This is the day to celebrate the achievements of yet another academic year at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. Thank you so much for the invitation to share this wonderful occasion with you! It is a true joy and an honor.
We are gathered around you graduates. You made it! No matter what your degree is, how long you have been studying at LSTC or where you are headed now – this is the day to take a deep breath of relief. No matter how you tackled Greek and Hebrew – if that’s what you did – no matter how easily the language of theology came to you, no matter whatever: you are here!
You made use of the gifts you brought with you. For a shorter or longer period of time you have been part of a community of teaching and learning that can be amazing – encounters you had not dreamt of, perspectives you did not even know existed, challenges you welcomed and challenges you dreaded, liturgies that strengthened you in what you already thought and believed, and liturgies that pulled you out of your comfort zones. Grades that you thought adequately reflected the level of your ambitions and grades that surprised or disappointed you. Classmates you related easily to and classmates who remained "other" for you.
You have survived deadlines! You may have journeyed through dark tunnels: and you hav come out to see the light of this day. Pause to give thanks for gifts and sacrifices. You acquired knowledge and probably more than that. A degree should not only reflect the linear arithmetic of class added to class, it should reflect knowledge integrated into who you are as a human being, as a person of faith, as a global citizen. The old Greeks talked about gnothi seauton "know yourself" as an expression of this wisdom. Know yourself, as liberated by God’s grace, to love and serve the neighbour with all your gifts and skills, remembering that neighbours may be close or far away, that they may be a person who causes trouble or an eco-system that has fallen into the hands of robbers.
Gnothi seauton – know yourself. It is a journey to be continued, as long as this life lasts. And even beyond that, if consummation means full recognition of what was supposed to be. Student years are formative in a special sense. Hold on to the best of them in an attitude of life-long learning!
Today is also a time to pause in gratitude for faculty, staff and boards. And, of course, for loved ones who have supported you along the way. A time to enjoy the company of those you have around you and to remember those who are not here, yet close to your hearts. Without those who taught us the language of prayer and the songs of faith, our lives would be very different.
Faculty and staff have made it through yet another academic year. With the joys of teaching, the agonies of grading, the duties of committee work, the struggle to find time for reading and writing, and all the work and resources it takes to run a seminary.
Soon, it is time to move on, for some literally, for others more metaphorically. Some will continue their professional lives with new experiences; others will have to settle into new places in the geography of space and time, of culture and biography. This is also a time to say good-bye. As we in this service celebrate the gift of communion, we also have a sense of looming separation.
In other words, this is the kind of situation in which we find Jesus praying, according to today’s reading from the gospel of John. Not that the separations we are anticipating are as radical as the one the disciples were facing – but these words of prayer have spoken to disciples at all times
Jesus does not pray that his disciples be given the means to escape challenges and temptation. We who were made his in baptism, we live in the world: partaking in structures that do not always support life, structures that are unhealthy for humans and the rest of creation, structures engrained with fear and hatred – a fertile soil for violence, racism, xenophobia and extremisms of various kinds – all of which are defiling the face of the earth that God so loved …
Jesus prays: "They are in the world; protect them … so that they may be one, as we are one".
So that they may be one! Even after 2000 years Jesus has not got what he prayed for! Conflicts between baptized people continue to get in the way of a credible Christian witness to the God of love.
We are only two years away from the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Martin Luther’s 95 theses in Wittenberg,1517 mark the beginning of a movement with powerful consequences for theology, culture and the development of modern democracy – as well as the start of yet another division in the Church. "So that they may be one": no, 2017 will not undo that split. Nevertheless, nearly five decades of dialogue between Lutheran Churches and the Roman Catholic Church have shown results. With the document From Conflict to Communion, for the first time since the 16th century, we now have a shared account of reformation history as well as shared commitments for the future! Lutherans and Roman Catholics share experiences of mutual condemnation, division and hate, but also of life-giving reconciliation and of lay and grassroots engagements that eagerly anticipate the realities yet to be confirmed by official dialogue. Church documents may not always capture the positive imagination of all experts who read them, but they do inspire the ecumenical hopes and dreams of people at parish level, especially those families longing to go to the Lord’s Table together.
In the fall of 2016, on the doorstep of the reformation anniversary, a common commemoration will be held, jointly hosted by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church. It will be a commemoration in thanksgiving for the gospel, in repentance for the pain that conflict and divisions have caused, and in joint commitment to common witness. As From Conflict to Communion urges us: "Catholics and Lutherans should witness together to the mercy of God in proclamation and service to the world" (FCTC 243). And we better become concrete about that, wherever we live and serve!
Koinonia, communion, is ‘learning by doing’ in response to the needs of the world. We have been learning – sometimes the hard way – that it is about sharing the richness of traditions rather than building fences around one’s own turf; that it is about empowerment rather than about power. That it is about celebrating unity in the midst of existing diversity.
And Jesus prays: "I am not asking you to take them out of the world. But I ask you to protect them from the evil one".
One of the most lucrative businesses the evil one is engaged in is the killing of hope! The world is crying out for credible words of hope and for the works of love that the Gospel of Jesus Christ compels us to carry out, together with people of good will from many traditions. In these days, expectations that the Church be an agent of peace and justice are both high and demanding. The list of challenges for church leaders is long, as it is for the international community: poverty and injustice, the plight of Christians in the Middle East, the tragedies of migrant deaths, the role of religious leaders in combatting climate change, freedom of religion or belief, protection of whistleblowers and minorities, humanitarian aid to the victims of wars and catastrophes.
Moreover, we are challenged by the spiritual poverty that otherwise well-to-do societies are facing. Secularization leaves us with mixed feelings: on the one hand, it is a result of the success of the Gospel of Jesus Christ: the values of freedom and dignity are so strong that they carry through all of society. Hence, when "the world" is challenging us, the Church, to be braver in affirming human freedom and dignity, it is challenging us with the fruits of our own preaching – which is good. On the other hand, secularization has undermined the knowledge and practice of faith, leaving especially young people without access to the spiritual resources offered by the church. Thus, loneliness, the haunting feeling of never being fully accepted, and the lack of courage to fully face life’s ups and downs, are threats to the existential health of whole generations. If there is nothing outside yourself that can feed your sense of being accepted no matter what, if you have to carry the whole burden of the meaningfulness of your life all by yourself, then it is indeed difficult to live.
Insecurity provides a fertile soil for xenophobia and intolerance, a growing problem on the continent I call home, Europe. This keeps us from doing two necessary things at the same time: being involved in interreligious dialogue in order to strengthen social cohesion in diverse communities, while at the same time resisting violence in the name of religion.
And Jesus prays: "So that they may have my joy made complete in themselves".
It is about joy! Jesus cares about our joy! As we strive to the best of our abilities, we help the joy that Jesus pours out in the world to flow freely. It is for the sake of joy that we cultivate the knowledge of both head and heart; that we strive for churches and congregations that are joyful in worship, robust in their social work, creative in sharing the faith and strong in dialogue.
The joy of Christ remains contested joy. Joy it is, nevertheless. And we need it, as we live with the challenges of this world.
People around the globe are realizing that the question of climate may be the biggest question we ever have faced together as humankind. History is not without irony: yesterday, postmodernism drew our attention to the demise of the real big narratives, and we saw many of them crumble down to fragments; today, we face a narrative bigger than Amy proclaimed before that crumbling. In unprecedented ways, the narrative of climate change is binding all of humanity together with the rest of creation.
Climate change is about a global village where those who have contributed the least pay the highest costs. It will put our values and our ability to act to the test. Responding to the facts we know today requires science, politics, business, culture and religion – everything that is an expression of human dignity – to work together. Climate is about science and faith, about welfare and interdependence, sin and reconciliation, about humans as "created co-creators", about revisiting anthropocentric world views and about hope. And it is about justice now and for our grandchildren and their grandchildren. There is no more "going west", no more leaving the mess behind and moving on. Climate change is happening here and now and requires response and action here and now.
The leaders of the world look to religious leaders to take a stand and offer guidance. They do so because religions provide a cultural integrity, a spiritual depth and a moral force often lacking in purely secular approaches. And faith can generate a joy that may be hard to find elsewhere. Yes, changes of lifestyle will be needed. Yes, sacrifice will be needed. But who, if not people of faith, can be examples of joyful sacrifice? If material and intellectual choices are inspired by spiritual choices, we will find that the path to a climate-smart and climate-just life is not just a tough one, but also a joyful one.
And Jesus prays: "Sanctify them in the truth … as you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world".
Oneness, joy and sanctification – when all comes together, it is about the sending into the world: the Christian pulse of gathering and being sent. We are being sent, and we can always come back to share the gifts of word and sacrament. Whether "out there" or "in here", the One who sends us is with us. Things can get tough, but God is always greater than our best achievements and our worst mistakes and failings.
Let me quote a line or two from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the pastor, theologian and martyr, the 70th anniversary of whose death we commemorated last month:
- I believe that God can and will bring good out of evil, even out of the greatest evil. For that purpose, [God] needs people who make the best use of everything …
- I believe that even our mistakes and shortcomings are not in vain, and that it is no harder for God to deal with them than with our supposedly good deeds.
- I believe that God is not a timeless fate, but that [God] waits for and responds to honest prayers and responsible action.
These are good words to hear, as we now are about to leave the Season of Easter, as well as the time of studying and exams, to set out on the journey where the rubber of faith and ministry hits the long road of every-day-life.
Today’s challenges are no longer defined by local or national borders. They are glocal, both global and local. Borders are no longer what they used to be. That should not scare us. Because at the center of Christianity, there is a God crossing the most dramatic borders of all: the one between divine and human and the one between death and life. Transgression of borders always entails "Berührungsangst", the anxiety of touching and being touched by what is different, strange, other. As people of faith, we can live with these anxieties, remaining centered in the Gospel of the incarnated Christ and open, very much open, to the world. And so, united in prayer for God's creation and the church of Jesus Christ, we continue to pray with confidence: Veni Creator Spiritus, Come Creator Spirit.