A lot was happening in the world in 1966. The war in Vietnam was escalating, as were protests against the war. The Soviet Union successfully landing an unmanned spacecraft on the moon. The Beatles released the songs Yellow Submarine and Eleanor Rigby, and the Rolling Stones released Paint it Black. Closer to home, Harold Holt replaced Robert Menzies as the Australian Prime Minister and our currency changed from pounds, shillings and pence to dollars and cents. And 1966 was the year the Lutheran Church of Australia came into existence.
Lutherans had been coming to Australia since 1838. However, from 1846 Lutheran congregations began to separate from each other because of differences in doctrine. In 1921, a number of these groups came together to form the United Evangelical Church in Australia (UELCA), which was still separate from the Evangelical Church of Australia (ELCA). Conversations between representatives of these two churches began in the 1940’s and led to their union which was formally recognized on 30 October, 1966. The united Lutheran Church of Australia (LCA) was born.
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of this event and give thanks to God for five decades of a common witness to the gospel as the LCA, we can wonder why these divisions came about and lasted so long. However, in our own time we are also facing issues that have the potential to divide us as sisters and brothers in Christ. For example, questions on ordination, the work of the Holy Spirit, and human sexuality are currently being debated in our church and, some think, could potentially break apart the unity that came about fifty years ago.
What is at stake is not just the existence of a human organization, but our witness to the gospel. Jesus said that people will know that we are his disciples when we love each other the same way that he loves us (John 13:35). When we are torn apart by controversies and arguments, how are we perceived by those around us? Does the world in which we exist and to which we are called to witness see the love of God in our human institutions and relationships?
One reason why the last Sunday in October was selected to acknowledge the formation of the LCA was that it symbolised the roots we all share as Lutherans. Reformation Sunday is a time to remember where we came from and why Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg 499 years ago. Luther was pointing to the good news of Jesus which we heard in this morning’s readings, that God ‘makes sinners right in his sight when they believe in Jesus’ (Romans 3:26 NLT) and that Jesus sets us free from the power of sin, death and the devil (John 8:32) in our lives. This is the good news that brought about reform in the church 500 years ago, and to which we are continually called back in our own time and place.
The gospel is what brings us together as Lutheran Christians in Australia and is at the heart of our identity. No matter what we might agree or disagree on, no matter what might threaten to divide us, it is this same faith that was at the centre of the Reformation which also needs to be at the centre of our common identity and purpose. We have good news to bring to the people who live in our city, our nation and beyond our borders. This good news gives us a sure sense of who we are, what we are worth, and what we are here for. The gospel gives us everything we need to fulfil God’s purposes as we serve others in our mission and ministry as God’s holy and redeemed people.
One of the greatest challenges we face as Lutheran members of the Christian family is how will we pass this good news on to people around us, to our children and grandchildren? While we debate issues such as ordination, the work of the Holy Spirit and human sexuality, we also need to remember that the way we discuss these issues gives us the opportunity to witness to the gospel. If we are able to find a common identity and purpose in the gospel, and treat others who see things differently in the love that Jesus gives us through the gospel, then people will see his Spirit at work in us. If our goal is to continue the work of those people who fought for the union of the Lutheran Churches in Australia by providing a united witness to the gospel, then the way we go about these discussions have the potential to display the self-giving and sacrificial love of God that we encounter in Jesus’ death and resurrection to our society and our young people.
I am thankful for the Reformers who were faithful to the gospel 500 years ago, and who called the church to be faithful in its witness to the gospel to the world. I am thankful to previous generations of Australian Lutherans who overcame their differences to unite and work together in their witness to the gospel in Australia and overseas. The good news of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection brings freedom, hope and love for all who believe. No matter what we might disagree on, what brings us together with God and with each other is his grace to us through Jesus in the Holy Spirit. In this faith, let’s commit to living in God’s grace with each other, so that our community, our neighbours, and our young people will see the love of God in us as Jesus’ disciples.
More to think about:
- The name ‘Lutheran’ can mean different things to different people. What do you think of when you hear the name ‘Lutheran’?
- Some say that we are living in a post-denominational era where most followers of Jesus would prefer to be called ‘Christian’ than given a denominational label. What are some advantages of focusing on what Christians have in common? What are some advantages of recognizing & acknowledging differences that exist between us?
- How important is it for Christians to discuss our differences in love for our witness to our world & the next generation? How might we be able to do that while still looking for God’s truth together?
- What do you think is the biggest issue facing the church? How might focusing on the good news of Jesus help us find God’s path for us through that issue?
- What do you hope your church will be like in 50 years time?