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I love a good celebration. Birthdays, significant milestones, Thanksgiving, Christmas—all of these evoke memories of good times with family and friends. Granted, sometimes these same celebrations bring to the surface tensions within families and among friends. In general, life involves messiness because we do not all agree on everything, even—and perhaps particularly—in the church.
On the other hand, there are times when we experience rifts being healed and tensions being lessened. Sometimes, even the imperfect church can get some things right.
In 2017 the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) held their General Council in Leipzig, Germany. During the General Council we journeyed from Leipzig to Wittenberg, where, 500 years earlier, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church. During an ecumenical worship service in the City Church across town, we celebrated two ecumenical agreements.
In the first, the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) signed the Wittenberg Witness, a statement that acknowledged the ways the global Lutheran and Reformed communities are already working together, while also committing to “a new imagination to dream a different world, a world where justice, peace and reconciliation prevail.” In this the Lund principle was invoked, which affirms that churches should act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel them to act separately.
At this service the WCRC also signed an association agreement to the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ), an agreement originally signed by the LWF and the Roman Catholic Church in 1999. The JDDJ describes agreement between the LWF and the Catholic Church on what was a church dividing issue at the time of the Reformation, saying, “We rejoice together that the historical doctrinal differences on the doctrine of justification no longer divide us.” In 2006 the World Methodist Council (WMC) expressed fundamental agreement with the JDDJ that the mutual condemnations of the 16th century Reformation do not apply to the current teaching on justification.
The ecumenical significance of these agreements is profound.
Following this service, we were released to experience Wittenberg. I headed to the Castle Church, where Luther’s 95 theses are engraved on the church’s entry doors.
To my dismay, the entrance was blocked off; a cleaning of the doors was in process. Along with many others, I was disappointed not to be able to take a picture of those historic emblems of the Reformation. I could only photograph the top of the doors and, above them, a depiction of Jesus on the cross.
In retrospect, all of this seems fitting in light of Reformation Day this week. As has been widely acknowledged, Martin Luther never intended his 95 theses to be a dividing force within the Christian church. Rather, his intent was to bring to light some important things that the church had gotten wrong. Perhaps, also, in the 500 years since, the church has been complicit in glorifying the event rather than acknowledging that we sinful humans often excel in getting things wrong, both in theology and Christian practice. We lift our eyes to loftier heights and more appealing images while ignoring the ways we have marginalized others in both theology and practice. Sometimes the greatest commandments—to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves—are forgotten and neglected in our desire to be right.
In my reflections this month I have focused on ecumenical relationships because I believe that we would do well to remember the words Jesus spoke to his disciples in John 17:
I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one . . . so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
In 2023 the WCRC inaugurated a WCRC office in Rome, Italy, for the purpose of facilitating ecumenical dialogue and joint justice work with other global ecumenical bodies with offices there. During our time in Rome we also celebrated Reformation Day with a multi-lingual worship service in a Waldensian church. For me it felt like a coming together of what had been rent asunder, that we might work together for God’s will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
May we too—506 years after the Reformation, together with all the partners God provides—find a new imagination to dream a different world, a world where justice, peace and reconciliation prevail.