Saint Peter’s Church 619 Lexington Avenue at 54th Street New York, NY 10022, (Eero Huovinen Lutheran Bishop emeritus of Helsinki)
I want to begin by expressing my gratitude and sincere thank you to two persons, Bill Rush and Amandus Derr. I’m not sure what kind of a meal they have ordered when they invited me. The responsibility is on their side.
I feel like a young pastor who had to preach in a prison, the first time in his life. He wanted to create a good atmosphere and began with saying: I’m so happy that there are so many of you here. – Here I stand, I can do no other, God help me.
I suppose there are two reasons for me to be here in St Peters today. The first may be my role as the co-chair of the international Lutheran – Roman Catholic Commission on Unity. In this role it is my task to speak and promote the good relations between Lutherans and Catholics. The unity of the Church of Christ is close to my heart.
The second theme for tonight comes from a proposal of Amandus Derr. Some months ago he asked me to say some words about what justification means today. In the second part of my speech I’ll come to that. But first about the relations between the Lutheran and the Catholic Church.
In the coming October it will be 500 years since Martin Luther sent his 95 thesis to his local archbishop. He probably also nailed them on the church door in Wittenberg. These theses are often regarded as the beginning of the Lutheran Reformation and the split in the Western Church.
In order to understand what really happened during the Reformation and how we today evaluate the relations between the churches, the Lutheran – Roman Catholic Commission on Unity has published a jointly written ecumenical document titled ”From Conflict to Communion”.
Let me briefly say some words about this document. It is one of the many fruitful ecumenical documents published since the dialogue between the churches began after the 1960’s and it has been translated into several languages around the world. When Pope Francis together with the representatives of the Lutheran World Federation prayed in last October in Lund in Sweden, the liturgy was based on texts of our document From Conflict to Communion.
The subtitle of the document points out what is at stake: ”Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017”. Instead of speaking of celebration we consciously use the word commemoration. Surely we as Lutherans can be joyous about the precious way Martin Luther spoke about the Gospel. But on the other hand we have to remember that the happenings meant also the split of the Western Church, and that is the sad side of the Reformation time.
Let’s ask together what this document can tell us today in the midst of our ecumenical challenges.
I have four requests for you.
The first one: If you have ten seconds to spend on our document, please read only the title. In ten seconds you can do it three times. ”From Conflict to Communion.” ”From Conflict to Communion.” ”From Conflict to Communion.”
The title is the most important. If you want the people to remember something about your writings or speeches, put energy in choosing a compact and short title or heading. In our Commission we spoke very much about finding a title which clearly shows what is at stake.
Thinking about both the legacy of the Reformation and the development after the Reformation our common concern is to get away from conflict. In the past conflict marked the Lutheran – Catholic relations. Now we should put them behind us. With the preposition ”from” we state from what we should be free. Please, do not stay in conflict.
Instead of conflict Communion is important. Communion is not to be taken for granted. With the preposition ”to” we express what is the goal we should strive for. What is our goal? What direction do we want to go?
In ten seconds it is possible to understand what is the most important thing in ecumenism. ”From Conflict to Communion.” Communion is the key word of ecumenism.
Would it be possible, dear sisters and brothers, that whenever we meet a Christian from another church, we would spend some seconds meditating silently in our hearts and saying to ourselves: ”From Conflict to Communion.” This is what I have to expect first of all from myself. If I have this attitude, then it may be possible for others to do the same. ”From Conflict to Communion.”
Communion is the main point. With that we should begin and towards that we should strive. If we learn only to come from conflict to communion, we know of lot about the nature of ecumenism. Ten seconds is enough for that.
But I have also a second request for you. If you have another three minutes for our document, please read the foreword. Ask yourself what pleases you in the foreword. Three minutes is enough. A Finn needs four minutes.
What is important in the foreword? My suggestion for the first answer is: Two things were important in the Reformation 500 years ago. The first was a sad thing, the other can be a joyous thing.
The sad thing in the Reformation was that it lead to a deep split in the undivided Western church. ”The fact that the struggle for the truth in the sixteenth century led to the loss of unity in Western Christendom belongs to the dark pages of church history.”
We have to be honest and confess that there is also a sad side to the Reformation. It is not most important, whether it is the Lutherans or the Catholics, who is more guilty. We have to confess together: ”We have stood in the way of the good news of the mercy of God.”
But there is also a joyous side in the heritage of the Reformation. What ever was said during the struggles at that time, the constant and permanent was and is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Martin Luther can teach us much, but the most important is the Gospel, which makes us free. ”True theology and the knowledge of God are in the crucified Christ.” That was the core in the theology of Martin Luther.
The foreword of our document says what we can be joyous and happy about: ”The gospel should be celebrated and communicated to the people of our time so that the world may believe that God gives Himself to human beings and calls us into communion with Himself and His church. Herein lies the basis for our joy in our common faith.”
Then to my third request. If you still have three more minutes for our document, please read the five imperatives in the end of our document.
We often ask concerning ecumenical documents: what good do they do in our everyday life, in our families and local parishes? I do hope that the five imperatives can give at least an initial answer.
”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.”
”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.”
”The third imperative: Catholics and Lutherans should again commit themselves to seek visible unity, to elaborate together what his means in concrete steps, and to strive repeatedly toward this goal.”
”The fourth imperative; Lutherans and Catholics should jointly rediscover the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ for our time.”
”The fifth imperative: Catholics and Lutherans should witness together to the mercy of God in proclamation and service to the world.”
I really hope that these five imperatives can support us all in changing our ecumenical behavior a little bit. All will not change in a moment, but something can change. Please, try to listen to the imperatives, not only here tonight, but also later on in your homes and parishes.
Let’s take a short exercise or drill, for three minutes.
Please, read again the first imperative, slowly and then turn to your neighbor and ask her or him, what thoughts the imperative creates. Do not start with telling your own ideas, start with asking, what your friend has in her or his mind. You can be sure, that afterward your friend will ask your opinion. So, a short mutual exercise in the practice of ecumenism. Three minutes.
One of my favorite slogans comes from the pope John XXIII: ”The things that unite us are greater than those that divide us.”
I still have the fourth and last request.
When you go back to your homes, please take yet another two hours, sit in a comfortable chair, open your laptop, find via Google the document, with words From Conflict to Communion, and read the whole document slowly.
Yes, I know, it will not be such an easy lecture, not like reading a comic book, like the cartoons of Donald Duck. It will be a theological lecture, hopefully also a spiritual challenge.
I’m sure that all of you here in St. Peters have such nimble minds, intellectual curiosity and high competence, that the lecture will be an adventure. And if or when you find something which is too complicated or too sophisticated – you can be sure we theologians know how to be just those things – then please, stop and – like Martin Luther – have a beer, (a good beer), and turn to the next page. There you will find new impulses and insights.
That was my contribution to the relation between Lutherans and Catholics.
Now, please, stand up, cross your hands, be silent – –. Then raise your hands up, turn them to left, turn them to right, once again to left and right. Put your hands down, shake your shoulders and sit down to your seat.
Some words about the justification. As I told, Amandus Derr, your dear shepherd, asked me to reflect together with you the theological core issue of the Reformation, namely justification.
I have two suggestions for a preliminary answer. One is a theological one, the second a more pastoral one. First the theological.
I’m sure you all are aware, that the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church have in 1999 agreed on the fundamental truths of the doctrine of justification. The common declaration is really a milestone in the relation between the two parties, a deep sign of the common faith. It is easy for you to find the document in the internet.
The core paragraph of the document shows in an exemplary way, that our justification is based only on that what God has done for us. Very often we think, that the main question of Martin Luther was “How do we find a gracious God”. But let me put the question in a different way – and I’m quite sure, that Martin Luther could agree with me. “How God in his grace find you?”
More important than what we do or what we believe is what God has done and what He does. That is also the intention in the core paragraph of the common declaration:
“In faith we together hold the conviction that justification is the work of the triune God. The Father sent his Son into the world to save sinners. The foundation and presupposition of justification is the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ. Justification thus means that Christ himself is our righteousness, in which we share through the Holy Spirit in accord with the will of the Father. Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.” (JD, 15)
This is my theological answer to you, dear Amandus, and to your parishioners. The central words are: “Christ himself is our righteousness.” Repeat that: ”Christ himself is our righteousness.”
This answer can be expanded and deepened theologically, but is not my task just now. Let me only try to explain, what this theological intention of the Joint Declaration means in a more pastoral way. I’ll quote two persons. One is Martin Luther, the other one is Jesus Christ.
In a letter from 7.4.1516 to his friend Georg Spenlein, who was troubled about his life in front of God’s face, Luther writes:
“Learn to know Christ and him crucified. Learn to sing to him, and say, ‘Lord Jesus, you are my righteousness, I am your sin. You have taken upon yourself what is mine and given me what is yours. You have become what you were not so that I might become what I was not.’”
The justification is an exchange, a great and wonderful exchange, whereby the Son of God has taken all our guilt in order to set upon us all his righteousness.
So, if you, dear friend here in St. Peters, are worried about your destiny, do not worry, because Christ has done everything. Do not worry, Christ is your righteousness. That’s enough.
But if you do not trust a theologian from time of the Reformation, please listen to the parable of Jesus Christ himself. In the Gospel of St Luke Jesus tells about the Prodigal Son. Very often we think that the main person is the prodigal son. That is also the heading in many Bible translations. But, allow me to say, that the main person is the Father, not the son.
Some exegetical experts say that the intention of Jesus in this parable is to say, how the Pharisees should treat other people. The intention of Jesus is an ethical one. But allow me to say, that the main intention of Jesus is to tell, who God treats us. Or even more, the intention of Jesus is to tell, how He himself treats us. ”Christ himself is our righteousness.”
Let’s see, what the Father (or Jesus) does to us:
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.“ But the father said to his servants, “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” So they begun to celebrate.
I do hope to show how sweet the actions of the justifying God are. Twelve signs of his graciousness:
Firstly. The lost (prodigal) son was a long way off, when his father saw him. That means the father had waited perhaps everyday from the morning to the evening, when his dear son is coming back. The justifying God see us from faraway.
Secondly. The father was filled with compassion for him. Compassion is an expression of the justifying will of God.
Thirdly. The father ran to his son. He was not slow. The justifying God is running to us.
Fourthly. The father threw his arms around. He is not shaking the hand. The justifying God takes us into his lap, into his heart.
Fifthly. The father kissed his son. A kiss between men can be a sign of love. The justifying God loves us.
Sixthly. The father said to his servants: Bring the best robe and put it on him. Not only jeans or shorts, but vestments for a festive occasion. The justifying God cleans us and gives us the best robe He has in his wardrobe, his own justice. Jesus understood the same as Luther: God has given us what is his.
Seventhly. The father puts a ring on the finger of the son, that means he gives back the status or the position the son had before. The justifying God restores our life.
Eighthly. The father gives new sandals on the feet of the son. The justifying God gives freedom back to us.
Ninthly. The father offers a fattened calf to the son. The justifying God gives us the best gifts He has, in order to feed us.
Tenthly. The father says to the whole parish: Let’s have a feast and celebrate. The justifying God wants to celebrate with us, both in New York and in Helsinki.
Eleventhly. The father is happy, not because of his own graciousness, but because his lost son who was dead is alive again, he was lost and now is found. The justifying God is not worried about us, but He is happy, because He is able to find us.
Twelfthly. After all this took place, the household of the father begun to celebrate. The celebration was not only a wish, it really happened. The justifying God is a faithful God. He sees to it that the celebration with you all really takes places.
The title of the parable should be: The Prodigal Father. His mercy has no end.
God bless you all.