Rostered Ministers of the Northeastern Iowa, Southeastern Iowa and Western Iowa Synods gathered in Des Moines to reflect upon the theme “The Reformation: What’s at Stake.”
The speakers were Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, Bishop Guy Erwin, Bishop of the Southwest California Synod, and the Rev. Dr. Anna Madsen, director of OMG: Center for Theological Conversation.
As the Gerhard and Olga Belgum Professor of Lutheran Confessional Theology at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks and lecturer in church history and historical theology at Yale Divinity School, Bishop Erwin had a wealth of background on Luther and his legacy which brought new insights both into the history of the Reformation and its relevance for the church and world today.
Bishop Erwin’s observation is that while we can no longer build our church on the cultural expectations of European-Americans, Luther’s story of Jesus still speaks to us today, even in a vastly different context. “Lutherans have a message that is precious, useful and relevant,” he noted.
One of the differences in today’s context is that people no longer fear hell the way they did in Luther’s day. What people do fear is meaninglessness. Luther’s message of grace which takes us out of our self-centeredness and connects us to something bigger than ourselves is the answer to that fear. The takeaway is that the church is to be about sharing God’s love which is always relevant.
Pastor Anna Madsen began by observing the catechetical question, “What does this mean?” is not a rhetorical question. “We really want to know, what does the Reformation mean for us today?”
This brought a challenge to the traditional Lutheran emphasis on forgiveness. She asserted that the proclamation “Your sins are forgiven” is not the central message of the Gospel, but rather the proclamation Jesus is risen. “Jesus’ resurrection is affirmation that Jesus’ agenda is God’s agenda and should be what we are up to,” she declared. “God did not raise up someone who mocked and hurt and pushed an agenda of death.”
The resurrection is the power by which Jesus forgives sin. But Dr. Madsen challenged us to remember that the Cross is not only for sinners but those who have been sinned against. When we proclaim forgiveness apart from resurrection, we run the danger of spiritualizing our faith and ignoring the suffering of those who have been sinned against.
Dr. Madsen pointed to the example of the Twitter trend #emptythepews, a hashtag used by people to share why they have left the church. Our silence on issues of justice is one of the main contributors to that movement.
We also heard from Bishop Eaton who talked about what’s going on at the churchwide expression. She acknowledged that being a leader in the church is difficult these days and thanked everyone for answering the call to serve the church.
Bishop Eaton also preached at the evening Eucharist, reminding us of a basic Lutheran principle, “If it is up to us, we are all toast!”
Theological conferences are usually welcomed by rostered ministers who enjoy the time to meet with colleagues, relax and be renewed. This is true regardless of who the speakers are. This event was especially noteworthy because of the excellence of the speakers and the opportunity for leaders across Iowa to come together.