Lutheran Bishop, President of VELKD, Germany
Maybe the all important and central question for Christians to answer is: Who are we and whose are we?
I am delighted that I was asked to speak about God’s mercy, because this might help to answer this important question.
In the bible “mercy” is a close relative to “grace”.
In the Letter to the Hebrews we read for example: “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (4.16). Another example of this couple is found in the Wisdom of Salomon: “Those who trust in him will understand truth, and the faithful will abide with him in love, because grace and mercy are upon his holy ones, and he watches over his elect” (3.8).
Reflecting on mercy and grace we are at the core of Lutheran Theology. In our confessional statements we are reminded: “Since we receive the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation on account of Christ by faith alone, faith alone justifies. This is because those who are reconciled are regarded as righteous and children of God, not on account of their own purity, but through mercy on the account of Christ, as long as they take hold of his mercy by faith” (Apol. IV,86). Or even shorter: “Out of sheer mercy in Christ, apart from all our merit or good works, he has saved us” (Formula of Concord, XI,87).
Every person needs the experience of being accepted. Everybody strives for praise and approval, yet over and over again we experience failure or inferiority. So how are we accepted, how are we justified? We are justified by God’s grace alone. This is the theological insights Lutherans can offer to Christianity. God’s grace and mercy are free and unconditional gifts. They cannot be earned by us nor can salvation be guaranteed by following certain practices or rituals. We do not have to work for salvation by performing meritorious deeds. No, we are already free, we are already forgiven, we are already recipients of God’s grace and mercy. They are already given in Christ. God’s grace and mercy and his love are revealed in Jesus Christ – in his words, in his deeds, in his suffering and resurrection. In Christ, God’s liberating mercy and grace shine through.
Therefore let me answer my opening question:
Who are we? We are the people liberated by mercy and grace!
Whose are we? We are God’s people who has liberated us.
This will keep being an ongoing mystery: God loves us, each one of us. Not because we are perfect beings; not because we did great things. No! God turns to us and calls us his children even though we are what we are: not perfect and sinful beings. God loves us, even though we disobey his will.
Looking at the world with all that peacelessness, all this mercilessness with which we exploit creation: have we misunderstood God’s mercy as a blank cheque to do, whatever we like? We forgot how to marvel. We forgot what the ancient word ‘humbleness’ means. We are only a little lower than God, but not God! Yes, we are images of God, but not cloned idols.
Mercy requires that we accept God being the almighty power.
This term “a little lower than God” is the source for the dignity of every single person. The infinite value and sacrosanct dignity of human kind is not result of achievements but of mercy. Because God looks at me with love, I am what I am: a loved and valuable child.
I am a granddad by now. I have the privilege to watch two grandchildren grow, learn to crawl, speak and walk. It is amazing how they discover the world, how they show undisguised what they are thinking and feeling.
When our grandchildren are with us, we are able to see and feel the world anew. When those small arms wrap themselves around my neck, I am able to feel, how great and unmerited the love is that I receive. “Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes” prays Psalm 8. And Jesus says: “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” (Mk 10).
With my grandchildren I experience God’s mercy through those new life stories.
But how is it possible that little beings who, according to the measures of the world, are of little use still make our lives so rich?
They are able to, because they themselves experience what life is, what the gift of mercy, what unasked devotion is. We humans depend on and live from this devotion, this “basic sense of trust”.
The love of children, that I experience as a granddad is responding love, is the answer to a bright and shining face over the baby crib that promises peace. This is the ungrounded fulfillment of the Aaronite Peace: “The LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.” Love only exists as responding love: Yes, through the love of parents shines the mercy of God with which he calls us all into life and makes us free, to live and love.
The Lutheran World Federation gave itself the following theme for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017: “Liberated by God’s grace”. This is the core theme we Lutheran want to ponder and deliberate on while we are on our way to the year 2017. We are convinced that this insight still holds a significant and all important truth even 500 years after Luther. It still has an essential value for us Christians today, actually a value for all of mankind.
Because one more thing is important: Since God’s grace and mercy are unconditional gifts, they invoke a response of gratitude. And this response expresses itself in the loving and caring engagement with human being and the whole creation. This is what we are called for. Thus the motto of the Lutheran World Federation continues with three subthemes:
Salvation – Not for sale!
Human Beings – Not for sale!
Creation – Not for Sale!
Liberated by God’s grace we are freed to care for mankind and creation and we have to guard their integrity. “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Lk 6.36) – we are asked by Jesus. And Luther always stressed that we are called to be a church living in the world, a church of active citizenship. God has called every single one of us to serve in the world. He has called us to be Christian citizens who love and care for their neighbours and creation. Mankind and creation cannot be regarded as commodities whose value can be measured in terms of profit. They are not for sale. As Christian citizens in the world we raise our voices against injustice and exploitation. We will speak out when the dignity of individuals or certain groups is violated. We turn our caring attention to a creation “in bondage of decay” and “groaning in labor pains” (Rom 8.21f).
In the world we experience mercilessness without end.
At the moment there is nothing afflicting us more deeply in Europe than the steadily and dramatically increasing number of refugees who have to leave their homes because they are scared to death, because they are persecuted and fear for their lives.
What they are looking for, is nothing but grace, nothing but the Lord’s face shining upon them. They do not seek wealth or adventure. They run and flee to regain their dignity. I am glad and grateful for all those in Europe and in my home country of Germany, who give a friendly welcome to strangers, who open their hearts and doors for them. They reflect the grace of God and recognize in every stranger a person who is created only a little lower than God himself. I thank St. Egidio for the worldwide efforts for the refugees and the miserable and I thank for the exemplary respect for the dignity of these uprooted people.
So: Who are we? We are the people liberated by mercy and grace and to mercy and grace!
Whose are we? We are God’s people who liberated us.
If this is the answer to the question, if we as God’s people have experienced the value of God’s mercy and grace in our life than we are called to make this liberating grace and mercy known to mankind and act accordingly in the interest of mankind and creation.
God’s mercy is the power of life.
God’s mercy is the source of peace.