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Faith: It's been 500 years

On the eve of All Saints' Day (Oct. 31), 1517, a young German professor, monk and Roman Catholic priest named Martin Luther nailed a list of 95 Theses onto the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.

Past centennial anniversary celebrations of the Reformation event have been anything but celebratory. The 100th celebration in 1617 saw defamatory propaganda; 1618 saw, as a direct result of that propaganda, the beginning of the extraordinarily devastating 30 Years' War - a religious war between Protestant and Catholic states.

The 200th anniversary found itself in the midst of an intra-Lutheran dispute between orthodoxy and pietism that continues to have lasting effects in Lutheran congregations (particularly those that through migrations and mergers became part of the ELCA - Evangelical Lutheran Church in America).

The 300th anniversary was marred by the Prussians' attempt to force unification of Protestant churches in German states; this forced alignment was the impetus for the creation of what would become the LCMS (Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod).

To top all of those off, the 400th anniversary came in the midst of World War I in 1917. While not a primarily religious conflict, World War I did create challenges in American Lutheranism where a number of congregations still used German as their language - at that time the language of a national enemy - placing suspicion upon them.

Not surprisingly, given this history, it was decided about 50 years ago (following Vatican II) to start talking and beginning to heal these 450-year-old wounds.

Talks between The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Lutheran World Federation resulted, in 1999, in an agreement known as the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (you can find a PDF of this from both the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation), in which one of the major dividing issues at the time of the Reformation was resolved.

We are saved by grace through faith alone; yes, our spiritual practices may be different, but spiritual practices are the way we live out our faith. They are not what makes us right in the eyes of God. We are made right with God (aka justified) solely through God's (unwarranted) gift of faith.

The settling of this dispute opened up new possibilities for communication, so The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity approached the Lutheran World Federation seeking some way in which the 500th anniversary of the Reformation could be jointly commemorated. The result of this was an agreement signed a year ago by Pope Francis and the Rev. Dr. Martin Junge, president of the Lutheran World Federation, at the Lutheran Cathedral in Lund, Sweden, titled "From Conflict to Communion."

In short, it is a recognition that both sides have contributed to the historic conflict and a call to repentance and reconciliation. Five imperatives come from this document:

"1. Catholics and Lutherans should always begin from the perspective of unity and not from the point of view of division in order to strengthen what is held in common even though the differences are more easily seen and experienced;

"2. Lutherans and Catholics must let themselves continuously be transformed by the encounter with the other and by the mutual witness of faith;

"3. Catholics and Lutherans should again commit themselves to visible unity, to elaborate together what this means in concrete steps, and to strive repeatedly toward this goal;

"4. Lutherans and Catholics should jointly rediscover the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ for our time;

"5. Catholics and Lutherans should witness together the mercy of God in proclamation and service to the world."

Table fellowship continues to be a dividing factor, but even this may be changing. Pope Francis has reportedly said that table fellowship can be viaticum to other agreements along the way, or perhaps even the means. He showed this on a visit to a Lutheran church in Rome by offering a chalice.

A similar symbolic action was taken by the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, presiding bishop of the ELCA, at the 2016 ELCA Churchwide Assembly, when she offered a communion set to Bishop Denis J. Madden, auxiliary bishop of Baltimore. This act culminated conversations and the document, "Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry and Eucharist," between the ELCA and United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

It's true that there are still plenty of divisions within the Body of Christ, and I haven't even explored areas outside of the Roman Catholic Church and Lutheran World Federation (or subdivisions thereof).

But I think, whatever one's denominational tie, the imperatives in "From Conflict to Communion" can guide us as we live our lives as the Body of Christ in the world of today, facing today's challenges and not those of the 500 years past.

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