In 1957 when Lutherans met for the Lutheran World Federation Assembly in Minneapolis under the theme "Christ Frees and Unites," they came from nations on opposing sides of the Cold War. Those of us who lived during those years remember easily the hostilities that divided the world for two generations.
Fifty-two years later, the ELCA Churchwide Assembly met in the same city, but in an entirely different world of relationships. Ishmael Noko, LWF general secretary, reminded the assembly of a decisive commitment made amid the deep suspicions of the Cold War: "Our forebears in faith decided to do the most sensible thing to do under those circumstances and that is stay together. They did not forsake one another. They did not anathematize each other. They understood that the church is the body of Christ; a creature of the gospel — and, therefore, not ours to dismember."
Those words traveled with me when I joined a delegation of ELCA members on an official ecumenical journey in late winter. Our reason for traveling was to meet with representatives of some of the world's largest and oldest Christian communities of faith and to renew our relationships in the body of Christ. The truth of Noko's words was confirmed repeatedly during the visits. Our differences became occasions to be drawn toward one another in conversation because we are already one in baptism, one in faith, one in the Spirit, one in Christ.
Let me share some glimpses from this trip of the unity in Christ we discovered in other Christian communities:
• Representatives of the Church of England described the renewal that is coming to congregations through their Fresh Expressions initiative. Later we heard Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams' voice pleading for our active engagement in working for a lasting and just peace in Sudan.
• From both the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope Benedict XVI we heard clear, firm statements of their desire and commitment to continue the theological dialogues that already have brought understanding, reconciliation and healing to our relationships with Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians.
• We visited the Holy Trinity Monastery and Theological Seminary on the island of Halki which, although closed by the Turkish government for 39 years, remains ready to receive seminarians whenever it receives permission. We also gathered in the catacombs in Rome at the graves of early Christians, whose courageous witness led to their martyrdom. Both experiences reminded us of the fruits borne by expectant and hopeful trust in God's faithfulness amid hardship.
• As we met with representatives of the World Council of Churches and the LWF at our last stop in Geneva, we faced the reality of the divisions that remain both in the Christian community and in the human family. Rima Barsoum of the WCC and Martin Sinaga of the LWF described the growing commitment to interfaith dialogue throughout the world and the resolve to confront the rhetoric and actions of religious extremists.
• Olav Fykse Tveit, the newly elected WCC general secretary, said, "I think the ecumenical movement must be much clearer that it is a movement that carries the cross. We are called 'to be one' even when the cross is a very heavy one to carry."
Returning from our ecumenical journey renewed in hope and confidence, I realized that we are being stewards of the ministry and message of reconciliation entrusted to us both in how we tend to our ecumenical relationships and in how we speak with and about one another in the ELCA. As Claire S. Burkat, bishop of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod, observed after returning from the journey: "We are bound more closely to Christ than our scriptural and doctrinal differences can separate us."
The words that Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta preached last fall for the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification remain powerful and timely: "Is having Jesus having only Jesus apart from members of his body? Can we be righteous without being in bonds of fellowship with other justified sinners when the Holy Spirit equips for growth in love? Is Christ ever saving us apart from drawing all other believers to himself through the power of his cross?"
© 2016 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers