From Conflict to Communion: A Joint Lutheran-Roman Catholic Prayer Service
Immanuel Lutheran Church and the Newman Catholic Center
October 29, 2017
1I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. – John 15:1-5
Listen to the homily here:
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there.” So says 13th century Sufi Muslim poet, Rumi.
It may seem odd to begin a homily at a joint Lutheran-Roman Catholic prayer service with a quote from a Sufi Muslim, but in some ways it feels better than starting with a quote that is tied more closely to only one of our traditions. And it seems apt for this moment in the history of the Reformation. We’ve spent the better part of the last 500 years arguing about who is right and who is wrong. When I was in confirmation class and asked the question, “Why don’t we do that?” The answer was too often, “Because that’s what the Catholics do.” My own grandparents were in a mixed Catholic – Methodist marriage which resulted in such an impasse that they mostly disregarded religion altogether.
Sadly that isn’t the worst that has happened in the name of wrongdoing and rightdoing, in the name of wrongthinking and rightthinking since Martin Luther posted his 95 theses. We just moments ago made confession together of the ways in which we wrapped up theological debates with political ones, the ways in which we allowed faith to be an excuse for war, for killing one another, for demonizing one another, the ways in which we have compromised the proclamation of the gospel for the sake of being right. Even as we have spent the last 50 of those 500 years working toward deeper dialogue and a recognition of one another’s gifts, we have not always acted charitably toward our neighbors of other denominations.
But none of that surprises me. That is the way of human beings – to want to be right rather than to be in relationship. But what does surprise and delight me is that through it all the good news of Jesus Christ has continued to take root in the world and sprout new and exciting growth. For every moment we spent arguing about right and wrong, there was still something happening beyond our arguments, God still bringing new life and hope and resurrection into the world. Rumi describes it as a field. Jesus describes it as a vineyard, as a place where one vine expands out into ever-growing, life-giving branches.
It would be tempting to think, reading these particular words of Jesus in this context, that Jesus is the vine, and each Christian denomination is a branch, and each of us sprouting as leaves from that branch. But I think that’s far too simplistic a description. I think that also would lead us in the direction of complacency with divisions in the church. I hear in Jesus’ words a thriving vineyard in which growing out from the vine are more branches than we can imagine and people of every nation, background, and denomination all mixed together, growing out into a world full of brokenness, pain, grief, violence, and death. It’s not as if Jesus sprouts a Roman Catholic branch to do one part of the work and a Lutheran branch to do another. The sharing of the gospel, the proclamation of Christ’s victory, the growing in faith is done together, done with each of us growing alongside one another in whatever place we have been planted.
It’s the interaction, the sharing of gifts with one another, that allows the whole vineyard to expand, to allow the kingdom of heaven to permeate into our daily lives. It’s the way in which the Lutherans called others to deeper engagement with scripture, the way in which the Roman Catholics held onto the sense of mystery and beauty and tradition when we Lutherans chucked the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. It’s the way in which we have come together to learn from each other and to recognize jointly the work that God does through baptism in both our traditions. It’s the way in which both our traditions, together and separately have worked to care for the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the refugee. Have you ever noticed how many hospitals bear Lutheran and Catholic names? Did you know that the two single largest refugee resettlement agencies of any kind in the United States are Catholic Charities and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, respectively?
What I imagine here is not a grapevine, though that image has great potential, too. I imagine the kind of ivy that as it grows it works its way into brick and mortar, even into concrete and with patient persistence it can crack open even the most solid-seeming of walls to push through with something living and active. That’s what God has been doing these 500 years since the start of the reformation (and of course long before that, too). God has been growing into our world, our world divided by ideas of right and wrong, a world where we build walls between us and hurl our verbal and actual bombs back and forth at one another, and sprouting new life and hope and promise there.
To my Roman Catholic siblings, I am sorry for all that has been done by Lutherans and in the name of Lutheranism. To you I also say thank you for the gifts you bring to the ecumenical table. We have done some important work getting to this 500th observance together, and I pray that continues. We have big questions yet to be answered – about fellowship around the Eucharistic table, about leadership in ministry, about what it means to be church. This is hard work, and there are rightly deeply held beliefs on many sides. I don’t know where the next years of dialogue will take us. But I do trust that beyond those conversations, beyond our ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing, that Christ the vine is growing ever more into our lives and opening pathways of grace, pathways that leads us beyond the divisions that exist in the church on earth and pulling us ever more into the place beyond that, the place where God dwells. Fellow Lutherans, Roman-Catholic siblings, I look forward to more opportunities to be together in the here and now, and I especially look forward to dwelling with you in the kingdom of heaven. I’ll meet you there.
-Pastor Steven Wilco