Vice-President of the Lutheran World Federation
The Role of Christian Unity in a Divided World
There is a myth and a dream about Europe and it is necessary to differentiate between the two. The myth from the Greek mythology is well known: Zeus fell in love with the beautiful Phoenician princess, Europa. The god transformed himself to a white bull and took the princess with him over the sea to the island of Crete. Europa bore three children to Zeus. According to the legend, our continent has been named after the Asian princess.
One element of this myth is the „divided world” referred to in the title of today’s discussion panel.Division isalways linked to power and the misuse of authority – in most cases in a political and economic sense.
But in addition to this, we also know of a dream leading the way back to Asia again. As it is written in Acts 16, a Man of Macedonia appeared to Paul during the night, saying: ”Come over … and help us”. This is a cry for help from the profane Europe to the Jews and forthcoming Christianity. Paul responded to the call for help and went to preach the Gospel also in Europe, reanimating the already weakened Greek-Roman setting. From this work, a new Europe was born.
With all respect to antique culture, I am positivethat today we have to represent the dream related to Europe – and not the myth. Because that myth is pagan and that dream is Christian. On the Western and the Eastern part of the continent, we can all witness how many elements of Christian tradition are surrendered by the countries – and also by the churches. It is an easy way for Europe to sink into a pagan, neo-pagan situation. That is why all of us have to hear the cries, saying: “Come over … and help us!” Can you hear that cry of the secularized Europe, which is almost forgetting, how to pray, how to sing, how to praise. Can you hear that cry?
If we can hear it, we have to respond to it clearly. Sometimes with words, sometimes with prophetic witness. This is what the Apostle Paul did: he preached the word in season and out of season. He went to the Areopagus, took up the challenge of encountering and confronting different philosophies and ideologies but then he was determined „to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
As a Lutheran, I feel drawn to the theology of the cross, which Luther set against the theology of the glory. The church needs to make that decision again and again: does it want to be on the sunny side or can it bear staying in the shadow. Does it seek the favours of the powerful or does it identify with the poor and oppressed? The temptation to follow the theology of the glory was not only present in the Middle Ages but also in contemporary times. In the East and the West alike.
A Japanese theologian has a book with the title“No Handle on the Cross”. Let’s try and imagine the following absurd situation: people are setting out to follow Christ but the cross is not on their shoulders but in their hands. It is equipped with an elegant leather handle so they can dangle it as if it was a briefcase carried by a businessman. But there is no handle on the cross. Jesus was carrying it in the most uncomfortable posture possible. The cross wounded him, bruised his skin, its weight pulled him to the ground. The church can only be credible with the cross on its shoulders – or, in Luther’s words, in the shape of the cross.
This attitude does not only manifest itself in words. In many cases we need silent and humble service. Self-sacrifice. As a church, we don’t always need to be on display or seek attention.
There is a common distinction between the visible and the invisible church and this latter, the invisible church, is stirredby martyrdom and poverty.
We are having a conference in a country which can give us examples of both. The conference has been organized by a community which also emphasizes these two ecclesial characteristics.
At the beginning I contrasted the powerful and authoritarian myth of Europe with the European dream. The “Christian unity” also referred to in the title of today’s panel discussion is part of this dream. Unity is not created by us; it is the original state. Humans can only destroy and shatter unity. The Apostle Paul talks about the human body and its parts in connection to unity. If the body is healthy, all parts function in a combined manner complementing and supporting each other.
I understand the biggest European problem of our times, migration, in the same context. On the one hand, it is without doubt that churches need to be actively present in the possible solutions to this problem. On the other hand, the problem calls our attention to the fact that we need to give up our comfort zone, help the other and welcome strangers.
In the Bible story which I mentioned at the beginning of this talk, it was Europe that was asking for help. This is how Paul and his companions ended up here with the Good News. In other words we could say that Christianity was a present to Europe from no other place than the Middle East. Now, thinking about the Christians persecuted in Syria and other places, it is our turn to return some of this help. What we should give is the essence of Christianity: love and mercy.
We can be strengthened in our endeavours by the Bible verse which is the verse of the year 2015 in our congregations: “Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”
I am aware that the issue of refugees has several sides. But being aware of the political complexity is no excuse for neglecting our Christian responsibility, which is to show mercy indiscriminately, if necessary. This is highlighted in the prophetic words in Matthew 25: “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat… I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you invited me in…” We know that in practice it is often the opposite that happens: “You gave me nothing to eat, you gave me nothing to drink, you did not invite me in.”
Reading the end of the Book of Acts, I feel humiliated. In chapter 27 Paul and his companions are captives and are being transported to Italy by ship. The sailors are hostile to the hundreds of prisoners closed up on board. They haven’t been eating for weeks. Suddenly they are shipwrecked and the soldiers want to kill the prisoners. Finally, they manage to get to land on Malta – some swimming, some holding on to planks. What happened next is described by Luke, the author of the book, with the following words: “The barbarous people showed us unusual kindness: they kindled /kindld/a fire, and received us every one, because of the present rain, and because of the cold.” Even barbarous people are capable of such acts of mercy.
In my home country, Hungary, the situation of refugees is dramatic. I would like to say that the church should not follow politicians, economists or sociologists but take its own path. To be more precise: the path set by Jesus. This is the spirit manifested in the statement issued by the Community of Sant’Egidio in Hungary. They spoke out against the barbed wire fence built on the Hungarian-Serbian border. Theyalso raised their concerns about the proposed legislation which would declare “unauthorized crossing of the border barrier” a criminal act; or authorize the police to enter private homes without a court order if they suspect the illegal presence of persons there.
Besides the help given to individual refugees, it is equally important to turn to root causes and eliminate guilty regimes. This is what the following paraphrase of a well-known biblical story is about:
“Walking towards Jericho for the second time, the Samaritan found another wounded traveller. On his third, fourth and fifth journey he came across yet more victims lying on the roadside. He walked the road a hundred times and there were hundred wretched people, then a thousand and even more, in the very same place. This is what he was contemplating on his trip number 2333 /two thousand, three-hundred and thirty three/. He was so preoccupied with his thoughts that he almost tripped over the last victim. He gave a sigh, reached for the bandage kept in his bag and tended victim number 2333 /two thousand, three-hundred and thirty three/routinely.
With a well-trained move, he lifted the bloody victim on the back of his animal; and, lo and behold, the donkey set off towards the inn by itself. Following the well-known path, the donkey and the victim arrived to the inn. At the same time, the Samaritan was heading to the desert to find the robbers’ den; because on coming across victim number 2333/two thousand, three-hundred and thirty three/, he suddenly realized that he could be a much better Samaritan, if he was concerned about the culprits as well instead of simply dressing wounds.”