Address to Synod – May 24, 2016
Brothers and Sisters, it is an honor and blessing for me to be able to bring you greetings from the Brothers and Sisters in North America. I am here for a month to study and teach at the University of Heidelberg. I am teaching a seminar on the history of the Brüdergemeine, especially our mission to North America. This is my longest visit to Germany, and I am enjoying it greatly. I read about the old days when Americans would come to synods that lasted for weeks, and I think that in many ways that was good. It meant people got to know one another better. I have visited Herrnhut on several occasions, but this is my first time to be here in Bad Boll and to be able to be in one of your synods.
Some of my friends in this room keep me informed of life in the Brüdergemeine in Europe, and I know that you are struggling with similar issues that confront us in North America. We have conflict over theological issues and financial issues. Like you, we are facing difficulties with declining membership and several of our congregations are so small that they are unlikely to be able to have pastors in the future. We are struggling with conflicts over sexuality and marriage. But many Moravians in the U.S. are struggling with a growing sense that we as a church are dying. It seems as if society is changing and our ways of worship and preaching are no longer attractive to people. People still seek God in my country, but many of them no longer seek for God in churches. The scandals in the Catholic Church have undermined everyone’s confidence in pastors, even Protestant pastors. The fact that so many American politicians try to use Christianity to promote their agenda has convinced many people in my country that churches are simply places to voice conservative and hateful ideas. Eastern religions, new religions, and spirituality without religion attract many. But many more have simply lost faith. And then there are those who use religion to justify violence and terror, which convinces many that religion itself is violent and terrifying. Our church is small, but it cannot be protected from the changes that affect the nations in which we live. We are facing difficult times and must make hard decisions if we are going to continue to bear witness to Christ in a world that so desperately needs Christ.
At the theological seminary in Bethlehem, I teach the history of the Brüder-Unität. I know you have heard a lot of history through the years, and I do not want to bore you with stories of the glory days of the past. It is easy to say that we should be more like David Nitschmann or Leonard Dober and risk everything for the gospel. Or that we should give more sacrificially like Erdmuth Dorothea von Zinzendorf or Abraham Düringer. But today I want to draw our attention away from the heroic era of missions and building congregational settlements. I want us to look at the big picture of our church’s history.
The Brüder-Unität began with a small group of men and women in Prague who were convinced that the churches of their day had become corrupt and were no longer leading people to Christ. Gregory and his companions were like many young people today who are tired of materialism and commercialism and want to live meaningful lives. Some of the young people today join protest rallies or go out to serve in poor countries of the world. They seek to heal the earth and prevent war. They occupied Wall Street and protest at Davos. The founders of the Brüder-Unität or the Jednota Bratrska were like that. They sat in the big church in Prague and heard sermons about following Christ, but did not see people following the teachings of Christ. So they left and formed their own community. The law of Christ was to guide all of their actions. They refused to take part in the violence of the world. They started schools to teach women as well as men. They met in simple buildings instead of large churches. And they were persecuted. But the more the powerful attacked them, the larger they grew and the farther they spread. They published Bibles and other writings to lead people to the way of Christ, and their greatest bishop was also one of the greatest advocates for international peace, Jan Amos Comenius.
That early Brüder-Unität was finally destroyed by religious persecution. Thousands bravely chose to be exiles rather than submit to the authorities and give up the gospel. They knew that if you have a home in Christ, you make your dwelling anywhere in the world. Today many of the Brothers and Sisters I know in America are afraid that our church will die. I remind them that our church has died before. It was destroyed by the Habsburg Empire. The Empire destroyed the institutional forms of the church. Buildings were given to the Catholic Church. Bibles were burned. Pastors were arrested. But the faith of the church survived the onslaught of war. Today there are over a million members of the Brüder-Unität around the world, but the Habsburg Empire is gone. Faith endures even when governments and economic powers collapse. And now we have Brothers and Sisters in Cuba.
You all know the story of the rebirth of our church in Herrnhut, so I will not discuss that today. Let me just remind you that during the time of Zinzendorf our church was often threatened with extinction. He was forced into exile from his home, but he did not abandon his brothers and sisters. We were forced to abandon Herrnhaag and other communities because our ideas and practices were too radical for the rulers and the powerful. Missionaries were arrested in St. Thomas, America, Russia, and other places. Georg Schmidt was forced to leave South Africa, but today we have brothers and sisters in that land. People published terrible things about Zinzendorf, but it seemed that the more the world turned against our church, the more people wanted to be part of this community.
In the 18th century, like today, there were many people who felt that the churches of their day had lost the spirit of Christ. Religion had become a hobby and worship was something to do on Sunday morning when the shops were closed. People were pious perhaps, but their piety did not touch the deepest corners of their souls. Young people responded to Zinzendorf because they wanted something beautiful and meaningful and true. They wanted their lives to mean something and they hoped to make the world a better place. They were inspired by the vision of the Kingdom of God on Earth, and they were willing to risk much because they knew that they would be with Christ for eternity.
And then Zinzendorf died. The church was facing bankruptcy and scandal. People were frightened, and the leaders of the church decided it was best to jettison Zinzendorf’s radical vision. They hoped to save the church by turning away from the radical faith that had attracted thousands in many lands. They were so afraid of dying that they turned away from the world and its troubles. Our congregations had once been schools of the Holy Spirit where people learned how to be courageous witnesses to the way, the truth, and the life. They became safe havens where people could be protected from new ideas. This does not mean that nothing good was preserved in our quiet villages. People still prayed and sang and loved the Savior, but something was lost. Young people were told to avoid the new ideas of the philosophers and political movements. They should focus on the Brüdergemeine and leave the world behind. Even in our mission fields, European missionaries became paternalistic leaders trying to protect their flocks from the burdens of governing their own affairs. We still had courageous people, like Brother Jaeschke who went to Tibet, but our church had lost its courage and it placed its hope in conservative theology and tradition.
And it was almost destroyed again. This time it was not religious oppression, but the wars that nearly destroyed Europe in the 20th century. World War I, the ensuing depression and hyper-inflation, and especially World War II almost brought our church to an end in Europe. You know this better than I do. You know people that endured those hardships and who toiled to bring something good out of the ashes of destruction. You know how the forces of evil almost triumphed and for many years held sway over the hearts and minds of millions. Some of you here today endured the hostility of Communist governments toward religion, and you remained faithful.
In some ways, the 20th century was like another period of the Hidden Seed. Our church had to focus on survival. It had to find ways to continue to sing praises to our Savior and bring up our children in the faith, but the hardships of the past century left us crippled in many ways. We survived, but we gave up much that was vital. We survived, but our hope was diminished and our courage faltered. We no longer dreamed of the Kingdom of God on earth, but focused on preserving traditions and buildings. We no longer dreamed of bringing heavenly joy to those who are in despair and misery. Instead we enjoyed the memories of the past. My country did not suffer like your nations during the past century. Our history was a different, but we also turned away from the future. We also placed our hope and trust in endowments and buildings and institutions rather than the Spirit of God in the hearts of humankind. We also focused on small goals and petty conflicts.
Jesus said that those who would save their lives will lose their lives but those who give up their lives will live. We have been so focused on saving our church that we may be in danger of losing any reason for existing as a church. We know from our history that death is not the worst thing that can happen. Our church died and was resurrected as something even bolder and more radical than it was. In 1957 we held a Unity Synod in Pennsylvania and took the courageous move of creating a new constitution and structure that set provinces free to follow their own way so long as they remained true to the things that bind us together. And because of that radical change there are now more Moravian Brothers and Sisters in the world than have ever lived. It is not here in Europe or in North America that our church is growing, but in Africa. It is growing because they found a way to communicate the essential truth of the Gospel in terms that people in that culture could hear and respond to. We must do the same in the North. We must be open to the future, we must be open to the question: what is God calling us to be? How can we serve Christ today?
Now, here in the Northern hemisphere, I often encounter a sense that we have lost our courage and our hope. We retreat from the world and its challenges instead of rushing out to engage the world. Our young people leave our church because they find more meaningful ways to live elsewhere, and we are content to let them go. We know that humans are destroying God’s good creation, but we have little to say. We see refugees from war and poverty, and we feel helpless. We live in a society where many people no longer know God, a society where Christians are increasingly becoming a minority. The biggest mission area is right in front of our door steps, but we are unprepared. We have wonderful traditions, but we often don’t have words to speak the good news of God’s salvation to our neighbors. We, and I do include me in that we, value our history and remember the glory of the past instead of asking the simple question: “What does Christ wants us to do today?” Our ancestors did not risk their lives and their fortunes to preserve something; they risked everything because they had hope that they could change the world and make the future better than the past.
I believe that in our world today, what we need is hope. And in our churches: we need hope. We need to hold on the hope that is within us. Yes, we experience conflicts in our congregations. Yes, we are facing financial difficulties. Yes, we may be facing the decline or even death of our traditional church life. But these things should not rob us of our hope and courage. Our church has died before. Our church has faced worse challenges than these. We have thrived when we have been the most radical and courageous, when we have embraced the teachings of Jesus most passionately, when we have looked into the future with courage and hope because we know that we belong to Christ and that Christ has called us to love his world with the same passion that he loves the world.
My hope for this synod and the synods that will be meeting in North America this year is that we are willing to let things go that we no longer need and that we take up the mission that Christ is giving us today. May we be bold in our love and courageous in our ministry together. If we do that, if we take the risk of faith, I think we will have no problem raising money to support our mission. I think that our conflicts will melt away in the warmth of the love of Christ. I trust that we will be filled with hope strong enough to master the challenges that lie ahead.
Hope, my brothers and sisters, is what lifts our eyes away from our own fears and allows us to look at others with compassion and understanding. Hope is what allows us to labor in works of mercy because we know that our work is not in vain. Hope is what allows us to plant trees today that our grandchildren will one day enjoy. Hope will help us make the sacrifices we need to make today so that our church may serve God in the future. We can have hope because we know our Savior. We know he loves us and has called us to be his people and is calling us to carry on his mission in the world today. So let us be open to God’s future and let us be filled with the joyful hope that there’s always new life with Christ. He has conquered, let us follow him.