in its own nature, but it lacks something that it can only receive from outside and above itself. But when the light shines in it, it becomes in a manner transformed into light and seems to lose its nature in the splendor of a higher nature, the nature of the light that is in it. When God’s infinitely love plays upon a human soul, the same kind of thing takes place. And that is the life called sanctifying grace. (Thomas Merton, The Seven Story Mountain, p. 170)
We come here to be renewed and reformed in mind and spirit. We come here to stand again in the light of grace, to measure our lives against the standard of God’s truth, to be embraced and healed, to be filled again with God’s light through prayers, hymns, silence, confession, and by Word and sacraments, so that we and the world might be transformed from the inside out, filled with bright colors and shine once again with some small portion of the image and likeness of God our creator. That is our truth. This is our freedom. This is the life to which we are called. This is the source of our undying hope. This is how God who formed and reforms us by way of his cross will lead us from death into life. Amen.