by Matthew C. Harrison
As I write, I’m sitting inside our “Old Latin School” building in Wittenberg, Germany, looking out the window at St. Mary’s Church, where Luther preached more than 2,000 sermons. The mother church of the Reformation is but fifteen yards away. I am attending a worldwide seminaries conference with our many partners and friends from around the world.
Wittenberg is in ship shape. When I visited for the first time in 2000, the Berlin Wall had come down only a decade earlier. Dilapidated buildings (including the Old Latin School) were still visible all around Luther’s city. The Communist gray was just beginning to recede. Today, the city is gorgeous. All over Germany, church and state have invested millions and millions of euros preparing for the 1517 anniversary. The hotel and tour bookings are already up and will skyrocket this coming year as people pour in from around the globe to visit the Luther sites.
On the eve of this great 500th anniversary of the Reformation—with the world in flux and many Christians of the Western world in waning, post-Christian societies and churches—there is hardly a resigned hopelessness among our German partners in the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church in Germany (SELK). Exciting outreach is happening. Last Sunday, I witnessed 18 former Muslims renounce their former faith and be baptized. In that one congregation, there are now over 800 Iranians who have been instructed and baptized over the past five years. And this is happening also in other places in our German partner church and with our help. It was unbelievably moving to witness these Farsi speakers joyfully confess Christ and then, with a packed congregation, participate in a very traditional liturgy conducted largely in Farsi and German. Wow! Will the Lutheran Church live in its homeland? Yes! But it will increasingly take on surprising new forms.
Last month, one of the largest Lutheran Churches of the world—the Lutheran Church in Madagascar (some 4.5 million members)—elected as general president a graduate of our Fort Wayne seminary. Look for some very good things to come in our relationship. Will the Lutheran church—that is, the church of the pure Gospel of free grace and the blessed sacraments of Baptism and Christ body and blood—live? Yes! Most definitely, yes! But it will live in an emerging worldwide configuration weighted heavily toward Africa.
And what about us? What about the LCMS? The way forward will be increasingly difficult, filled with legal landmines and cultural quagmires. We are now fully on the way to assuming the reality of living as Christians in a manner much more akin to the church of the first three centuries after Christ. It will increasingly include ridicule, discrimination, removal from power and power structures, and exclusion from full participation in society. This means that we must hold to the Bible ever more firmly and not compromise. And that is what we shall do, God help us, amen. The unity on all issues at the last LCMS convention was heartening, and the unanimity on the cultural issues of life and marriage was extraordinary.
What is our task? We are to be witnesses to Christ in our homes, our families, our churches and our communities. Our Lord is pleased to work His salvation through His Word, and we are here to speak that life-giving Word to those around us who live without Christ. Come what may, our Savior will hold us in the palm of His hand. And we shall cling to Him, to our Baptism, to His infallible Word and to the Lord’s Supper. As a decidedly and self-consciously Lutheran church, we shall bear witness to individuals and whole churches with the blood-bought forgiveness of sins. We shall bear witness to the great truths: Christ alone is the way of salvation (Acts 2:42); grace alone declares us freely forgiven for Christ’ sake; faith alone lays hold of God’s free grace; and Scripture alone points us to Christ and determines all that we believe, teach and confess.
So what of the “state of the Synod”? Are we up to the challenges? Here we must confess: certainly not! Oh, the problems—the challenges with congregations, schools, universities, struggling church workers and congregations, and the money! “Master, Master, we are perishing!” (Luke 8:24). If the future of the Church depends upon us, then we are sunk. Though we are at the same time sinner and saint, we are sinners redeemed and empowered by the crucified and risen Christ. And He gave His church a wonderful promise: “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).
O Lord, grant us a confident witness to Jesus on this eve of the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation. O Lord, we plead as sinners only for what we need to be as witnesses to Your cross.
The Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison is president of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.