When the door was closed on the meeting between Pope Benedict XVI and the leaders of the German Lutheran Church on September 23rd, 2011, for some in the USA it signaled the possibility of an open door to reunification while, for others, it signaled the need to nail another Ninety-Five Theses (or more) to the doors of our churches while shouting, papam esse ipsum verum antichristum .

The blogosphere erupted with commentary on the Pope’s speech. Some offered half-hearted appreciation for the Pope and his willingness to engage the ecumenical issues on the table. Unfortunately, from this latter group, at least from the perspective of one within the Lutheran church, it appeared to be the same old routine: begin by stating how nice it is to have a Pope who has some knowledge of Luther, make note of the fact that the Pope is a true scholar, and then proceed to blast him backhandedly by concluding, “However, it grieves me to say it, but he’s still the anti-Christ.”

Yet this reaction, regardless of how predictable it may have been, was not without significance. In fact, what the American Lutheran reaction to the Pope’s visit to Germany revealed was that the question once queried by Carl Braaten is still apropos: “Are Lutherans émigrés or exiles?”

Certainly, there is a strand of Lutheranism which sees itself as exiled from Rome and, in response, many of its members have made their way back “home” (e.g. Father Richard John Neuhaus of blessed memory, Professor Michael Root of Catholic University in America, and Dr. Adam Cooper of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne, to name just a few). Most Lutherans of a more conservative bent, on the other hand, have been more apprehensive about swimming the Tiber River.

What this apprehension indicates, however, is that many conservative Lutherans of the present day see themselves as émigrés and not exiles. They presume we exiled ourselves . No one forced us out. We left. And as we stomped out the door nearly five hundred years ago, our bitterness has left us to define ourselves by what we hate, rather than by what we love. An analogy: if your girlfriend leaves you, all you can remember are the reasons you loved her. But if you leave your girlfriend, you only remember her faults. Many conservative Lutherans believe that, in 1517, we left our girlfriend. And ever since, we have only been able to recall her faults. This, in turn, has left us in a rut, one which extends to the present day.

However, maybe in the grey-haired, German pontiff, who sometimes struggles to ascend the stairs of the high altar at St. Peter’s Basilica and always appears winded near the end of the proper preface, maybe in him we can find a glimpse of a bright future for the Church catholic where we truly are one” ut unum sint . Why? Precisely because,, even in his latter years, he continues (and maybe more than ever before) to be defined by what he loves and not by what he hates.

He loves his homeland, so he makes his third apostolic visit to Germany in six years (the most of any country except Spain). He loves the dignity of the human person, so he once again spent heartrending time with victims of abuse. He loves young people, so even after a Mass in Erfurt and a flight to Freiburg, he stayed awake long enough to exhort the youth of Germany at a prayer vigil to be the light of the world. And he loves his own church enough that he was willing to bid them to do what would seem to us Lutherans to be the unthinkable for Catholics: to learn from Luther.

From the Pope’s speech:

“How do I receive the grace of God?” The fact that this question was the driving force of his whole life never ceases to make an impression on me. [ . . . ] In my view, this is the first summons we should attend to in our encounter with Martin Luther.

Another important point: God, the one God, creator of heaven and earth, is no mere philosophical hypothesis regarding the origins of the universe. This God has a face, and he has spoken to us. He became one of us in the man Jesus Christ”who is both true God and true man. Luther’s thinking, his whole spirituality, was thoroughly Christocentric: “What promotes Christ’s cause” was for Luther the decisive hermeneutical criterion for the exegesis of sacred Scripture. This presupposes, however, that Christ is at the heart of our spirituality and that love for him, living in communion with him, is what guides our life.

We are quick to judge our separated brethren of the Roman Catholic Church; we are even, sadly, quick to hate. Often conservative Lutherans mark time beginning in 1517 and, since then, not many good things have come out of Rome.

Until now, maybe.

What the Pope has identified for us is an ecumenical paradigm for true reunification after the heart of Jesus: Love. Not a love in abstraction, but a love incarnate in action. The Pope has made the first move in this endeavor. We might be asking what response would best complement his offer.

Joshua D. Genig is Associate Pastor of St. John Lutheran Church in Wheaton, IL and is finishing a Ph.D. in systematic theology at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.

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