Greetings in the name of our ever loving God, and Jesus Christ our Savior who bestows on us grace in abundance.
As we look out our windows we can see that autumn has arrived. The leaves have begun to turn, there is a bit more of a chill in the air; the world around us has begun to change once again. The seasons have a wonderful way of reminding us that change within this world is inevitable, and is usually a good thing. At the end of this month we will have come around again to the commemoration of the event that we use as the starting point of a time of great change within the life of the church: the Reformation.
With the nailing of the 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenberg, Martin Luther set out to start a conversation as to how the church could be changed for the better, to be brought back to having Christ, and the Gospel message be the focal point of the Christian faith. As Lutherans we see that these changes that Luther spells out were meant to bring about something good, and to a degree it was. However, the result of the Reformation cannot be seen as completely good. The subsequent split that happened when the Holy Roman Empire refused to listen to Luther in regards to the reforms he suggested has left a lasting impact on the church as a whole, some of which is negative. There were, and have been, hurt feelings on both sides. There has been hostility toward one another, and in some cases an outright refusal to even work together for the sake of the world.
At the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in New Orleans back in August, I was encouraged to see that this dynamic between Catholics and Lutherans is continuing to change for the better. At this 2016 Churchwide Assembly the voting assembly approved a document entitle Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry, and Eucharist. This document, jointly prepared by the Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, sets out to continue the work of bringing our two church bodies back into union with each other as ecumenical partners; a work that began in 1965 when the two communions first started holding ecumenical dialogues.
Declaration on the Way first sets out to outline statements the two communions have been able to come to consensus on in regards to topics of church, ordained ministry, and Eucharist (the Lord’s Supper) after which they go into more detail about each agreement. Such statements include agreements like, “Lutherans and Catholics agree that the church on earth lives from and is ruled by the Word of God, which it encounters in Christ, in the living word of the gospel, and in the inspired and canonical Scriptures;” or, “Lutherans and Catholics agree that the proclamation of the gospel is foremost among the various tasks of the ordained ministry,” or even, “Lutherans and Catholics agree in esteeming highly the spiritual benefits of union with the risen Christ given to them as they receive his body and blood in Holy Communion” (Declaration on the Way 5, 12, 14). The general idea behind these agreements, thirty-two in total, was for these two church bodies to come up with statements that may have been points of division and contention in the past, but are no longer.
That is not to say, of course, that both church bodies are in full agreement when it comes to the entirety of these categories of church, ordained ministry, and Eucharist. The second to the last section of this document highlights the remaining differences and what may need to happen in the future to be able to be reconciled in regards to these categories. One such difference that remains, in regards to Eucharist, is the mode of the true presence of Christ in the bread and wine. For Catholics Jesus is fully present in the bread and the wine which is completely transformed into His body and blood. Whereas for Lutherans we believe that the body and blood of Christ are truly present in the bread and the wine without the physical properties of the bread and the wine ceasing to be there. It is important to note here that in order for this issue, and others like it, to one day no longer be non-church dividing issues doesn’t mean one side will have to concede to the point of the other. All this means is that both sides will have to be able to accept and respect the understanding and interpretation of the other side; agreeing to disagree with each other and knowing that that is okay. In total this joint committee task force identified fifteen remaining differences outlining considerations that must be made in order to move forward.
As a community that is made up of a variety of different Christian faiths and the practices there of, including our Catholic brothers and sisters, this document highlights the importance of being able work together for the good of the community and the world regardless of our theological differences. As we journey closer and closer to the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation this document reminds us of what Martin Luther intended to do when he attempted to get the conversation started to bring the church back to its foundations in Christ and Scripture; that is for the church to be a church that is always reforming, always being made new. If you would like to read more about the continued path toward greater unity with our Catholic brothers and sisters a digital copy of the document Declaration on the Way can be found on our parish website under the section entitled “Links.”