Homily of the Reverend Jim Gonia, Bishop of the Rocky Mountain Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, for the Ecumenical Prayer Service recognizing the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, 8 October 2017, given at Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, Salt Lake City
My beloved sisters and brothers in Christ: grace, mercy and peace be with you from our God who is love, and from our Lord Jesus who is our light and our life.
As I look out upon all of you, I am deeply moved because what I see, as my brother has already alluded to, is here we have a tangible witness to the power of unity over division, the power of respect and love over judgment and condemnation, the power of hope over despair, which I think is a tremendously important witness, not just for those of us within the Church, but especially for those in our community, for those in this nation, and indeed those in this world.
Bishop Solis, I am deeply grateful to you, my brother in Christ, for your willingness to participate in this important moment in our lives together; I am grateful to all who planned and prepared this worship service and made it possible.
This is not the first or the only opportunity for this kind of witness to Christian unity to take place. In fact, in this Rocky Mountain Synod of ours, this is the seventh prayer service with Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. And I have to say it’s rather poignant that this is the seventh. The first was in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe. You might know the archbishop, John Wester, who was your bishop here in Utah previously, so there’s something beautiful about concluding this series of services here in Utah.
And I want you to note this: As Lutherans and Catholics on this day in Salt Lake City, we’re making history, and history of a very good kind, and we give thanks to God for that.
Jesus speaks in our gospel text of relationship, a relationship of intimacy and mutuality, a relationship that he frames in terms of a vine and its branches. Every time I hear these words, I immediately think of the grapevines that grew along the back fence of our west Denver home, the home to which my family and I moved after 10 years of serving as missionaries of our church in Madagascar. Those grapevines along the fence – they were productive and prolific. Branches spread in every possible direction, weaving in and out of one other so that you could not possibly tell where one began and the other ended. Yet if you followed one branch to its very source, as I sometimes had to do when I was what I called “pruning the chaos” – when you followed that branch to its source you discovered that every single branch always led back always to the same one mother vine.
No wonder Jesus uses this image to talk about our life together. You see, by themselves, branches may look quite different, and through they grow side by side, it’s easy to forget that their source is the same. And the result of that forgetfulness – that forgetfulness of one source – is comparison and competition: “Well, my leaves are bigger than your leaves!” “That’s OK. My grapes are juicier than your grapes.” And so it goes, the branches relating in terms of us/them instead of living from that sense of holy “we.”
As I look out at you this day, I love the fact that I cannot tell who is part of the Lutheran branch of Jesus’ vine, who is part of the Roman Catholic branch, or who might be part of one of the many other beautiful branches that are given life by the one and same source. All I know when I look out is that in this interweaving of all of the branches, we experience the truth of the One who says: “I 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.” And so it is.
Today we remember with joy and thanksgiving the truth of our unity and connectivity as two particular branches of this one vine, branches that we call Lutheran and Roman Catholic. After centuries of division and rhetoric that was anything but Christ-like, in these last 50 years our two particular church bodies have made incredible strides towards recognizing the one life we share in Jesus. And as Bishop Solis has already noted, in a world that is filled with so much division and hatred, this is a reason to give thanks to God.
I’d like to think that we here in the Rocky Mountain West have already modeled a collaborative spirit. Here in Utah, our two churches share priorities in witness and in ministry, especially when it comes to advocating for brothers and sisters struggling with poverty and marginalization in our society. We share common commitments to work among refugees and especially immigrants and the concerns that they bring to our attention. Together with other partner churches, we have found opportunities to pray together already, to stand in solidarity with our neighbors of other religious traditions. Walking together along the way is not only good for us, but is indeed an important continuing commitment.
And yet even among that we recognize that in this moment the Spirit is up to something new. Who would ever have imagined that in 2017, when Lutherans decided to commemorate the 500th anniversary of a Reformation sparked by the actions of a Roman Catholic monk named Martin Luther that one of the key features of this commemoration would be a heartfelt and publically recognized deepening of the relationship between our churches?
It must be noted that this move towards a deeper relationship impacts more than the story of our churches; it also impacts the personal story – profoundly impacts the personal stories of many people in both of our faith communities. You see, the reason that so many of us wept when we watched Pope Francis join in prayer and worship with Bishop Younan and other leaders of the Lutheran World Federation in Lund, Sweden last October; the reason so many of us stood and cheered when at the Churchwide Assembly of our church body a year ago formally received the Declaration on the Way – this document that outlines these points of agreement between our churches; the reason we were left speechless at that assembly when Bishop Denis Madden, representing the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, received the gift of a chalice presented to him by our Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, and then he spoke of the day – “Sooner rather than later,” he said – when we would be able to gather together around the Eucharistic Table; the reason this has been so incredibly moving for so many of us is that it represents not simply the growing unity between two church bodies, but it represents healing, hope and a new day for our families.
It was the early 1950s when a young Roman Catholic man from a Polish family, a young man who had served as an altar boy in his church, attended Catholic grammar school as well as two years of Catholic high school (until he learned that he would never meet a girl if he stayed at an all-boys’ school) – it was then that this young man met a young Lutheran woman from a German family, a woman who had attended Lutheran grammar school, sung in her church choir, and been very active in her parish. They met on a train in Chicago and they fell in love. She never pressured him – or so it was told – but he started attending her church, because that’s what love sometimes does. He then went off to the army, during which time he met a chaplain who confirmed him in the Lutheran Church, so that when he returned from service they could be married as members of the same church body.
It’s not a particularly unusual story, is it? It just happens to be the story of my parents. And while my father became a very active member, first of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and then later a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, his mother, my aunt and my cousins – in fact, that whole side of my family – have always remained Roman Catholic. And truth be told, as much as you can take the boy out of the church, you never fully take the church out of the boy. You see, it was my father, with his Roman Catholic roots, that modeled for me that making the sign of the cross (something Lutherans have only recently allowed themselves to re-embrace) that this is a wonderful sign of baptismal remembrance. And although he laughs about it, I clearly remember how often he has said – and I was with him last week and he said it again – that whatever else happens at his funeral service, which will be in his Lutheran congregation, he wants there to be incense, a harkening back to his days as an altar boy, when he served at funerals and saw the rising incense as this poignant image of the beloved rising to be united with God. And at that point, Bishop Solis, I may need some pointers.
I share this story because what we are doing today, this continuing journey of our two church bodies into the Spirit’s unfolding future, this matters, and it matters on so many levels. It matters not just for those of us who are part of it. I truly believe it matters for the whole Church of Jesus Christ; indeed, it matters for this whole world into which God calls us in ministry and witness together.
Unity, we know, does not demand uniformity, thanks be to God. It’s the distinctiveness of each of the branches that gives beauty to the vine itself; and while there’s always something in every branch that needs some pruning – we know this only too well – it’s when we bring our distinctiveness together that we recognize the richness of the fruit that we are gifted to bear as fellow members of the One vine.
Beloved in Christ, it is my fervent hope and prayer that this unique moment in our life becomes our way of life as Christ’s church, for the sake of the One in whom we abide, for the sake of the One who so patiently and lovingly abides in us.