I wrote this piece for my church newsletter, but I thought I'd share it online, too.
"The glory that you have given me I have given to them, so that they may be one, as we are one…” (John 17:22)
|Luther posts his 95 Theses, October 31, 1517|
Halloween is approaching, and that means we in the Lutheran Church are getting ready to celebrate the 499th anniversary of that momentous All Hallows Eve when Martin Luther nailed shut the coffin of the Middle Ages by posting a list of ninety-five debate topics to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. His challenge to the authority of Church teaching changed the course of Western civilization, but split the Christian faith into a division between “Protestants” and “Catholics.” Today, after almost five centuries of—sometimes violent—division, the split seems to be healing.
What does it mean to you to be a Lutheran, I wonder? I grew up with a dyed-in-the-wool Lutheran mother, but all I remember learning about our heritage as a child was that we were the people who weren’t the Catholics. Catholics, I was told, had to go to confession and repeat special prayers to work off their sin while we Lutherans were simply justified by grace through faith. How little I understood in those days the beauty of the tradition which formed Martin Luther and which he sought only to reform, not to replace.
Over the years I’ve developed a deeper respect for our Roman brothers and sisters. It was the Catholic monastic tradition which saved the culture of antiquity during the Dark Ages. Catholic spiritual practice also gave us contemplative prayers, the services of the hours, the beautiful order of mass which Lutherans still observe, and the significance of the liturgical year which include the pious observances of Ash Wednesday, Lent, and Holy Week (some of my favorite things!).
In the early 1960’s Pope John XXIII (recently canonized as a saint by the Roman Church, but already celebrated for decades in the Lutheran liturgical calendar) opened the windows of the Catholic Church and let worshipers talk openly with their Lutheran neighbors. He also adopted one of the most striking reforms made by Martin Luther, the vernacular mass. In exchange, he gave us the practice of moving altars out from the wall so celebrants could face the congregation, and began the tradition of sharing the peace inspired by Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:24.
For over fifty years Lutheran and Catholic theologians have been in conversation to iron out our differences. I’ve taken part in theses dialogues myself from time to time, but I amuse myself by thinking that this conversation has been going on successfully for decades around the dinner tables of members of my congregation.
|Pope Saint John XXIII|
John, now in his mid-eighties, has been a member of Faith practically since the church was built. His wife, Mary, is a faithful member of Saint Anselm Catholic Church. They have been married for over sixty years. There are no doctrinal differences which have kept them from loving each other. Neither were there insurmountable religious disputes between the Catholic Tom and his Lutheran bride, Harriet. When I visited Harriet in her later years to give her the sacrament, Tom—who would not receive with his wife per the church teachings of his youth—still piously knelt on his living room floor when I elevated the host and pronounced the words of institution. To him, the promise of Christ’s true presence in the Eucharist superseded the differences between denominations. These are just two of the many Lutheran-Catholic couples in our congregation who have long ago realized that what our two traditions have in common is far more important than the issues upon which we disagree.
I’m very excited about the “Statement on the Way” which was recently approved by the ELCA Churchwide Assembly and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. This document highlights thirty-two points of agreement between our denominations and, God willing, will make straight the highway to full Eucharistic sharing. I don’t believe our two communions will ever merge back into one, and I don’t think they should. Each of us, on our own journey, has developed a unique personality with which we can bless the other and make comfortable spiritual homes to accommodate the different spiritual needs and tastes of the faithful in Christ. But we can, as separate bodies, proclaim the unity we share in Jesus Christ—the one who came to experience our suffering so we could be present for the suffering and healing of the world.
As we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, let’s keep praying for the unity which we will proclaim through the sharing of the body and blood of Christ. In a time when we have seen the legalization of same-gender marriages and the election of an African American US president, anything is possible.