WEEK OF PRAYER FOR CHRISTIAN UNITY
JANUARY 18–25, 2017
BACKGROUND: Introduction to the Theme
Reconciliation – The Love of Christ Compels Us (2 Corinthians 5:14-20)
Germany: The Land of the Lutheran Reformation
In 1517 Martin Luther raised concerns about what he saw as abuses in the Roman Church of his time, by making public his 95 theses. 2017 is the 500th anniversary of this key event in the reformation movements that marked the life of the Western Church over several centuries. This event has been a controversial theme in inter-church relations in Germany over the last few years. The Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) has been building up to this anniversary since 2008, by focusing each year on one particular aspect of the Reformation, for example: the Reformation and Politics, or the Reformation and Education. The EKD also invited its ecumenical partners at various levels to help commemorate the events of 1517.
After extensive, and sometimes difficult, discussions, the churches in Germany agreed that the way to commemorate ecumenically this Reformation event should be with a Christusfest – a Celebration of Christ. If the emphasis were to be placed on Jesus Christ and his work of reconciliation as the center of Christian faith, then all the ecumenical partners of the EKD (the Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Baptists, Methodists, Mennonites and others) would agree to participate in the anniversary festivities. From this context emerges the strong theme of this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity: “Reconciliation – ‘The Love of Christ Compels Us’” (2 Corinthians 5:14).
The Council of Churches in Germany (ACK) and the Reformation Anniversary 2017
The Council of Churches in Germany launched several projects to commemorate 1517. One was entitled “Discover Anew the Bible´s Treasures.” Here, in a manner reminiscent of the importance Martin Luther placed on the meaning of the Bible, all ACK member churches wrote texts portraying their approach to the Bible. These were later published in a brochure by the ACK. In addition, the ACK conducted a symbolic “pilgrimage” in Wittenberg to various member churches in which each of them could shape, celebrate and express its own unique relationship to the Bible. In April 2015, the ACK also organized a conference entitled: “Irreparably Divided? Renewed Blessing? – 500 Years of Reformation in Various Ecumenical Perspectives”, the proceedings of which have been published.
It was in the context of the anniversary that the Council of Churches in Germany (ACK), invited by the World Council of Churches, took up the work of creating the resources for this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. A committee comprised of ten members representing different churches met three times in 2014/2015 to develop the necessary texts. A particular emphasis was placed on the preparation of the ecumenical worship service for the Week. The resources should serve the general purpose of the Week of Prayer, while at the same time commemorating the Lutheran Reformation.
The Theme of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2017
When the German national planning committee met in the autumn of 2014, it quickly became clear that the materials for this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity would need to have two accents: on the one hand, there should be a celebration of God’s love and grace, the “justification of humanity through grace alone,” reflecting the main concern of the churches marked by Martin Luther’s Reformation. On the other hand, it should also recognize the pain of the subsequent deep divisions which afflicted the Church, openly name the guilt, and offer an opportunity to take steps toward reconciliation.
Ultimately it was Pope Francis’ 2013 Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) which provided the theme for this year, when it used the quote: “The Love of Christ Compels Us” (Paragraph 9). With this scripture (2 Corinthians 5:14), taken in the context of the entire fifth chapter of the second letter to the Corinthians, the German committee formulated the theme for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2017.
The Biblical Text: 2 Corinthians 5:14-20
This biblical text emphasizes that reconciliation is a gift from God, intended for the entire creation. “God was reconciling the world (kosmos) to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation” (v.19). As a result of God´s action, the person who has been reconciled in Christ is called in turn to proclaim this reconciliation in word and deed: “The love of Christ compels us” (v.14). “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” (v.20). The text stresses that this reconciliation is not without sacrifice. Jesus gives his life; he died for all. The ambassadors of reconciliation are called, in his name, to give their lives similarly. They no longer live for themselves; they live for him who died for them.
The Eight Days and the Worship Service
The text, 2 Corinthians 5:14-20, shapes the reflections of the eight days, which develop some of the theological insights of the individual verses, as follows:
Day 1: One has died for all
Day 2: Live no longer for themselves
Day 3: We regard no one from a human point of view
Day 4: Everything old has passed away
Day 5: Everything has become new
Day 6: God reconciled us to himself
Day 7: The ministry of reconciliation
Day 8: Reconciled to God
In the Worship Service, the fact that God in Christ has reconciled the world to himself is a reason to celebrate. But this must also include our confession of sin before we hear the Word proclaimed and draw from the deep wellspring of God´s forgiveness. Only then are we able to testify to the world that reconciliation is possible.
Compelled to Witness
The love of Christ compels us beyond our prayers for unity among Christians. Congregations and churches need the gift of God´s reconciliation as a wellspring of life. But above all, they need it for their common witness to the world: “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21).
The world needs ambassadors of reconciliation, who will break down barriers, build bridges, make peace, and open doors to new ways of life in the name of the one who reconciled us to God, Jesus Christ. His Holy Spirit leads the way on the path to reconciliation in his name.
As this text was being written in 2015, many people and churches in Germany were practicing reconciliation by offering hospitality to the numerous refugees arriving from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, as well as countries of the Western Balkans, in search of protection and a new life. The practical help and powerful actions against hatred for the foreigner were a clear witness to reconciliation for the German population. As ambassadors of reconciliation, the churches actively assisted the refugees in finding new homes, while at the same time trying to improve the living conditions in the countries they had left behind. Concrete acts of help are just as necessary as praying together for reconciliation and peace, if those who are fleeing their terrible situations are to know some hope and consolation.
May the wellspring of God´s gracious reconciliation overflow in this year’s Week of Prayer, so that many people may find peace, and so that bridges may be built. May people and churches be compelled by the love of Christ to live reconciled lives and to scale the highest walls that divide!