Lutheran Bishop, President of VELKD, Germany
„One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all” (Eph 4,5f.). This concise phrase from the letter to the Ephesians indicates what makes the relation between our churches – and what is at stake at the same time. It’s the one basic creed of global Christianity. It’s about our common foundation upon which the worldwide apostolic church is built. This sentence is the unifying bond that brings us together again and again in the task of living together responsibly despite our differences. This is the biblical word that gives us “the courage to hope” (= Motto des diesjährigen Treffens) in our ecumenical efforts. We are here today, because we have to repeat this fundamental Christian truth over and over again and let it be part of our lives: “One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all”.
The basic, the fundamental, the self-evident is not always understood by itself. The contrary is the case: how often does the obvious need practice and special care in order to actually thrive in our everyday routine, to be present before our eyes. We need to nurture and celebrate the self-evident. Therefore, it is good that each time anew the International Meeting for Peace of the Community Sant’Egidio gathers representatives of the Christian community and reminds them about this simple fact. In my understanding, this is also the purpose of this panel session.
“One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all.” - A few chapters before this verse, Paul describes how Christ builds His church. Christ starts this process by tearing down the fences that are between us, the dividing walls of hostility to be precise. “So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (Eph. 2,17-21). This is a wonderful picture for the unity of the diverse – a unity created in Christ, coming to life by the preaching of the gospel, built on the foundation of the apostles, with Jesus Christ as the cornerstone. And we, the diverse ones, are together in this divine process. “Joined together,” Paul writes, not just put next to each other. The ltater would not last long.
This whole process requires tolerance from us. The dictionaries tell us that tolerance means connivance. To connive the other, to endure the other, to leave the other as he or she is. Certainly: “We are tolerant.” But often that phrase smells of self-righteousness and self-sufficiency. Of course, all our tolerance has limitations and that’s the way it has to be when the truth is involved that we have to seek and to confess. But there is also another side of tolerance: it is also an attitude that anticipates the need for supplementation, that assumes one’s own incompleteness. An attitude that is happy to discover that in the other, in the stranger, one can sometimes find his or her own necessary counterpart – in piety, in faith, in the readiness to confess the faith. Such tolerance assumes that God’s leeway is far greater than my ways of thinking and acting. Therefore, ecumenism must always be more than a passive and enduring tolerance. I rather want to understand the other. This is not possible without a real interest in the other. Therefore it has to be a natural tool of ecumenism to deeply engage with the ecumenical partner. The otherness of the other is to be taken seriously. Real dialogue needs the openness to let the other be different. He or she can’t be fixed or exhaustively determined. For me, therefore, it will always be important that we share with each other our experiences of fortunate and failing ecumenical encounters that have formed us. Also as ecumenical-minded Christians we are interwoven and entangled in stories of encounter, some up-lifting and successful, others troublesome. However, ecumenical conversations and the dialogue with other denominations and also religions are for me a constant source of reassurance of my faith.
To be ecumenically up-to-date means: I always have to expect that the other might already have recognized something more or just something different of the truth, which is found in Christ. I have to anticipate that the other’s vision or understanding could be a vision or understanding that I lack so far and that could enrich me – not disturb me!
I think of my experiences within the communio of the Lutheran World Federation. Sure, there are controversies over the ordination of women to the ordained priesthood or over the question of how to deal with the sexual orientation of people. But this is not all. Above all there is a shared responsibility for the witness to the world and a shared responsibility for the weak and poor, for peace and God's creation. We German Lutherans are deeply grateful for all our historically grown partnerships with Lutheran churches all around the world. We are grateful that we are able to serve in our mission together and by mutual exchange – in our mission to give witness to the one Lord each in its own province of World Christianity.
But I also think of my friends from various Catholic dioceses, universities and seminaries, with which I have been working together for more than twenty years. In a spirit of mutual respect and fraternity we work together in fostering the development of preaching and liturgy. Yes, nowadays we cannot live without each other, without praying for each other, without sharing with each other. Of course we also share our concerns about those things that still divide us. We still disagree in regard to our understanding of the church and of the ordained ministry and we differ on the question whether we can invite each other to the Eucharist. But in all of that we recognize not only what divides us, but we also know very well that there is a common root: the one Lord and the one faith.
And sometimes we may make the encouraging and uplifting experience that our ecumenical understanding is literally tearing down walls: Because by all means there are sometimes fences that can still divide even in death. Ishmael Noko, the former General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, has repeatedly told the following story. In his native Zimbabwe Catholics and Lutherans were buried strictly separate. Catholic cemetery, Lutheran cemetery and between them a high fence. Visible for everybody, differences and discord were codified and cemented way beyond death. It was only after 1999 that they began to tear down those fences in Zimbabwe. The occasion was the signing of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification between Catholics and Lutherans, in which a basic consensus between the two churches was found in this very important question for Lutheran faith. Would only our ecumenical dialogues have more often such practical consequences!
We owe to ourselves such tearing down of fences, such building up relations and joining together but we also owe it to the world: This world longs for our tearing down fences and putting away all fear of diversity and strangeness – this is not only important for the unity of the church but also important for the peace of the world! A culture of mutual respect is the foundation of any relationship within the Church. Respect is for that matter not a one way street, but a gift which unleashes its force only if it is based on reciprocity. Mutual respect leads to listening to each other, leads to real dialogue. If we are able to develop such an inter-denominational culture of dialogue and coexistence between our churches – a fruitful culture of bringing together unity and diversity – then this will also emanate on how we relate to other religions and the various groups in society.
This world is entitled that we give a good example of how to conduct respectful dialogue and how to overcome separation and hatred, distrust and violence. The world is entitled that we do not stay silent and that we do not conceal the truth that we recognize and that is laid into us. Because at the end of the day all of this is not about us. Unity in and under the one Lord is not an end in itself. Rather it is about God and His creation, about His plan for this world, about His kingdom to come. He invites us to be part in building this kingdom, invites all of us in our diversity whether we are strong or weak, whether we are pious or doubtful. Everything divisive between us can and should not deter us from being the visible and audible one body of Christ. And being that one body of Christ we have to raise our voices for peace and justice and against vile hatred and all forms of exclusion. Spiritual communities like Sant’Egidio remind us churches consistently and vigorously of this task. Sant’Egidio shows us vividly how joint prayer will empower us to strive for peace and to turn to the poor and the stranger, how the dialogue between religions and cultures can be nourished and enhanced. Thank God for your witness!