CHARLOTTE—Five hundred years after legend says Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the doors of All Saints’ Church in Wittenburg, Germany, and 50 years after Lutherans and Catholics began their joint dialogue, more than 800 Christians from North and South Carolina gathered to pray for forgiveness and unity.
The Sept. 23 ecumenical service at Covenant Presbyterian Church included leaders of the Lutheran, Episcopal, Methodist, A.M.E. Zion, Moravian and Presbyterian churches in North and South Carolina. Bishop Peter Jugis and Bishop Robert Guglielmone of the Diocese of Charleston, S.C., were the two Catholic prelates at the service.
The two-hour service opened not with a joyous processional hymn, but with everyone standing to face the cross and praying: “O God of mercy, we lament that even good actions of reform and renewal have often unintended negative consequences. … We remember before you the burdens of the past and present when we ignored your will that all be one in the truth of the Gospel. … We confess our own ways of thinking and acting which perpetuate the divisions of the past.”
The Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, led the service, which was organized jointly by the North and South Carolina synods of the ELCA.
In her sermon, Rev. Eaton noted that the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is not a time for celebration, but a time to remember our oneness in the Body of Christ.
“We must be one – single-minded, single-hearted – that the world might believe,” she preached, urging Christians to focus on what we have in common rather than what divides us. The world desperately needs the Gospel message, she said, and squabbling between Christians is “hugely confusing” to non-believers.
Rev. Eaton noted that the service’s Gospel reading from John Chapter 17, Jesus’ high priestly prayer, is often used to illustrate Jesus’ desire for Christian unity: ‘That they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.’”
“I think we’re not talking about ecumenism here, and I don’t think we’re talking about arithmetic, either,” she said. “The word for one in Hebrew is echad. That is the very same word that we hear in the Shema, in Deuteronomy: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one.’
“It’s about the truth that God is faithful, that God is single-minded, that God is single-hearted, that God has integrity, that God is trustworthy,” she said. “We’re to cling to that and confess that in all times and in all circumstances of our life.”
People throughout the ages have disregarded that advice, thinking they could go it alone or trust in earthly powers.
However, she continued, “Every single time that the people of God in Israel or in the Christian church have decided that God needs a little extra help from us, is when things have gone terribly, terribly wrong.”
The Gospel reminds us of “the single-mindedness, the single-heartedness of God,” she said. “God loved us so much that He sent us Jesus, and Jesus would go to hell and back to save everyone.”
“Now we come here, 500 years after the Reformation … we are once again called to be one,” she said.
The gift of God’s grace “means that all of us — all of us — are on the same playing field, that not one of us can get out of the mess that we’re in by ourselves. Not a one of us, not a group of people is somehow better able to negotiate our way through this life, which means there is no one group of people who are superior to any other group of people.”
Hatred, envy, pride, greed, gluttony, violence, racism, hopelessness — these are the hallmarks of “the real world,” she said. It is the call of every Christian to stand up and say, “That way only leads to suffering and death. Maybe not immediately, and maybe not as blatantly as what we saw in Charlottesville or around our country. Maybe not that quickly, that soon. But it leads to death.”
Rev. Eaton paused, then said, “500 years. So what?
“Here’s the so what: When we truly believe and trust and live in the faith of the single-mindedness, the single-heartedness of God, when things that shake us or draw our attention away or say ‘come with me and I’ll show you the good life,’ when we say no – ‘Hear, O Israel, hear, O church, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.’ And when we do that together, we might be a witness and a beacon to people out there who are lost and struggling and falling prey to all of these things that lead to divisions in humankind.”
Offering a greeting at the start of the service, Bishop Jugis said, “This commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is an opportunity to continue moving forward, toward our common goal of reconciliation and unity of Christians, in fulfillment of Jesus’ (high priestly) prayer.”
“The demands of ministry are great and all-consuming and we each serve within our own sphere of influence, but a service such as this today enables us to pray together and establish contact with other disciples of the Lord, who give all to serve Him. In this way, our desire for Christian unity is continuing to make progress,” he said.
“A hopeful sign of our growing solidarity,” he noted, was the way in which the 500th anniversary commemorations opened last October: with a common prayer service led by Pope Francis and Bishop Dr. Munib Younan, president of the Lutheran World Federation, in Lund, Sweden. “This common witness of theirs … is serving as an inspiration for us all,” he said.
The Rev. Dr. George Battle Jr., senior bishop of the A.M.E. Zion Church and presiding prelate of the Piedmont Episcopal District, also addressed the congregation.
“Our relationship is getting stronger,” Rev. Battle said. “It has not been easy, but God did not promise that it would be easy. You have wrapped your arms around us and we intend to wrap our arms around your people. We intend to be the one church that Christ is calling us to be.”
The service and concert prelude featured choirs and brass ensembles from Newberry College in South Carolina and Lenoir-Rhyne University in North Carolina, as well as a combined choir from at least a dozen churches across North and South Carolina.
A special anthem, “The Righteous Shall Live By Faith” by the Rev. Dr. Paul Weber, composer and professor emeritus of Lenoir-Rhyne University, was commissioned especially for the occasion by the anniversary commemoration organizing committee.
By Patricia L. Guilfoyle
Editor / Catholic News Herald / Diocese of Charlotte
Top photo, Patricia L. Guilfoyle: Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone (center) from the Diocese of Charleston participates with more than a dozen Christian leaders from South and North Carolina in an ecumenical service at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, N.C., commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The service was organized by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.