In today’s times, 500 years after the Reformation, what thoughts does it inspire and in which direction does it point the Church?

In today’s times, 500 years after the Reformation, what thoughts does it inspire and in which direction does it point the Church?

Keynote address to the Ecumenical and Interfaith Dinner of the 31st General Synod, on 30 June 2017 in Baltimore, Maryland, by Bishop Ilse Junkermann, Magdeburg,Germany

Ladies and gentlemen, dear sisters and brothers,

It is a great honour for me to join you on this occasion and to be invited to address you. It is a pleasure to be here.

My address today is also given in memory of the Central Conference Minister Rev. Dr. John Deckenback. I have fond memories of his visit to our Evangelical Church in Central Germany in January 2016. In the evening, sitting together at dinner, he described very precisely, and in a lively manner, how he believed my talk should be given, “You must bring photos or a film that shows you nailing the theses for your address to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church.”

True to his words I have brought you some photos. My first photo shows the doors of the Castle Church on which, 500 years ago, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on repentance and indulgence – or commissioned the University’s janitor to nail them there. In those days, it was normal to use the church doors as a form of notice board to post important announcements. And here, in the next photo you see me leaving through these doors following our Synod’s church service.

That evening, as a farewell present, I presented John with a Playmobil figure of Martin Luther as a reminder of the evening and in anticipation of our next meeting. Now I am here and he cannot hear me – at least in this world.

Yes, I miss him too. He was a dependable and dedicated partner and friend and he fostered the partnership between our churches with love, commitment and strength. I believe that his study visit, his sabbatical, in the Cranach House in Wittenberg had reinforced his intention to invite the General Synod to his Conference in 2017. I have no doubt that he also wanted, in addition to all other important matters, to remind us of the roots and origins of the United Church of Christ as a Protestant church, a tree in the garden of the Reformation.

What significance does the anniversary of the Reformation have for our Church, indeed for the whole of the Church worldwide? That is the theme of my keynote address. It is a theme for a complete book, for a whole series of talks! But have no fear. My talk will be about baptism, and I want to highlight – and share with you – two aspects that are important not only for us as Christian individuals, but also for our testimony as Church in the twenty-first century.

To start with: on baptism and God’s gift that it encompasses.

And then: our duty as baptized Christians in the world – and more specifically in our world today.

First. Baptism and God’s gift to us

With baptism God gives us life – eternal life. Therefore we are freed from death, as death will not hold any lasting power over us. As the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 6, we are baptized in Christ’s death, “that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the Glory of the Father even so we also should walk in newness of life” – eternal life in happiness, peace and justice.

In baptism God says to each and every one of us, “You are my creation, unique and unmistakable; you remain my creation, unique and unmistakable.” This is brought about by pure grace.

For Martin Luther, this was the redeeming perception. Theologically speaking, the justification of the person by grace alone (‘sola gratia’). In simple words, my standing with God cannot be earned and certainly not bought. No single good work can raise my esteem in his eyes. And, even better, my misdeeds, failings, or guilt do not make my standing with him any worse.

What counts is the belief and the trust that God himself gives me through his spirit. I put my trust in God, in that he shoulders, through his son Jesus Christ, all that separates me from him as a result of my failings and my sins, of my wish to be like God. That sets me free! That is the best of all! Belief in God sets me free against everything and everyone.

Disbelief, the opposite of belief, is epitomized by the belief that I can depend on myself alone and all that I am capable of. At the time of the Reformation, the Church said to the people, ‘You must do good works to earn your salvation and standing with God. You can also purchase it, and ensure that you spend less time in purgatory for your sins.’ The people at that time were plagued with great fear of the purgatorial fire.

Today we no longer live in fear of purgatory, but we live in great fear of other things. And we too seek ways to redeem ourselves. We live in a culture of self-redemption. Our modern-day rules are:

  • You are what you achieve. Your life is based mostly on achievement.
  • You are what you can achieve. If you can achieve more you can live a better life. The more you consume, the better your life. If you achieve a great deal then you clearly live a good life.
  • You are what you make of yourself. You must make something out of yourself, assert yourself and design your life. You  must create an optimal life – and optimal death – for yourself.

In this way the individual sets himself in God’s place – he or she shapes, no, creates their own life. The flip side is, everything that makes life difficult must be blocked out, it remains a fragment, that it is overshadowed from failure, suffering, death, helplessness and impotence.

In 1530, Martin Luther summarized in one single sentence what he regards as ‘Summa’, “We should be humans and not God.” That means we cannot redeem ourselves. We are not almighty.

Instead, God sets us free to be human, free for humanity and brother- and sisterhood. In Jesus, who became human, he shows what it means to be human, to be a part of the human race and of human brother- and sisterhood.

In the twenty-first century, the culture of self-redemption and the competitive society lead us to the fringe of destruction and self-destruction. In today’s culture, self-centerdness is even encouraged politically, indeed on a national level! This attitude is flourishing once again; not just in the USA, but, when I think of Brexit or Poland or other movements, in Europe as well. Egoism is now encouraged in all areas of life.

At the time of the Reformation, it was all about having a good life, about salvation after death. Today it is about the good life AND salvation in this world – here and now.

“Be human and not God,” that means, “be free but be tied – tied to God’s love and his commandments.”

Baptism makes very clear what Christian freedom is. In 1520, in his manuscript “On the freedom of a Christian,” Martin Luther expressed this very impressively. “A Christian is free above all things and subordinate to no one. A Christian is a ministering servant of all things and subservient to all others.”

These two sentences, which at first appear contradictory, unfold to describe the complete field of tension of Christian freedom. To be a free person – and at the same time a ministering servant – both belong to Christian freedom and are inextricably connected. Freedom, in Christian terms, can only be freedom in binding. Baptism sets the basis for the bond to Christ – that can never be destroyed by human deed or misdeed.

And exactly that is what makes a Christian free.

A Christian is free because he or she is not defined by what they do or what they neglect to do. God differentiates between my person and my deeds, even when they include pious and good works of faith. That makes me free. A Christian is a free person, because he or she lives from the relationship with God and gains his or her identity through this relationship. And he or she is also insofar a free person because this access to God is direct and immediate.

A priest is not needed as go-between. We all crawl out of baptism as priests.

It is for this reason that, from November 1517,  Luther was relieved to be able to sign his letters in a more Greek-like form, no longer with ‘Luder’ – as his family name was written – but rather with ‘eleutherius’, and ultimately Luther. That is an echo of the Greek ‘eleutherios’, meaning “worthy of freedom,” “one who has been freed.” The bond with God – that is the permanent source of Christian freedom. In the Holy Communion, God gives us over and over again freedom from our deeds and misdeeds.

At the end of the manuscript referred to, we read how Martin Luther describes this living relationship from which the free Christian lives, “Through faith he goes upwards to God, from God he goes down again through love, and remains however always in God and God’s love.”

In the words of Eberhard Jüngel, a great German theologian in our days, “The Christian faith stands and falls in that it risks, despite the indisputable relationship between word and deed, seeing more in the person as just a perpetrator, but rather a human ‘I’-self – that lives from the recognition by God.” This bond to God, which exists and lives in and from the power of love, makes the Christian free. And accordingly Luther’s maxim applies, “See, so must God’s goodness flow from one into the other and become a whole, so that everyone treats his neighbor as he would himself. It flows from God into us…and from us it must flow into those that need it.”

Because a Christian is “a free man above all things,” he or she is therefore free to help others.

This brings me to the second aspect:

Second. The duty of the baptized in the world – and more specifically in our world today.

During the opening service of worship today, we remembered our baptism and prayed, “to make glad the city of God.” “Make glad,” this is the motto of Psalm 46 for your General Synod. Yes, that is our task. Not to create God’s kingdom – God does that alone. It has already dawned in our world in Jesus’ death and resurrection. We live in the tension of both pleas from the ‘Our Father’, “Thy kingdom come” and “Thine is the Kingdom.”

Our task is to be witnesses for God’s kingdom. To show that we, through baptism, are already citizens of this kingdom – and not of other kingdoms and powers. It signifies that we are convinced that our history, the history of our world, will end well because God has made it good and will make all good. That is why we can commit ourselves for good. We can therefore show our backbone where other persons and authorities belittle things, where they are destructive and attempt to destroy the world that God created.

We therefore take responsibility for God’s kingdom, that in our witness will come to the world. The commandments for this kingdom are the promises, the pledges of the beatitudes of Jesus.

Martin Luther’s reformatory discovery of the justification of the sinner and his freedom is often still imprisoned in a purely inner piety. Now, in the twenty-first century, we must ultimately question, much more often, the political and economic significance of the tenet that, through the grace of God, all people deserve to be accorded equal rights and equal dignity!

Reformation means genuinely that we must get to the bottom of the developments in society and Church. We must question, from the roots up – the radix – how far we have distanced ourselves from God’s justice for all of his creatures and the whole creation.

This is exactly what Martin Luther asked his Church in those days. Where they had separated from their roots and become a ‘child of their time,’ modern, and adapted to the present.

Yes, he had protested against a Church that, for its time, had acted very rationally and downright modern.

The indulgence-selling Church had allegedly recognized the signs of the times. With the volatile expansion of the monetary economy from the fifteenth Century onward, more and more commodities were traded arbitrarily. The Church recognized this trend, why should she not make money as well from granting indulgences from sin and purgatorial fire?

The Reformation can therefore also be seen as a protest against the monetarisation of everything, also the monetarisation of salvation and faith!

In his study of the scriptures, Luther had recognized that justice is not a question of performance and reward between human and God. Biblically understood, justice is rather, God is true to his word, and to us his partners in alliance, in that he gives us in abundance all goods of creation as well as eternal life.

Nothing is artificially hidden in order to subjugate and exploit us. Everything flows from the Creator in his creation, rich and in abundance without avarice from the donor or greed from the recipient. Every recipient is at the same time a donor to his fellow human beings and fellow creatures.

Freed from personal fear, we can be fair to our fellow human beings and treat them with humanity. That is the political and economic part of Luther’s treatise on freedom. It is about the freeing of the individual – through love – for the benefit of his fellow humans.

When we look at our world today, we recognise how important this message of freedom is – given to us by grace – free and in abundance.

“We should be humans and not God!” In the twenty-first century, this message, from people who have their bond with, and therefore their boundary in God, means, finally taking leave of the ideology of unbounded opportunities and the right of humans over other fellow creatures, from fantasies of omnipotence, the ideology of the venality of human beings and all things and means required for life. To ultimately recognize and accuse how the Earth, God’s wonderful creation, is threatened by the ideology – yes the religion – of boundlessness and fantasies of supremacy. Catch-word climate change. And already today millions of people suffer from hunger, injustice and exploitation, war, terror, and forced migration.

Finally, to strengthen the message as the Lutheran World Federation is doing for the anniversary of the Reformation; Liberated by God’s Grace! Therefore: Human beings – not for sale! Creation – not for sale! Salvation – not for sale!

Let me now summarize.

Taking the Reformation seriously means, in this days and age, finding the true measure of humanity and taking seriously the twofold law of love. Let God alone be God. That means accepting the boundaries of humanity and (economic) growth and being merciful to one’s neighbor – near or far – as a fellow human being, as oneself.

At present we live above our means – as if our earthly goods and treasures are endlessly exploitable. In this way we are devastating creation and are on the way to destroying its foundations. The ideology of unhindered economic growth also puts the individual under pressure to achieve a high degree of perfection and strive for continual improvement. Here again the extent of human capability is exceeded. That makes us merciless to ourselves and to others, the pressure to do well makes us all losers. Those that can keep up with the pace give their all, and eventually end up exhausted and burnt out. Those who fail along the way are considered parasites.

Reformation in the twenty-first century means transformation; a change of our lifestyle, a turn-around from the prevailing obsession with perfection and constant improvement, with its exploitative and destructive downside, back to a human scale. That means yes, yes and not no!, yes – back to boundaries, to mistakes, to modesty with what we have. Yes with joy to what God gives us in abundance and what we can not buy: love, friendship, empathy, solidarity. Yes to God, who freed me from self-idolatry! Yes to the right of my fellow human beings to a comfortable life! Yes to the shining light of mercy and love in our world! Yes to Christ and his justice! Yes to our baptism!

Thank you very much for your attention!