Perfect Fellowship

by Emily Ralph

“We didn’t grow up hearing about this,” one of the bishop’s staff members told me.

Some of the leaders gathered at the Southeast Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s assembly had heard about the reconciliation process, but for others, this was a brand new story.  “In the 16th century, the early Lutheran reformers, furious that the so-called Anabaptists did not share the same theology of baptism, used their influence and power to persecute Mennonite Christians,” Lutheran Bishop Claire Burkat said.  Her words were greeted with an audible response and she nodded her acknowledgement at the horror.  “Not just harass,” she added, “but torture and murder those with whom they disagreed theologically.”

The familiar platform at Franconia Mennonite Meetinghouse was covered by the symbols of the Lutheran faith: the bread and the cup on the altar, the staff and the cross, the large bowl of incense, and candles, lots of candles.  The room was packed with people of all shapes and sizes, men and women, white-haired clergy in collars and trendy young adults.

Pastor Charlie Ness and Bishop Claire Burkat share tears and exchange symbols of reconciliation. Photo by Emily Ralph.

Bishop Burkat was emotional as she offered Pastor Charlie Ness from Perkiomenville Mennonite Church an apology on behalf of her Synod.  And as Pastor Ness accepted and extended forgiveness, he too choked up with the power of this moment.  Twice, the congregation spontaneously rose to their feet to join in with applause.  This action was not just one of denominational leadership—the Lutheran laypeople wanted to participate in the healing as well.

And as I stood there, frantically snapping pictures of their smiles and tears, I felt loved.  Truly and completely loved.

Growing up, I was aware of my heritage.  I was proud of my ancestors who stood firm in the face of persecution and terror.  I ached to have the same strength, the same passion.  I struggled to respect Martin Luther as a hero of the faith when in my eyes he was tarnished by the persecution he endorsed.

I knew the story and I knew it well.  And here I was, surrounded by brothers and sisters in Christ some of whom had only discovered this story in the last decade.  Their hearts were broken as they came to grips with an ugly chapter of their history.  And they were reaching out to us for restoration.

As Mennonites, we’ve always identified ourselves as the martyrs.  Our peoplehood is wrapped up in being the oppressed, the rejected.  But as I experienced the grace of these lovely people, saw the seats of honor they gave to our pastors, their submission as we worked on crafting common language, I realized that, for the first time in nearly five hundred years, we were respected, accepted, and loved.  Truly and completely loved.

There is disequilibrium in this place.  How do we function here?  If forgiveness means releasing others from their experience of guilt, if it means no longer lingering in the pain of the past, then how can we forge a new identity that still honors the sacrifices of our ancestors while recognizing that we are no longer rejected, but loved?

This is the task of God’s people, said Bishop Burkat.  “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us (2 Corinthians 5). . . it means [reconciling] those who are at odds with each other, to return to a state of harmony, and receive a former enemy into good favor.”

That morning, we were surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, both Lutheran and Mennonite, who, in the presence of Jesus, have found that Christ’s blood brings about complete reconciliation.  As they worship God together, these former enemies—saints—of long ago are no longer broken by doctrinal or political differences; they are, even now, in perfect fellowship with the Father . . . and with one another.  What they have experienced for five hundred years, we now realize on earth.

We are no longer persecuted; we are called to defend the oppressed.  We are no longer rejected; we are called to love the forsaken.  “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-5 NIV)  May we become a people who extend our healing to the world!

Read more.