The 12th assembly of the Lutheran World Federation was held from the 10-16 May and I was privileged to participate in it.
This assembly brought together over 309 delegates representing its 145 member churches in 98 countries, as well as many others totalling 800 attendees. This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and the Assembly, which gathered in Windhoek, Namibia, was the venue for its global commemoration.
Namibia is deeply rooted in the Lutheran tradition, and is a good example of how the Lutheran faith is embraced, taking shape, and lived out in contexts outside of Western Europe. More importantly, it shares a special relationship with the LWF, which offered support and solidarity to and accompanied the Namibian churches in their struggle against Apartheid enabling all Namibians access to freedom, justice and dignity.
“To anchor the Assembly in Namibia is to epitomize and celebrate this accompaniment made possible by the grace of God,” the LWF website says.
One of the highlights of the Assembly was a public statement on reconciliation with respect to genocide in Namibia. The statement called to mind the pain caused by the German colonial powers in the early 20th century that resulted in the deaths of thousands of people. The Namibian and German governments have recognised this hurt and are committed to a process of telling the truth and doing justice in view of what they both call today a genocide against the Herero, Nama and other indigenous people.
The Assembly reflected on the central theme “Liberated by God’s Grace,” which articulates two fundamental insights of Lutheran theology: the prevalence of God’s grace when it comes to justification, and the gift of freedom that results from God’s transformative action. The sub-themes, “Salvation not for sale”; “Human beings not for sale” and “Creation not for sale” are issues identified as being pertinent to our time and requiring our attention.
The “not for sale” caption, encapsulates a key insight that prompted Luther’s public opposition to ecclesial practices of his time. His powerful declaration of protest – that grace is a gift and not a thing that can be sold or bought! This paved the way for the emergence of the Reformation movement.
We live in a world today where wealth is prized above all else. By focusing on the three sub-themes the Assembly offered a space to critically reflect on attempts to subjugate, control and trade what ultimately cannot be defined as commodities – salvation, human beings, creation – and should therefore never be subjected to trade or monetisation.
Of the three sub-themes, the last two are perhaps more appealing in that we are familiar with the ongoing debates and discourse on human trafficking and issues surrounding climate change. Many of us within the UCA are involved in combating these issues.
But, what about ‘Salvation: not for sale’? Are we concerned about salvation? How close is it to our desires? How often do we think about being saved/redeemed/justified? What is it that we want ‘saved’ in our lives? How is salvation experienced in the Australian context?
For many who live in relative comfort in a secularised world, thoughts on the saving grace of God are perhaps far from their minds. I was told that even if salvation were sold, there would be few buyers because the need for God and God’s saving grace is non-existent.
Many in such situations believe that one can save oneself through one’s own effort even if at the expense of the other. Everyone is saved when he or she attends to his or her own interests. This is the culture of the market; we are trained to possess. How do we understand the saving grace of God in the Australian context? A friend jestingly said that salvation in the Australian context is having your favourite football team win!
I come from a context where the impact of charismatic and other independent Christian movements lead every second Christian to ask, “Are you saved?”
For thousands drowning in hopelessness against forces of evil far too strong and beyond their capacity to overthrow, the justifying, redeeming, saving and empowering grace of God is pertinent; it is questioned, debated, doubted and sought after.
Clever sellers of salvation (perhaps you can identify who they are in this context) take note of the needs of the people, master the surroundings, contexts and their materiality. They construct needs, guilt structures, desires and package God and God’s salvation for sale.
For many, all they have to help them cope is faith and refuge in God as saviour. Drowning in despair, and struggling to keep their heads above water, they become victims to these distorted and convoluted sales pitch of religious leaders and organisations offering ways out of the predicament. Desperation and fear clouds judgment, hinders creativity, and prevents resistance to such understandings of salvation.
There are many definitions of ‘salvation’ out there, including many spurious ones, which have distanced us from God – definitions that conform to market theologies and their current political, social and gender ideologies. History is replete with examples of the effects of salvation understood in totalitarian terms – controlling, defining and organising people in rather dogmatic ways.
Luther used his theology to serve the proclamation of the gospel – “that salvation is received and not attained. Salvation or justification was therefore God’s gift to the faithful – a present, a living experience, and not something in the future. It comes about through faith in the risen Christ, present here and now, with whom one is bound through faith, and saved through His Spirit. All human beings are now justified by God’s grace as a gift, through redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood” (Romans 3: 24-25).
We are justified by God’s grace and love. This we/I know. It requires faith to accept it with joy and believe in it. However, the question then is “how are we to show that this salvation, this justifying grace has taken effect in our lives?”
In other words, “what is the outcome of this knowledge – of having been saved? How do we give expression to this experience of salvation?”
Luther writes: “We do not become righteous by doing righteous deeds but having been made righteous, we do righteous deeds” ~ (Luther’s Works 31, 12).
“We are to offer up ourselves for our neighbours’ benefit and for the honour of God. This offering is the exercise of our love—distributing our works for the benefit of our neighbours. He (sic) who does so is a Christian. He (sic) becomes one with Christ, and the offering of his body is identical with the offering of Christ’s body” ~ (The Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, Vol. IV, “First Sunday after Epiphany,” p. 9).
Hence, in solidarity with another, there is grace and one is encouraged to give of oneself. The ills in the world have to, in Luther’s words, “trouble, afflict, vex and tempt” us to respond, to resist and to overcome. In responding through acts of solidarity, through care and kindness, we bring into effect our salvation and the salvation of individuals beyond our own narrow circle of concern.
Faith eventually is the ability to understand and accept ourselves as the objects of God’s saving grace and love. It is unsurprisingly transformative: it opens up the capability of loving others and it gives us the power to do so… and this is salvation taking effect. Moreover, we all have it already… the challenge lies in believing it, living it and practising it!
Monica Jyotsna Melanchthon
Coordinator of Studies, Hebrew Bible/Old Testament
Pilgrim Theological College