Easter and the Medicine of Immortality

The Resurrection: Daniel Hisgen, 1770 (St. Michael’s in Oberkleen. Photo: Kurt Hanika).

by Hans-Jörg Voigt

Alleluia! The Lord is risen, He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

With voices united, the Evangelists and Apostles witness to this fact: the grave of Jesus was empty on Easter morning, for God endowed His Son’s body truly with new life. They saw Him. They touched Him. They ate with Him. The certainty of this Easter message is the centrepiece of our faith. “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14).

Perhaps you’ll ask, what does this have to do with my life in these difficult days of the pandemic? The answer: by the power of Holy Communion, the life of the resurrection enters your life. This Sacrament has been called “pharmakon athanasias”—that is, the medicine of immortality. In the Lord’s Supper, you receive immortality.

Why is this sacramental faith so important? Let me point to an example from the area of medicine: for some time now, the so-called placebo effect has been known. It refers to the therapeutic effect that occurs when people take pills without any active pharmaceutical ingredients (i.e., placebos), where the patients are not aware of the fact that they are not receiving a real effective medicine. Sometimes placebos are used to test the efficacy of a newly developed medicine. At times, such placebos set free some rather astounding healing results within the test patient.

But just because placebos can be effective to some extent, no one would therefore deduce that he has no further need for medicines with real active ingredients. A cancer patient does not need symbolic treatment but real effective medicine.

The Last Supper: Daniel Hisgen, c. 1785 (Evangelische Kirche in Oppenrod. Photo: Cherrubino).

The Lord’s Supper is “pharmakon athanasias,” the medicine of immortality. Since we have succumbed to the disease of eternal death, we do not need a symbolic Lord’s Supper; we need a Sacrament with real effective ingredients: the body and blood of Christ.

Why is that so important? When you are no longer strong enough to believe, then despite everything this “pharmakon athanasias” will help you. When you despair and are sad, then this “pharmakon athanasias” will help beyond all reason. It isn’t up to you to do everything in your power to believe before the salutary effect of the Sacrament unfolds in your life. No, it is Christ, in His sacrifice on the cross, who has done all that in your stead. God’s confirmation and seal is the resurrection of His Son.

The Lutheran belief in the real presence in Holy Communion—which we share with the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians all over the world—is a very tangible belief. To maintain the doctrine of the real presence, Martin Luther staunchly withstood princes and theologians. Because he faithfully confessed the doctrine of the real presence, the hymn writer Paul Gerhard was dismissed from his pastorate and lost his income, simply because he withstood the ruler’s contrary command in this matter. To defend the doctrine of the real presence, the mothers and fathers of Confessional Lutheran churches in Germany felt compelled to leave their home country; they emigrated to Australia and to North and South America. It was all about the hope of the resurrection that is confirmed in the Sacrament of the Altar.

The pandemic that we’re subjected to these days can leave us feeling disembodied: no touching, no hugging, no common meals, no visits, no big wedding celebrations… it’s enough to make a person cry! We do everything on-screen these days—and always there are little inserts with the latest figures of the virus. There is hardly anything with bodily reality!

But wherever in the world the Holy Supper is celebrated, the opposite is taking place: there you receive the true body and the true blood of Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, so that you may have eternal life. Yes, this “pharmakon athanasias” brings forgiveness, consolation, and true Easter joy.

Alleluia! The Lord is risen, He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

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Rev. Dr. Hans-Jörg Voigt is Bishop of Germany’s Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (Selbständige Evangelisch—Lutherische Kirche) and Chairman of the International Lutheran Council.

Holy Week—the Greatest Week Indeed!

The Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem: Alexander Gibbs, 1883-1884.

by Timothy Quill

If professional pollsters had existed on Palm Sunday, they would have been shamed out of business in less than a week due to totally erroneous predictions about Jesus’ popularity among the people and His political prospects. When Jesus entered Jerusalem, He was met by a large crowd rallying their support and shouting, “Hosanna (“save us now”)! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” (John 12:14) Then almost overnight the pollsters would have had to issue a major correction, embarrassed at the astonishing speed at which Jesus was abandoned by the crowds and religious leaders, betrayed and denied by His disciples, and forsaken by God Himself!

In the poignant Lenten hymn, “My Song is Love Unknown,” we sing:

Sometimes they strew His way and His sweet praises sing;
Resounding all the day Hosannas to their King.
Then “Crucify!” is all their breath,
And for His death they thirst and cry. (LSB 430 St. 3)

Palm Sunday is also known by the name Passion Sunday, for it marks our Lord’s entrance into the most unholy week in history. I say “unholy” because this is the week which led to the crucifixion and death of our beautiful Saviour.  Since the beginning of creation, the world had never seen such divine grace and truth and beauty. Yet now, Jews and Gentles united with Satan to unleash the most brutal, inhuman, ugly attack on the most beautiful, pure, and holy, Son of God.

Today, however, Christians observe these seven days every year as Holy Week. For this is not primarily a story about the deeds of the unholy. Holy Week—also called the Great Week—is God’s beautiful story about how He so loved the world that He sent Holy Jesus, His only begotten Son full of grace and truth, into the flesh to save the world through His holy suffering and death. It is holy because it is God’s week. The Gospel story is about God’s gracious deeds and is rightly called the Great Week—the greatest week indeed!

Here might I stay and sing, no story so divine!
Never was love, dear King, never was grief like Thine.
This is my friend, in whose sweet praise
I all my days could gladly spend! (LSB 430 St. 7)

During Holy Week, Jesus miraculously transformed the most unholy week in the unholy history of the fallen sinful world into what today is rightly called Holy Week. The Holy One, Jesus Christ, remade His fallen creation into the new creation. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). For this reason, the joyous Easter Proclamation (Exsultet) is sung at the Easter Virgil prior to the service of Holy Baptism: “Rejoice now, all you heavenly choirs of angels; rejoice now all creation…This is the night when Christ the Life, arose from the dead. The seal of the grace is broken and the morning of the new creation breaks forth the out of the night. Oh, how wonderful and beyond all telling is Your mercy toward us, O God.”

Christ Bearing the Cross: Alexander Gibbs, 1883-1884.

As Christians we observe Holy Week every year with special attention focused on the four great services marking the four major salvation events: (1) Palm or Passion Sunday, (2) Maundy Thursday, (3) Good Friday, and (4) Easter. In these divine services we walk with Jesus on His holy way to the cross. It is a time to listen to Sacred Scriptures. But to do so is to do more than simply listen to religious history: when we listen to our Lord’s Word at worship, where two or three are gathered together in His name, we have Jesus’ sure and certain promise that He is indeed with us (Matthew 18:20). In the Holy Week liturgies of Word and Sacrament, we travel with Jesus in repentance for our part in His suffering and death; mourning His death and our sin. We hear His words of forgiveness and in so doing receive His holy, cleansing absolution. On Maundy Thursday we hear Him tell how He bestows upon us today the forgiveness, life, and salvation He won through His suffering and death upon the cross: “Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the new testament in My blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sin.”

On Good Friday we hear His words from the cross spoken in unfathomable anguish because of our sins and for our sins. Jesus cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken Me?” And what He said to those who crucified Him and the penitent criminal dying on the cross next to Him, He says to us today: “Father, forgive them” and “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” The Holy Spirit moves us to acknowledge our Lord’s holy gifts with our lips in faith and song. Through His death and resurrection, we are prepared for our own most blessed death. In the hymn “O sacred head now wounded,” we sing together:

Be Thou my consolation, my shield, when I must die;
Remind me of Thy passion when my last hour draws nigh.
Mine eyes shall then behold Thee, upon Thy cross shall dwell,
My heart by faith enfold Thee. Who dieth thus dies well. (LSB 449 St. 4)

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Rev. Dr. Timothy Quill is General Secretary of the International Lutheran Council.

Ghana’s Lutherans Reelect President

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ghana’s 2021 National Delegates Conference.

GHANA – From March 19-21, 2021, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ghana (ELCG) held its National Delegates Conference in Bawku in Ghana’s Upper East Region. During that time, the church reelected Rev. John Shadrack Donkoh to a second term as president of the ELCG.

The election saw President Donkoh receive 98 percent of the vote. President Donkoh was first elected president of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Ghana in 2018.

ELCG President John Donkoh (second from right) with other participants in the 2021 National Delegates Conference.

Also reelected during the 2021 National Delegates Conference were Rev. Dr. Ebenezer Boafo as 1st Vice President, Alex Lanbon as 2nd Vice President, and Kwame Poku-Boah as 3rd Vice President.

The conference also saw the church receive nine preaching stations into membership as full congregations. In addition, two congregations which had separated from the ELCG were welcomed back into membership.

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Philippines: Church Planting in a Pandemic

LCP President Antonio Reyes speaks to children at COVID Lutheran Church.

PHILIPPINES – When pandemic restrictions hit the Philippines, Lutheran Church in the Philippines (LCP) President Antonio Reyes and his wife Arlene were caught in Tiaong, Quezon Province—a small town about 100 kms away from the LCP’s main office in Manila. So he did what anyone would do: begin mission work.

Of course, that wasn’t the plan from the beginning. President Reyes had been visiting a property recently acquired by the LCP when the quarantine was instituted. Unable to return to Manila, he organized a local food-distribution ministry, providing free rice to informal settlers living along the Philippine National Railway who were unable to work as a result of pandemic regulations. What began as a service to 12 families would eventually grow to reach 40 families.

That practical assistance led in time to Bible studies with local people, and eventually to regular worship services. Today, the LCP has a new mission congregation in the area with a unique name: “COVID Lutheran Church,” with “COVID” standing for “Christ Our Victorious Infinite Deliverer”—a deliberate reminder that God can use even the most difficult circumstances for good.

Worship at COVID Lutheran Church in the Philippines.

“Despite having to face the negative effects of the pandemic, we thank God for His grace and His mercy,” President Reyes says of the situation in the Philippines. “Even in these times, the Church prevails.”

Today, the LCP continues to provide rice to those in need, as funds are available. And the pandemic—which has resulted in job losses as well as an increase in the price of basic food commodities—has left many in need.

The Lutheran Church in the Philippines is a member of the International Lutheran Council, a global association of confessional Lutheran church bodies.

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South African Lutheran bishop passes on to glory

CLCSA Bishop Mandla Khumalo

SOUTH AFRICA – Bishop Mandla John Khumalo of the Confessional Lutheran Church in South Africa (CLCSA) passed away on March 1, 2021 after a brief illness. He was sixty years old.

A funeral service for Bishop Khumalo was held on March 6, conducted by Bishop Emeritus David Tswaedi of the Lutheran Church in Southern Africa. Rev. Manqoba Zungu will serve as acting Bishop of the CLCSA until formal elections take place.

“At some point, we will depart this world,” Bishop Khumalo wrote in a reflection on Facebook a few months ago. “I pray that, when I depart from this world, I should do so having served my God, my people to the best of my ability.”

“We are saddened to hear about the loss of Pastor Mandla yet find comfort in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ,” said Rev. Dr. Timothy Quill, General Secretary of the International Lutheran Council, in a letter of condolence. “The CLCSA will miss the remarkable leadership of Bishop Mandla, yet we give thanks to God for the blessings our Lord has bestowed on so many through his faithful witness.”

Bishop Mandla Khumalo

Prior to becoming a pastor, Bishop Khumalo was a rebel in South Africa against apartheid. “When the police were looking to arrest those people, I was one of those people they were looking for,” Bishop Khumalo explained in an interview with the Michigan District of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. While attempting to flee the country, he and his companions sheltered in a church. “The pastor one night invited us to a revival crusade,” he explained. “We really did not want to go. But as a courtesy to this pastor, we decided we would attend this service.”

The proclamation of Law and Gospel that night led to Bishop Khumalo’s conversion. He returned to his hometown of Middleburg and presented himself to police, explaining that his faith in Christ had led him to turn himself in. The authorities instead let him go free.

Bishop Khumalo began sharing the Gospel in his home community, which led eventually to the establishment of a congregation. He graduated from the South African School of Theology in 1981.

Over time, Bishop Khumalo made connections with members of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), through whom he came into contact with Lutheran theology. He eventually was accepted into Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he began studies in 1988. The congregation back in Middleburg subsequently also became Lutheran.

Today the church body which grew out of Bishop Khumalo’s missionary work now counts more than 22,000 members throughout South Africa.

In 2018, Bishop Khumalo led the Confessional Lutheran Church in South Africa into observer membership in the International Lutheran Council (ILC). He further represented his church in recent unity talks between the CLCSA and the ILC’s two other member churches in South Africa: the Free Evangelical Lutheran Synod in South Africa (FELSISA) and the Lutheran Church in Southern Africa (LCSA).

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ILC to postpone World Conference until 2022

Participants in the ILC’s January 18, 2021 online board meeting.

ONLINE – The Board of Directors for the International Lutheran Council met online on January 18, 2021 for regularly scheduled meetings. During this time, the board decided to postpone the upcoming ILC World Conference—which had been tentatively scheduled for September 2021—until 2022.

The decision comes in response to current challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The board considered the possibility of holding the conference online, but recognized disparities in internet access across the world could limit the ability of some members to participate in the conference fully.

The board continues to discuss what impact the delay may mean for other planned events, including the ILC’s 2022 World Seminaries Conference.

The January meeting also saw the board discuss new membership applications to the ILC, emergency relief programming, and international Lutheran theological education.

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Finnish Lutherans Elect New Bishop

ELMDF Bishop Elect Juhana Pohjola.

FINLAND – The Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland (Suomen evankelisluterilainen lähetyshiippakunta -ELMDF) has elected Diocesan Dean Juhana Pohjola to serve as its new bishop.  The election was announced during the ELMDF’s Diocesan Assembly on January 23, 2021.

“I wish to express my gratitude for the great confidence you have shown in me by giving me such strong support and by electing me for this important and demanding task,” said Rev. Dr. Pohjola in a speech after the election. “I feel great weakness faced with such a great task and calling but I know that the matter has been discussed in the congregations, and that many prayers and intercessions have been said for the matter, which encourages me to look forward to this.”

In total, Dr. Pohjola received 111 votes (90.2 percent) through advance voting, while candidate Rev. Esko Murto received 12 votes. A total of 95 percent of potential delegates voted in the election.

Dr. Pohjola’s consecration as bishop is planned for August 1, 2021 at the ELMDF’s Mission Diocese Summer Festival in Loimaa, Finland. He will be the third bishop in the history of Finland’s Luther Foundation, and the second for the ELMDF itself. Dr. Pohjola will succeed Bishop Risto Soramies, who has served as Bishop from 2013-2021. Matti Väisänen served as the first Finnish Bishop of the Mission Province of Sweden and Finland from 2010 until the emergence of the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland in 2013.

Dr. Pohjola has served as Diocesan Dean of the ELMDF from 2013 until the present, and as dean of its supporting trust, Luther Foundation Finland (LFF), from 2000-2001 and 2012 to the present. He previously served as head pastor of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Helsinki from 2000-2010, and as a visiting scholar at Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary (St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada) from 2011-2012. He holds a Master of Theology degree from the University of Helsinki (1997), a Master of Sacred Theology degree from Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana (1998), and a Doctorate of Theology from the University of Helsinki (2014).

Dean Pohjola was ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland’s (ELCF) Diocese of Oulu in 1999 in order to serve the then newly founded Luther Foundation Finland. In 2004, the LFF broke fellowship with the ELCF over doctrinal differences. The LFF found itself shunned by the ELCF but the unexpected publicity led to rapid growth in the LFF. Dean Pohjola was eventually defrocked by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland in 2014 after the founding of the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland.

The ELMDF and Dean Juhana Pohjola drew international attention in 2020 when Finnish police began investigating them for the 2004 publication of a booklet which defended historic Christian teaching on human sexuality. The booklet, which was written by a Finnish Member of Parliament, was published well before the 2017 legalization of same-sex marriage in Finland. Dean Pohjola was interrogated for five hours as part of an ongoing investigation which has sparked international concern over the state of religious freedom in Finland.

The Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland is a member of the International Lutheran Council, a global association of confessional Lutheran church bodies worldwide.

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Adapted from an ELMDF news release. For more information, see the ELMDF’s report here.

French Lutherans elect new president

EELSF President Gleisson R. Schmidt

FRANCE – The Evangelical Lutheran Church – Synod of France (Église Évangélique Luthérienne–Synode de France – EELSF) has elected Rev. Dr. Gleisson R. Schmidt of Paris to a four-year term as president.

Originally scheduled for April 2020, the EELSF’s Synodical Convention had to be postponed as a result of coronavirus restrictions. A condensed version of the convention was ultimately held electronically on November 15.

President Schmidt succeeds Rev. Martin Jautzy, who did not stand for reelection to a second term. Born in Erechim, Brazil, President Schmidt studied theology at Concordia Institute of São Paulo, and served congregations in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Brazil (Igreja Evangélica Luterana do Brasil – IELB) from 2002-2018. Alongside his pastoring work, he also served as a professor of philosophy at Brazil’s Federal University of Technology – Paraná. In 2014, he earned his doctorate from the Federal University of Santa Catarina.

Rev. Schmidt often spent extended periods in Paris where he participated in the congregational life of St. Sauveur Evangelical Lutheran Church. He accepted a call to the congregation in 2018.

The International Lutheran Council’s (ILC) Chairman, Bishop Hans-Jörg Voigt of Germany’s Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church, sent congratulations to President Schmidt on his election. “I want to congratulate you and extend to you my wishes for God’s grace and blessing upon your election and installation into the office of President and Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church – Synod of France,” Chairman Voigt wrote. “We pray that our Lord and Saviour keep and guide you during these challenging times.”

The convention also saw the election of three other members to the EEL-SF’s board alongside President Schmidt, including Rev. Philippe Volff (Strasbourg) as Vice-President; Noëlle Boisnault (Châtenay-Malabry) as Secretary; and Béatrice Grimaldi (Châtenay-Malabry) as Treasurer.

Other business of the convention included the election of auxiliary members to assist the board, the election of members of the church’s Committee of Theological Studies, and the presentation of several reports.

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Finnish Lutherans enter into fellowship with the LCMS

ELMDF Bishop Risto Soramies speaks on fellowship discussions with The LCMS during the Finnish church’s Diocesan Assembly.

FINLAND – On November 14, 2020, the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland (Suomen evankelisluterilainen lähetyshiippakunta – ELMDF) unanimously declared altar and pulpit fellowship with The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS). The decision came during the ELMDF’s annual Diocesan Assembly, held this year online as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The LCMS for its part also expressed recognition of fellowship in a letter of greeting presented to the ELMDF gathering.

Bishop Risto Soramies of the ELMDF, who led the church’s dialogue with the LCMS, hailed the decision as a way of deepening connections between the two churches based on a common faith. “Now our parishioners can commune with each other, and our pastors can preach at each other’s services,” he noted. He also looked forward to closer cooperation on theological education and in the fields of mission. “It is encouraging for us to see how the Mission Diocese is recognized as a church and our work is valued,” he continued.

In a letter to the Diocesan Assembly, President Matthew Harrison of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod expressed joy at the prospect of an official declaration of fellowship. “Your hospitality, service to Christ, and commitment to Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions in the face of opposition remain an example and encouragement to me and to our entire church,” President Harrison said. “It is with special joy and thanksgiving that I write on behalf of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod humbly to extend our hand of fellowship to the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland.”

Fellowship discussions between the LCMS and the ELMDF first began in 2017. “Since that time, we have conducted substantial conversations about a variety of matters before coming to agreement that we believe, teach, and confess the same doctrine, as it is revealed by the Word of God and contained in the Lutheran Confessions,” President Harrison noted. As a result of those discussions, the LCMS’ Commission on Theology and Church Relations voted unanimously to recognize fellowship with the ELMDF, leading President Harrison to declare fellowship on behalf of the LCMS in his letter. In the LCMS, the president of synod is able to recognize fellowship immediately in situations like these, with a vote to endorse the decision to follow at the next synodical convention—in this case, in July 2021.

In a letter to President Harrison following the vote, Bishop Soramies expressed joy over the declaration of fellowship between the two churches. “The Missouri Synod has been a strong partner for many other confessional churches around the world,” he noted. “We are deeply thankful for this fellowship which is, and will certainly continue to be, a blessing for God’s people.”

The Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland and The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod are both member churches of the International Lutheran Council, a global association of confessional Lutheran church bodies.

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