When Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the Castle Church Doors in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517 – he set in motion a series of events that changed the world. For Lutheran Christians it is a day of great remembrance. Other Protestants claim the Reformation heritage of Luther along with their own heroes – John Calvin, John Wesley and many others. Roman Catholics can also lay claim to the legacy of Luther as they worship in their own language, read their own Bibles, and sing the hymns of the church. This is a simple legacy that draws us together – even though much of the last five centuries have revealed great divisions among Christ’s church.
So now that it is almost 500 years after the 95 Theses, where are we now?
I think it is safe to say that many divisions among Christians of all types remain – though I am happy to say that we are coming together in more ways than ever. Discussions among Lutherans and Roman Catholics produced not only the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) in 1999, but ongoing dialogues and discussions among our theologians continue to produce work worthy of study – together. (A recent piece is titled, “From Conflict to Communion,” A Report of the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Communion on Unity, Leipzig: Evangelisch Verlagsanstalt GmbH and Bonifatius GmbH Druck – Buch – Verlag Paderborn, 2013. Online Available: http://www.lutheranworld.org/sites/default/files/From%20Conflict%20to%20Communion.pdf. )
“From Conflict to Communion” discusses not only the history and context of conflict and division between Roman Catholics and Lutherans, but also frames the work of cooperation and dialogue over the past few decades. The trajectory forward outlines the following five imperatives:
The first imperative: Catholics and Lutherans should always begin from the perspective of unity and not from the point of view of division in order to strengthen what is held in common even though the differences are more easily seen and experienced. (Ibid., 87.)
The second imperative: Lutherans and Catholics must let themselves continuously be transformed by the encounter with the other and by the mutual witness of faith. (Ibid., 88.)
The third imperative: Catholics and Lutherans should again commit themselves to seek visible unity, to elaborate together what this means in concrete steps, and to strive repeatedly toward this goal. (Ibid.)
The fourth imperative: Lutherans and Catholics should jointly rediscover the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ for our time. (Ibid.)
The fifth imperative: Catholics and Lutherans should witness together to the mercy of God in proclamation and service to the world. (Ibid.)
Asking the good Lutheran question: What does this mean?
Here is the last paragraph of the document:
The beginnings of the Reformation will be rightly remembered when Lutherans and Catholics hear together the gospel of Jesus Christ and allow themselves to be called anew into community with the Lord. Then they will be united in a common mission which the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification describes: ‘Lutherans and Catholics share the goal of confessing Christ in all things, who alone is to be trusted above all things as the one Mediator (1 Tim. 2:5f) through whom God in the Holy Spirit gives himself and pours out his renewing gifts’ (JDDJ 18). (Ibid., paragraph 245, pg. 89.)
Three brief vignettes…a new way forward
For years one of my best friends “J-Jeff” and I have had many theological discussions. Some were heated, many were informative, all of them have made us better friends and drawn us deeper into understanding our Christian faith – even though we claim two distinct heritages and theological frameworks – he Roman Catholic; and I Lutheran. A major breakthrough came on a lengthy discussion of faith and good works when we both stopped talking and said in our own words, “wait…we’re talking about the same thing right?” A year later the JDDJ was signed and published, and we toasted to a potential future where we were not only talking about the same thing, but could claim boldly together, “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and in all” (Ephesians 4:5-6) not as a goal or promise, but reality among us. Is there still a long way to go? Of course! But each conversation and witness each of us initiates, continues and sustains among our friends and loved ones, colleagues and neighbors, in public documents and in the privacy of our own living rooms – moves the ongoing Reformation – from Conflict to Communion one step closer.
When I was at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in Pittsburgh this August 12-17, 2013, we were addressed by Roman Catholic Aux. Bishop Denis J. Madden of Baltimore who came not to scold the assembly for past actions or call the ELCA to see or do things the way Rome might think about them, but addressed us as partners. The words that still ring in my ear are, “As we approach the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, let us find ways to walk there together.” He was received with a standing ovation, and I was not the only person in the room with teary eyes after his visit. Perhaps we are starting to realize we are walking the same road.
Last week Pope Francis met with Bishop Munib Younan of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, who is also the current President of the Lutheran World Federation. The Pope said, “It is truly important for everyone to confront in dialogue the historical reality of the Reformation, its consequences and the responses it elicited.” Both sides, he said, “can ask forgiveness for the harm they have caused one another.” (“Catholics and Lutherans Journey Towards Communion and Common Witness,” Vatican Radio, October 21, 2013. Online Available: http://en.radiovaticana.va/news/2013/10/21/catholics_and_lutherans_journey_towards_communion_and_common_witness/en1-739405.)
Learning from one another.
Forgiving each other.
These are the marks of the new Reformation underway. I, for one, am pleased to be a part of it. I hope all of us can continue to walk together into God’s good and gracious future.
What would it mean for Lutherans and Roman Catholics to share the sacrament? For many people it would convey a sense of unity thought impossible not too long ago. It might show other Christians and those outside the faith that the power to reconcile is greater than the power to divide, even though many differences remain. But what it might witness, greater than the achievement on paper, in action, and in relationship – is that in the breaking of the bread we who participate in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church – do so not by our own understanding of efforts – but through the Lordship of Christ, and him alone.
“I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing of the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” (1 Corinthians 10:15-17)