International Lutheran Council World Seminary Conference, Palanga, Lithuania
Lutheran church and seminary leaders from around the world descended upon Lithuania over the course of the past 24 hours, traveling from every corner of the globe. They are here to consider the conference theme: Suffering, Persecution and Martyrdom as Marks of the Church, a theme many of these confessing Lutherans know much about from personal experience. The conference is organized by the International Lutheran Council (ILC), a worldwide association of Confessional Lutheran Churches.
Bishop Mindaugas Sabutis, of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Lithuania, a member church of the Lutheran World Federation greeted the group assembled at the Palanga Lutheran Church. In his remarks he noted that for Christians in Lithuania, persecution, in one form or another, has been nearly constant during the past 400 years.
Welcoming the group on behalf of the ILC was Dr. Albert Collver III, Executive Secretary.
“In the Book of Revelation, “those who had been slain” cried out with a loud voice to the Lord, “How long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth? (Rev. 6:10) The word used to describe the martyrs who cried out to the Lord from the altar in heaven is from the greek verb sphazo,the very same word used to describe Jesus as the “the Lamb who had been slain.” The martyrs had been slain like their Lord, Jesus. Like the blood of Abel, the blood of the martyrs calls out to the Lord for justice and the vengeance of the Lord upon the wicked. In a similar way the Lord’s church on earth cries out to be a witness to the work, and for deliverance from all evil. Ironically, the more the church prays to be a witness to the world, the more likely the church is to experience the cross and suffering, which in itself becomes a witness.”
Collver noted that the theme of suffering, persecution and martyrdom has been a topic of theological reflection since the Book of Acts. “At the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century, the church has passed through a century where more Christians, numerically, have been persecuted and martyred than at any other time in history. “At the same time, Islam is spreading among peoples and through lands where the Gospel once held sway. If the external threats of secular humanism and Islam were not enough, the church is under attack from within,” said Collver.
“Through the crosses, that is, the sufferings in our lives predestined for us before the foundation of the world, The Lord conforms us into the image of His Son. What sort of Lord predestines the Holy Cross? The sort of Lord who in His divine foreknowledge ensured that no suffering, cross, or martyrdom would wrest you from His loving hand. This is the sort of Lord who has promised that the gates of hell will not prevail against His Church. This is the sort of Lord who in the words of the Augsburg Confession said the church perpetual mansura, that is, will endure forever. Be assured that suffering, persecution and martyrdom as evil as it is, will turn into blessing by The Lord.”
Martyrdom and the Cross
The keynote presenter Dr. William Weinrich, Professor of Church History at Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne, Ind. provided a historical view of martyrdom and the cross walking participants through the accounts of the early church martyrs.
Underscoring the relevance of the topic for our time, Weinrich noted that credible research has reached the estimate that more than 100,000 Christians are violently killed because of some relation to their faith each year, others are either displaced,see the destruction of their houses of worship, experience rape or the abduction of their leaders. In Western countries where the church has historically been an integral part of society, a trend emerges that increasingly marginalizes and restricts the ability of the faith community to bear mercy in the world.
“Today, being a Christian in the world is contested and is facing serious challenge, in some places with murderous consequences.”
Weinrich noted that, “To commune with the Body and Blood of Christ was to be bound with Him who was Himself the “faithful witness” (Rev. 1:5) and received the crown of life: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” “Luke 23:46) Union with Christ’s Body and Blood unites the faithful to the goal and destiny of Christian faith, namely, to that perfection whereby the confession of the mouth in instantiated by the sacrifice of ones’ life for the true confession. The death of the martyr was itself “witness” and “demonstration” that in Christ God had overcome death by the new creation of the resurrection.
As we think about the present circumstances of our Lutheran churches in the world and about how best to prepare our people fro further suffering, we should not forget the great resource we have in the Sacrament of the Altar. For it is not merely that which “strengths” faith but is itself the reality of life over death: “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I shall raise him on the last day.” (John 6:54)”
Suffering, Persecution, Martyrdom as a Mark of the Church
In the afternoon, the Rev. Dr. Darius Petkunas pastor of the Palanga Lutheran Church, walked the group through the persecutions which took place under the Marxist-Lenninist regimes of the 20th Century.
The Life of the Church has been marked from the beginning by the presence of the cross, that particular form of suffering borne by those who confess the name of Christ. … In the both century Marxist-Lenninist communism clearly stated that for communism to succeed, the Church and its superstitions must be destroyed, and that the very idea of God must be erased from man’s heart and soul. It was at first thought that scientific-atheistic propaganda could accomplish this, for the Christian faith was thought to be nothing more or less than ignorant superstition which could be easily combated and overcome by reason and education. History shows that it was soon found necessary to employ more direct means to destroy the Church. Thousands of priests and bishops of all the traditional Christian confessions in the Soviet Union were sent to the gulags and for many of them it was a death sentence. By the mid 1930’s the Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches in Soviet Russia had disappeared from the scene.
His address led participants through the following points:
1. Luther on the Seventh Mark of the Church
“Luther elaborates on the seventh sign by stating that Christians “…must endure every misfortune and persecution, all kinds of trials and evil…” In this way they are conformed to their head not by their own action and decision, but by the work of the Holy Spirit. They are punished not because they have done wrong or because “… they are adulterers, murderers, thieves, or rogues, but because they want to have none but Christ, and no other God. Wherever you see or hear this, you may know the Holy Christian Church is there…”
2. The Shape of “the World” and its relation to the Church
What Luther referred to as the seventh sign or mark of the CHurch is called into play when temporal, secular authority oversteps its omits and intrudes into spiritual affairs where God’s Word and will should reign supreme. When this happens Christians are to follow the example of St. Peter who when he was told by the Jewis authorities that he must not proclaim the person and work of Christ, responded that in such matters one must follow “God rather than men.”
3. The Seventh Sign in Historical Perspective
This seventh sign of the Church manifested itself most evidently when and where the faithfulness of the Church was put to the test by a strong state or government hostile to the Gospel. In the 16th century Lutherans most often found themselves in the minority in many territories. They were ready and willing to affirm by word and action the faith which they confessed. Indeed the CHurch and Christians who are determined to be faithful regardless the cost who are most likely to find themselves at the receiving en of trials and tribulations. … The example of the Prussian Church shows what happens when the CHurch either sees no need to make a clear confession of the truth of God’s Word or has allowed itself to be rendered incapable of articulating such a confession. If the CHurch has nothing for which it is willing to suffer it will not suffer, and it will not reeve the blessing which hardship brings with it. Here as Luther had correctly stated, the willingness to endure what a clear confession brings with it and the unwillingness to allow the secular realm to interfere in Church affairs together with the determination to make a bold and clear confession and bear the cross is a clear mark of the church.
4. The Situation Today: Some Observations
The seventh sign has always been regarded as a secondary mark of the Church. Its absence at a particular time and at particular place does not necessarily mean that the CHurch is no longer the true Church. However, it often happens that where the Church is unwilling to bear the pain of the cross, other marks and signs of the Church, including the pure proclamation of the Gospel, the right administration of the Sacraments, and the proper ordering of the Holy Ministry disappears as well.
Luther would insist that one must move beyond a simple consideration of the empirical evidence to a recognition that behind it stands the ancient consolation of “the Devil, the World, and the sinful flesh.” The Church and her people contend with forces which are not merely empirical and material, they are instead higher and stronger powers in heavily places. (Eph. 6:12) They must be combated by the power of God whom the Church confesses and proclaims.
Rev. Alexey Streltsov, Rector of LUtheran Theological Seminnary, Novosibirsk, Siberia, was one of the responders to the morning presentations and reflected on the nature and shape of suffering:
How much suffering does there have to be to call it suffering? Sometimes people who have some mild inconveniences call it suffering. But what we talk about here is a really an existential experience, when one is faced with such suffering the Holy Spirit is there to give counsel and aid.
In the culture I come from there has been much reflection on the theme of suffering and death. Not many [here] have gone through such experiences. But we have to realize that some in this room or our family and friends will face this in the future.
In the book 1984, George Orwell discusses how early Christian martyrs knew that when they would go to death they would be remembered by the church and this would bring them some glory. However, to think that when people are confronted with martyrdom today you likely will not be remembered. Whether this is the case or not, we should praise God for those Christians who no one remembers.
In secular culture, suffering is viewed as something to get over and then to have a winsome and positive attitude. No, when suffering comes it is not something to get over, it may never go away, it may only increase. Around us [today] it doesn’t look like things will get better. This history of the martyrs will help prepare us for what is to come.
Rev. Dr. John Stephenson, Concordia Seminary, Ontario, Canada, responded by reflecting on the existential nature of suffering for the sake of Christ.
Rev. Dr. Paul Kofi Fynn, Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ghana spoke about the situation in Africa and the rapid growth of the Church. The need for more pastors and resources is large. He encouraged the group to be boldly and faithfully Lutheran because we have the truth of the Gospel.
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