20. Juli 2018 | Lubumbashi, Kongo

We are God's beloved children

20. Juli 2018 von Gerhard Ulrich

Bibelarbeit (englisch) zum Thema "Das Priestertum aller Gläubigen" im Rahmen der Feierlichkeiten zum 50. Gründungsjubiläum der Evangelisch-Lutherischen Kirche im Kongo (EELCo)

I. Bible passage

Brothers and sisters in Christ,

thank you very much for the opportunity to speak to you today about the priesthood of all believers. I am very pleased to talk to you today about this topic, which is so important for our Lutheran identity. It is immensely important for how we as Lutherans understand the church, where we see our task and our mission, and how we relate to one another. That is the message of the priesthood of all believers: before God there are no differences among people; each one is a loved child of God. That is the message that should be our mandate.  Last year, in 2017, we celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, remembered Martin Luther‘s ideas, which fundamentally changed the European world and aimed to present the gospel in its original power. We reflected about where we come from, who calls us and what our mission is.

This year we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Congo. It was founded in 1968 with the help of pastors from Tanzania; thanks to Christian radio programs, a handful of people in Congo (then Zaire) had discovered the liberating message of the gospel, just as Martin Luther discovered it in 1517. A message that speaks of freedom from all worldly bonds and of the freedom to commit oneself to others. That was what drove Martin Luther on and caused the walls of the Old Church to shake. There were many walls at his time; they were even visible, built into every church, and some are still visible in old churches in northern Germany, where I come from. 500 years ago there was a strict separation between the laity and the clergy. Bishops and priests claimed a special, exclusive status for themselves, a special closeness to God and a special participation in divine salvation. On the other hand, there were ordinary believers, who were not allowed to enter the place reserved for the priests, and who were only granted salvation and eternal life by the mediation of the priests.

One of Martin Luther‘s Reformation views was the redefinition of the role of clergy and lay people. According to his insight into the “priesthood of all believers”, all those who have been baptized are called to be “a Christ” to each other – in the church and in society. And what we are doing here today goes in the same direction: sitting together, sharing ideas, talking and listening to each other as fellow Christians. And that is why I am very thankful for this opportunity today.

Even if we always associate the idea of the priesthood of all believers with Martin Luther, he did not invent this liberating concept himself. He emphasized and listened to the authority of the Word of God, as attested to in the Bible. For Martin Luther, the Bible, which witnesses to the gospel of God, should be the guiding light of Christian life, and not church authorities. In my following remarks I would like to turn to one of these texts that were so important to Luther and for the priesthood of all believers. It is taken from 1 Peter chapter 2:

1 Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy and all slander.

2 Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation – 

3 if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. 

4 Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight,  

5 and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.  

6 For it stands in scripture (Isaiah 28:16):

“See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” 

7 To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner” (Psalm 118:22). 

8 And “A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall” (Isaiah 8:14). They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. 

9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light; 

10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (Hosea 2:25). (All Bible quotations from NRSV.)

Sisters and brothers,

this passage from the apostle Peter is very fitting. It tells us the meaning of a priesthood of all believers. And when I take a closer look: I am struck by how democratic these words of the apostle Peter are. We are all God’s chosen people. We are all destined to be royal priests! God calls and has a name for every single one of us who is baptized, who is guided by the word. That is all it means, being a priest – having access to the sanctuary and being able to enter into contact with God. We are all priests because, through Jesus Christ, we have access to the holy place, and so to God. Everyone is in direct contact with God, “because the priesthood makes us worthy of stepping before God and interceding for others,” as Martin Luther put it. No other mediator is necessary, no other self-appointed healer, no political leader and purveyor of salvation; no one who has special capacities and powers. Persons are not valuable by the good they do - however much that may be - nor because they have a particularly good reputation in the world; but only because God looks upon them and speaks well of them. That was how God spoke after creating the first human being and contemplating this work: “Indeed, it was very good.” We are not chosen by our own decision but when God speaks to us. God installs us as priests, selects us, not on the basis of our origins, not on the basis of our gender, not because we have any special gifts, but because we are God’s beloved children.

We are strong to transfer God’s good news into our cultures – like the women did this morning.

The apostle Peter says: you are destined to be God’s people, those who share in God’s grace. It starts with the indicative, God’s promise of human dignity. Every person is under God’s protection. That frees us from all pressure to have to prove myself! For that reason I can do what I believe is right – in the church and in society. In his treatise “The Freedom of a Christian” (written in 1520) Martin Luther summed up what the Reformation was all about. Human beings live from grace, from the love of God, because they are God’s creatures: they are very well made. In fact, that is the core of the Reformation: living in freedom from the pressures of ecclesiastical or secular authorities; being able to breathe again as humans with our own dignity and profile before God and in the world: free, accepted, valued, loved, looked upon kindly. Luther’s special insight is based on the urge and ambition not to suffer paternalism in the matter of our own salvation, to be able to decide autonomously, to describe our own relationship with God and say what gives us comfort in life.

This expresses something given full value in the biblical witness: everyone is equal as being made in the image of God, who recognizes the gifts of all people who, through baptism, have been transformed into a new creation by the one Spirit. That is what this is about and what concerns us as the church. Unity in Christ overcomes gender-related, ethnic, social, apparently “spiritual” and economic differences, as the apostle Paul writes. We are living in different cultures, talking in different languages and so on. But when we come together like we do in these days, when we are listening to God’s holy word, when we are singing our songs, praying our prayers and The Lord’s prayer in different languages, we experience: we are one in Christ Jesus, we are united under the holy spirit. We are not to overcome our differences: they make us rich!

“For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise (Gal 3:28).”

That is how Paul puts this good news in his letter to the Galatians. And throughout his whole Reformation work, Luther also believed – relying on the witness of the Old and New Testaments - that all Christians, through their baptism, share in the priesthood and priestly office of Jesus Christ (regardless of whether they are men or women, great or small, children or elderly).

The people of God of whom Peter speaks means those who are loved and appointed by God through grace; there are no differences here. In the New Testament the people of God are all those who believe as against those who do not believe. All Christians are equally called by baptism to be church members and to the priesthood. In his work “To the Christian nobility” Luther writes: “Whoever comes out of the water of baptism can boast that they are already a consecrated priest, bishop and pope.” The Reformer contests the world‘s right to distinguish between the ‘spiritual’ and ‘temporal’ estate, and so rediscovers the biblical priesthood of all believers, thereby creating the theological basis for a responsible community of all Christians – towards their church and society. And, Luther writes elsewhere, all those who are baptized are therefore “of the spiritual estate”.

There is something I would like to underline here: a crucial aspect of this biblical witness is the full unity of women and men in Christ. The equality of women and men in the church is an expression and sign of God’s kingdom in the world. I am delighted that in Congo it is possible for women to take up pastoral ministry. Hence no discrimination between women and men is conceivable in the life of the church. Any discrimination against women harms the fulfillment of the church’s mission as it is in contradiction to God’s kingdom in the world. Leaving women apart means to leave God’s grace apart!

Something else strikes me in this Bible passage. The apostle Peter honors us and says: You are a holy nation, God’s people. What does this use of ‘holy’ mean? What does it mean when we speak of the church as the community of the saints? Biblically speaking, being holy has nothing to do with moral perfection. The Bible calls ‘holy’ that which belongs to God in a special way. For example, people who become God’s messengers. Something is ‘holy’ if God has taken it into service, and given it strength and orientation. Those in fellowship with God are holy – those who stand and act firmly in the world, yet are not of the world. They are not guided by the world’s standards but by those of God, who unites us with each other and Jesus Christ. In the gospel; in baptism; in the Eucharist. That creates the community of the saints.

The New Testament calls all Christians ‘saints’. That is not flattery. And it does not make things better. But it does make them different. It expresses and suggests that we share in the Holy Spirit, in Holy Communion and in Holy Baptism. This sharing and trusting in Christ as the cornerstone turns us into the communion of saints, despite all that is questionable about us. We are then the living stones in which a church lives and grows, because we believe in the cornerstone, which is a stumbling block to others. That is community as living architecture, as we learn from Paul in Ephesians:

“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]; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God (Eph 2:19-22).”

Not guests, not strangers, but “citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” Citizens with the saints. That is why we are saints. That means that there is no one who is, or remains, a stranger in the house of living stones. We are one in Christ.

But how can we live as saints? We who are also sinners? We who are not morally perfect? We who live here in conditions of distress, of war and whatever other disasters in our crisis-ridden world? Being holy is not a state of affairs but has to do with trust. We trust that we have become other beings in our relationships through Jesus Christ; because we live from our relationship with God. God is reconciled with us and gives us strength to be reconciled with others. Living in fellowship with each other; living together in the community or parish. That encourages us to go out into society. To live reconciliation there and to live as those reconciled. To be just that: the communion of the saints in the world. To be God’s holy people, that means we must care for one another, be there for one another. To quote Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians:

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, through many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:12-13).

For Martin Luther, the priesthood of all believers is linked to his professional ethics. He brings work and vocation very closely together. Professional ethics is not a job description but an ethic for all activities in the church and society: for the “broom-swinging maid” just as for a bishop or a general secretary. Luther distances himself from what was commonly believed in his time - that espousing a spiritual vocation, above all as a monk or a nun, meant earning special merit before God. Instead, based on his doctrine on justification, Luther redefined work and vocation. He separated human action from the idea of merit and focused on his fellow human beings, on society and the church in society. Humans are called by God to serve their fellow humans. In this way, human action is serving God in everyday life. It gives more value to the society in which we live. Here we have to show ourselves to be Christians and here we are God’s holy people.

II. Priesthood of all believers and its meaning today

What does the concept of a priesthood of all believers mean for us here and now, here in Congo and for us as the Lutheran church? I suggest that we understand priesthood of all believers as a change of perspective - just as, in his time, Martin Luther enabled people to take a new look at society in Europe. People suddenly saw their salvation with different eyes. That should also inspire us to shift our viewpoint, introducing a change of perspective in the way we organize church life and live our faith – and the way we get on with each other. Now I would like to comment on three points.

II.1 The culture of management

I speak here as a bishop, as someone who has been entrusted with responsibilities and powers of decision in his church. Does that raise me above others? I hope that you don’t see me like that. Even if I have special leadership responsibility for my church, if I have to take certain decisions, the priesthood of all believers means being humble and responsible with the things entrusted to me, being transparent and honest. The priesthood of all believers means serving the word, the word of the gospel. And it takes many forms and has many functions: it happens in worship, in pastoral care, in conversation as brothers and sisters, in prayer for others, in assessing the lesson to learn from the gospel, and in many other situations. In Reformation thinking, it is the members of the congregation as baptized persons who take responsibility for all these functions. If that is so, it must naturally be reflected in the leadership structure of the community. The Protestant church would deny its being if it were only led by ordained persons and not by lay people, with equal rights, people working in a voluntary capacity. It is not about having a hierarchical structure – what is important is the different functions that are assigned to us.

But Martin Luther understood that not everyone is called to do everything. There are different tasks and functions. The ministry of lay people does not make redundant those individuals who have been specifically called to carry out the ministry of proclamation. Rather, the congregation takes its responsibility for preaching the gospel in such a way that it delegates important functions of this ministry to individuals who perform it publicly. However, it remains the Christian community that calls its preachers. And this calling is leadership. Christian freedom is free space in leading, too, in assuming responsibility. There is no real freedom without bonds for us Christians, e.g. to ideals, or to instructions, or again to God’s word in its commands and promises. Because I am bound in - and to – this word I can step out freely. And take responsibility for what I believe. After all, the “dutiful servant” is the free person, as Martin Luther says. And that is decisive: the priesthood of all believers does not entitle us – whether lay or ordained – to lead the church all by ourselves or to take high-handed action. After all, the church is led by the Word. And not because one says something and the others do it, but because God speaks and we listen. Leading happens first through listening. I can only lead if I am led myself. Anyone who wants to lead must first listen – to the Word of God. Having to relate our actions and non-actions, our words and our silence, to God’s Word, extra nos (outside ourselves), necessitates a distancing that is both helpful and healing.

For me as bishop that means always looking away from what I want and listening to what God demands from us, precisely when we disagree ourselves, precisely when we argue about the direction the church of the future will take. Some years ago, we as the Evangelical Church in Northern Germany saw and suffered the problems and arguments in EELCO, our partner church. At the time, when the church was facing division and separation, we suffered with you and prayed with you. And so we are all the happier that EELCO has, by itself, found compromises and ways of preserving unity.

II.2 Freedom to love our neighbor

As a second point, I would like to go into the sanctification and sanctity that are promised us through divine grace in baptism. Sanctity, being holy, because God has chosen us through baptism. That means assuming responsibility for the world and being politically involved and active. 500 years ago the Reformation brought individual responsibility for church and society into play. It made it clear that the command to love our neighbor has a universal dimension and we cannot simply live our private faith. Christians are always public Christians as well. Freedom as we understand it as Lutherans always has two sides to it: I am free from worldly power and also from church authorities. But at the same time, freedom is always the freedom for something: for love, for doing good. Not because that action makes me free. But because my faith impels me, inspired by the gospel, to help to shape society so that everyone has what they need: food and love, freedom and peace.

In Europe, freedom is often mistaken for power and influence, with the increase in your own importance and recognition of your achievements. The fruits are then mostly lack of consideration, selfishness, individualism. We want to be autonomous, mature and self-sufficient, to stand on our own feet. That means one thing, first of all: standing up for what we do and what we do not do. There is no freedom without responsibility. The freedom that detaches itself from responsibility turns into the opposite, as history teaches us and the reality in Congo also shows. It is freedom at the expense of others. Freedom that I seize will make others un-free. Freedom is not something I make or prepare myself. Freedom, by its very nature, is always what is granted and given me. Even hard-won freedom is granted and leads us into free action. That is why it is so important that we create opportunities for education, places at which people learn that they have a voice, that they have been ascribed infinite value, enabling them to act in their own responsibility and to decide for themselves what is important in life. God’s promise is at the same time a challenge to pass on the freedom granted – for example, to set up educational institutions and ensure that people can participate in this society. The priesthood of all believers means making education possible, so that not only elites take decisions for the world, and no single group decides on how others have to live.

And just as no one is a Christian for themselves alone, the community is never ‘the communion of the saints’ for itself alone. Rather it is in communication with the society in which it lives. It is a missional, diaconal church in dialogue with others. As a Christian community it is called to connect with the civic community: against exclusion, sexism and violence. People must not be treated like commodities. Yet every day we hear reports that this does happen in many countries; that people are bought and sold like work machines; that they toil as migrant workers under inhumane conditions. In Germany, too, we regularly hear of sexual violence against women and rape is used as a weapon in war, for example here in Congo and elsewhere. That is contrary to God’s liberating love. Human rights and human dignity are not for sale on the market place. We have to raise our voices for refugees and poor people, against exploitation and land-grabbing. We must encourage world leaders to stop war and to seriously address the issue of development for all.

Being God’s chosen people means that we are not free to neglect hospitality. Denying hospitality to strangers, to the poor and needy, means turning God away. And all of us are strangers in most parts of the world. Because of God’s mercy: freedom cannot mean the freedom to refuse a decent reception to migrants and refugees. The priesthood of all believers means diakonia. I have heard of the wonderful KASAPA project run by Pastor Solange and we will visit it in the next couple of days. Women cook a hot meal for prisoners who are otherwise not given anything to eat. That is a calling into God’s holiness.

II.3 The ecumenical perspective

To conclude, I would like to reflect on what the priesthood of all believers means for the relations between our churches and the relation between the churches in the Global North and South. For a long time, the missionary movement of the modern age went in one direction, from North to South. From Europe and the USA down to the southern hemisphere; from those with the knowledge to those without. During the 19th century, this one-way traffic became a highway and in the early 20th century even a racing-track, producing – at great speed and with impressive energy and faith – huge ‘mission fields’, as they were called. Then came the first young churches. And the theological slogan: “From mission field to independent church” – yet independence is not quite there yet. And even today, when there are independent churches everywhere, there are still problems with actual autonomy and partnership on an equal footing.

I remember a conversation I had in Arusha with Alex Malasusa, then Presiding Bishop of the Lutheran Church in Tanzania. He thanked me for the comprehensive partnership activity between our churches – from the times of the missionaries onwards. His church would not be what it is without these partnership groups, he said. But, he added, we have to talk about partnership: where is it to lead us? How do we handle the new ideas? How do we deal with the imbalance created by partnerships by being unequally distributed? You must know, Malasusa said, that every partner relationship greatly changes us here and sometimes makes church leadership difficult. We must coordinate our activities more closely, he said. What church do we want here in Tanzania? And, he added, not every well-meant transfer of goods is helpful for us here locally.

Having partners and being partners – that is at the centre of our mission as part of the body of Christ. And that is also a very great responsibility, as the meeting with Bishop Malasusa showed me. Hence we should grasp Ecumenical Christianity not as the exhausting duty of an ideal Christian, but as a great treasure and a huge field for learning. Meeting members from other churches and parishes, we learn how to see the world, ourselves, our church and our country through different eyes.

Sometimes it seems to me that some of us behave themselves like little birds, sitting in the nest, waiting for mother and father to bring the worm to eat or a fly. They only open their beak and cry for help. But in the bird family it happens like in human families: to learn to fly it is necessary, that mother and father compel the children to leave the warm nest, to use their wings and get to know their own power and to take self-responsibility for their life! If they won’t do so, the little birds would have no chance. They would die.

God gave us the power to feel responsible for ourselves and for our brothers and sisters coincidentally. To be responsible is not a one-way-road!

Christian people are cross-cultural workers. This will become very important for the churches worldwide in future. Today many African and other churches send missionaries, ecumenical co-workers and pastors to other countries. We want find a new way to understand ourselves, our mission and our vision. We need this understanding to gain a new horizon for the global church. In the future, the church will either be ecumenical – or there will be no church. It was this prophetic call of the German practical theologian Ernst Lange from the 1970s that fired my enthusiasm for the ecumenical movement. As a church, we are both at the same time: a community of believers that meet within their local parish and part of the global Christian Church. When we live from gathering around God’s word and sacrament, we are members of the body of Christ that spans the whole world. There is no other way forward than to live in partnership with Christians worldwide. It is not a question of preference whether or not we strengthen our ecumenical bonds worldwide: if we do not, we will not be the church of Jesus Christ, who is Lord of the whole world. He connects people from all nations and ethnic backgrounds – as in our meeting here today. That way, we learn from one another, sharing our hopes and our faith. After all, we all share responsibility for the church’s mission to live in the spirit of ‘the priesthood of all believers’.

Stabsstelle Presse und Kommunikation
Gerhard Ulrich
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