Archdiocese of New York and Metro NY Synod event
Saint Peters, Wednesday, 7th November
Church, Ministry and Eucharist are the three important, but also difficult questions between the Lutheran and Catholic Churches. These three questions have been reflected on in various international and regional dialogues, in United States, in the Nordic countries and in Germany. My intention in this session is to ask how we can proceed together towards a common understanding on the nature of the Church.
Before I go to the ecclesiology I would like repeat my principal intention I mentioned yesterday. Whatever we say about the issues on ecclesiology we constantly have to keep in our mind, that our faith is based only on God and on his grace. The Trinitarian background and the justification trough grace alone should always be the basis for all other truths of faith. Saying this does not mean to express a truism.
You surely know the story about a man, who after being three times a widow, married once again. After the wedding night he said to her wife: “I love you very much, I love you every day, I love you always. – Let’s not speak any more about that.”
We should never stop talking about the basis of our faith, about Christ and his grace.
I dare to say that we have a common and broad consensus on many aspects of the theological character of the church. I follow the agreements Bill Rusch has expressed.
Firstly, the church “has been assembled as the body and bride of Christ by the Triune God”. Christ himself has called his disciples and apostles and sent them to world.
The origin of the church is not a simple human attempt, however active and committed we are. The church is not an institution established by the people, not a federation based on our decisions or will, but much more.
She is instituted by Jesus Christ himself. I quote Bill Rusch. The church “participates in Christ’s benefits through the proclaiming of the Gospel” in the Word of God. Not only the Word of God, but also the sacraments of the baptism and Eucharist are “initiated by Christ and handled on by his Apostles”. In Latin we say: institutum est, established by God.
The church is a mystery, which has both a human and divine nature. We should be aware and not emphasize too much the other side of church, at the expense of the other.
The Christological disputes of the fifth century may help us. On the one hand we should not separate the human and divine like the Nestorians did. Both aspects are important and belong together. We should not think that the divine aspect of the church is only occasionally present in the visible church.
On the other hand we should not follow the Monophysitists, who emphasized the divine aspect so strongly, that the human aspect almost disappeared. The divine aspect of the church is present only in a weak and human side of the church.
A sound and common understanding of the church can be found in the spirit of the Chalcedonian council. The council spoke mainly about the two natures of Jesus Christ, but its teaching can also be applied to the understanding of the church. Like Jesus Christ we can say that the human and divine natures of the church are related to eachother “united, unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably”.
According to the council of Chalcedon the both natures are united in the one person of Jesus Christ. The union of the two natures are inseparable, but at the same time the property of each nature is preserved.
My question is: can this teaching of the early Christians empower us?
I try to apply this theological teaching to our present situation. Should we on the one hand avoid all kind of ecclesial triumphalism, but on the other hand have understanding for the divine character of the church?
We all are aware, that the church has many very human aspects, we Lutherans say, even sinful aspects. It is not possible to deny the weaknesses of the church. Apostle Paul says: “We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”
But the church is also a sign of God’s grace. Jesus Christ has promised to be among his disciples until the end of the ages. We are not on our owns. Christ is present among us. The presence of Christ is the reason for the salvific nature of the church.
On such a theological line we may also deepen our fundamental agreements on the church.
One obstacle between the churches has been the Catholic terminology defining the church. Since the Second Vatican Council it has been customary to say that the Church of Christ “subsistit” in the Roman Catholic Church. The churches of Reformation can be regarded as “ecclesial communities”, but they are according the Catholic understanding not churches “in the proper sense”.
The Lutheran – Roman Catholic Commission on Unity has during the last years tried to overcome this problem by starting with the sacrament of baptism. We are convinced that the sharing the same baptism does not mean a communion only between the individual baptized people, but it creates also a communio ecclesiarum, a communion between the communities.
If that kind of interpretation is valid, then it might also be difficult to speak about churches in a proper sense and about others who are not churches in proper sense.
I have a certain understanding for the Catholic opinion about the possible theological defects in the Lutheran ecclesiology and for the desire for a deeper awareness of the theological character of ecclesiology in the churches of the Reformation. But at the same time, I ask whether the Catholic wording of church “in the proper sense” may be unfruitful and also an obstacle in the relations between the churches.
I can imagine that my Catholic colleagues would not be very happy if I were to say that the Catholic Church is not a church “in the proper sense”, namely in the Lutheran sense. If Catholics say that we Lutherans have too few elements of the church in our churches, we Lutherans can ask whether the Catholic Church has too heavy or many elements of the church.
I can also imagine that behind the Catholic terminology there is a long tradition and many important arguments, and I really do not want to undermine them. But instead of using the word church only in two opposite meanings, only in on- or off-positions, it perhaps might be more fruitful to ask whether we could approach the question from a more nuanced aspect. Perhaps we could ask to what degree those things which belong to the essence of the church are present in our churches.
One common question between the churches is how we can grow together as members in the body of Jesus Christ. This is a basic question to both parties. What kind of spirituality do we live in our parishes?
In speaking about the open questions between the churches Bill Rusch points to the question, whether the church can be regarded as a sacramental entity. Roman Catholic have described the Church as a “sacrament of salvation”. Bill Rusch continues and says: “Lutherans have tended not to use this terminology”.
Cardinal Walter Kasper has in his book Harvesting the fruits said that the fundamental ecumenical problem in the dialogue between Lutherans and Catholics is the “very meaning of the sacramentality of the Church”.
My questions is: why are we Lutherans sometimes so afraid of speaking about the church as a sacramental entity?
When I was a young student and later assistant at the University of Helsinki it was an eye opening experience to read about the theological distinction, where Jesus Christ was seen as “primordial sacrament” (Ursakrament) and the church as the “basic sacrament” (Grundsakrament). As a Lutheran theologian I have much understanding for this kind of description of the sacramental background of the church. Everything what is said about the church is always related the uniqueness of the person of Jesus Christ. As truly human and truly God he is present among us in the church.
The sacramental character of the church is extensively handled in two Nordic dialogue documents. Together with my colleague bishop William Kenney we were together chairs in a Roman Catholic – Lutheran dialogue group for Sweden and Finland. In 2010 we published a report by the name Justification in the Life of the Church.
In 2017 came out a new Finnish Lutheran – Catholic document Communion in Growth. In both these documents the sacramental character of the church has a central role. We have been fully aware that we still have differences for example in interpreting the single sacraments. Speaking about the sacramental character of the church does not solve all the problems. But we have started with the commonalities and asked, whether it is possible to have an agreement in the basic truths of church.
In the document Communion in Growth this is described as follows: “The church is the community in which the crucified and risen Christ is present and continues his work on earth. Justification is about growing as a member of this body. Just as Christ is called the original sacrament, so the church may be called the fundamental sacrament.” (29)
When speaking about the number and character of single sacraments we have different emphasizes between the churches. But the fundamental character of God’s work in the church and in the world has always a sacramental character. All the central elements of the sacrament are present in the church. Christ has sent his followers and apostles to the world and in that way given his mandate to the church, he has instituted the means, through which he gives the gifts of his mercy, he is working trough the visible shape of the church and trough the church he gives his promises of grace to us.
Not only the church is a sacramental body, but we as followers of Christ have to live a sacramental life both as individual persons and spiritual communities. In growing of the communal spirituality we can contribute to the common understanding of the Christian life as a sacramental union with Jesus Christ.
Dear sisters and brothers. Allow me to stop here and leave the questions about the ministry open for the discussion. I ask myself, whether we can find a basic common understanding in all the three main issues between the churches, on the same basic theological conception I have described above.