To hold a child over the baptismal font that contains within it the remains of the font in which Martin Luther himself was baptized is an unbelievable feeling. Equally amazing is the weak-kneed climb up the wooden stairs to the pulpit from which Brother Martin preached his last four sermons. To stand at the altar from the 1470s where Luther led the faithful in the celebration of communion and look into the faces of the faithful who are still gathering to hear the word and receive the sacraments. All this is sometimes much more than a Lutheran from Maryland could have ever dreamed possible when he thought about serving the church those many years ago.
Yet together with my wife, Claudia Bergmann, who was raised in the former East Germany and educated both in Germany and the U.S., I have the honor of serving in Lutherstadt Eisleben—the city where Luther was born, baptized, preached his last sermons and died. The city of his roots and the region of his early upbringing.
I wish my sisters and brothers in the Lutheran tradition in the U.S. could breathe in the dust that one of our parishioners says is probably “older than your country, Pastor.” I wish you could wake up in the morning and look out the bedroom window and see St. Andrew’s church, walk just a few hundred yards to Sts. Peter and Paul. I would so love to be able to share with you this deep, deep sense of history.
Christians have been worshiping in Eisleben at least since 1170. (We don’t have any written documents that go back any further.) Our church records (baptisms, weddings, funerals, sermons preached, etc.) go back to the time of the Reformation. Many weeks, we share the cup at the table of our Lord with a chalice from the 16th century.
Along with our brothers and sisters in Christ in the Roman Catholic church and a few independent churches, we make up 15 percent of the population. The rest are intellectual atheists, agnostics, “unchurched” and those who were baptized but left the church for reasons we may never know. We struggle with 28 percent unemployment and an exodus of determined young women and men who take their first chance to get out of a declining, small city in a region of the former East Germany that has very little to offer.
We enjoy this history and face the struggles of today with the hope that can only come from our day to day, week to week encounters with the God of grace. We work at living out our baptismal call just as you do in congregations in the U.S. As you are, we are blessed with individuals in our congregation who are gifted in so many different ways, who are looking for a way to use those gifts. We are striving to become Christians bold enough to not only withstand a difficult government (like during East German times), but also to be able to speak a word of grace and share our faith in the God of the Bible with any and all we meet here: those who might listen and those who might be very hostile to what we have to say. Being Lutheran in the land of Luther’s birth is so different yet so very much the same.
© 2013 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers