News

Australian Lutheran bishop to retire

LCA Bishop John Henderson (Photo: LCA)

AUSTRALIA – Bishop John Henderson of the Lutheran Church of Australia (LCA) has announced that he will not be seeking reelection at the church’s Convention of General Synod later this year.

Bishop Henderson was first elected to head the LCA in April 2013. He was also the first leader of the Australian church to hold the title of bishop, as the same convention which elected him also voted to change the title of synodical head from president to bishop. He was reelected to a second term in October 2018.

Bishop Henderson formerly served as Vice President of the LCA from 2006-2011, and as a member of the General Church Council from 2003-2011. He also served as Principal of Australian Lutheran Council from 2009 until his election as bishop. He was first ordained in 1982.

In addition to not seeking reelection, Bishop Henderson has announced his intention to retire from active pastoral ministry.

The next steps in the search for a new bishop will take place in July 2021, when delegates to the General Pastors Conference will nominate candidates for the position of bishop. Nominees with at least 25 percent of the vote at the Pastors Conference will be added to the slate for election at the Convention of General Synod, which is scheduled for September 28 – October 3 in Melbourne. Candidates may also be nominated from the floor under a special provision.

The Lutheran Church of Australia is an Associate Member of the International Lutheran Council (ILC), a global association of confessional Lutheran church bodies.

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A Call to Prayer for COVID-struck India

INDIA – The International Lutheran Council (ILC) is encouraging Christians around the world to continue to remember India in prayer as the country struggles with a deadly wave of COVID-19.

On April 5, India reported another 387,000 new cases of the disease, continuing a two-week trend of new infections exceeding 300,000 per day. Only a day earlier, on April 4, India officially became the second country to pass the 20 million mark of confirmed cases overall; approximately 3.5 million of these cases are estimated to still be active. The official death toll sits at 226,000, but there are suggestions the actual number of fatalities may be much higher.

The most recent wave has proven particularly deadly, with hospitals having to turn people away due to a lack of supplies to care for the infected—notably, oxygen and hospital beds. Media have reported people dying outside hospital doors, unable to gain admittance, as well as funeral homes and crematoriums overwhelmed with the dead.

Among those suffering in the midst of the crisis are members of the India Evangelical Lutheran Church (IELC). “We are losing our dear ones every day,” writes IELC President Y. Suvisesha Muthu. “Our members, young and old, are dying almost daily. Many have tested positive and are waiting to get treatment.”

Two of the church’s pastors have died in this wave so far, as has a retired pastor. Others are sick. Several faculty members of the IELC’s Concordia Theological Seminary, Nagercoil are receiving treatment for COVID-19, with the seminary’s principal currently in critical care.

“The situation is very grave,” noted Rev. Dr. Timothy Quill, General Secretary of the International Lutheran Council. “We call on Lutherans worldwide to lift up India in prayer, that God would provide relief from the current crisis. In particular, pray that God would continue to bless the work of medical providers in the country, that He would provide assistance from within and without the country in the provision of needed medical supplies, and that He would bless the rollout of India’s vaccination program. May God have mercy on a suffering people.”

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Lutherans mark the 500th anniversary of the Diet of Worms

Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms (Mural by Hermann Wislicenus, 1880).

WORLD – April 18, 2021 marked the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s testimony before the Diet of Worms, with Lutherans around the world observing the event in different ways.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Argentina (Iglesia Evangelical Luterana Argentina – IELA), for example, held an online conference April 16-18, 2021 to mark the event, featuring three lectures by faculty members of the IELA’s seminary in Buenos Aires. Professor Antonio R. Schimpf spoke on reflection on the Word of God in relation to the anniversary, Professor José A. Pfafenzeller discussed the historical context of the Diet of Worms, and Professor Sergio R. Schelske addressed the event’s continued significance for the church today.

These lectures (in Spanish) are available to watch online at the IELA’s website here.

In the United States, meanwhile, The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) officially designated April 18 “Here I Stand Sunday.” The LCMS made a number of materials available to mark the date on its website, including a Bible Study and bulletin insert.

The church also released several videos highlighting the anniversary. LCMS President Matthew Harrison, for example, highlighted how the faith which inspired Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms also led in time to the founding of the LCMS, which will celebrate its 175th anniversary in 2022. “It’s quite impossible to imagine the existence of the Missouri Synod or any Lutheran churches in the world without the events of this week 500 years ago,” he explained. “500 years later the church is increasingly called to confess before the world and even political authorities. We stand firm with the confession of Luther. We believe in the Scriptures, and our conscience is bound to those Scriptures, which teach us the free forgiveness of Christ in His cross and resurrection.”

President Harrison also conducted an interview with Rev. Dr. Cameron MacKenzie to discuss the history of Luther’s confession at the Diet of Worms. Dr. MacKenzie is a professor at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

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Finnish Bishop Elect charged over historic Christian teachings on human sexuality

ELMDF Bishop Elect Juhana Pohjola.

FINLAND – Rev. Dr. Juhana Pohjola, Diocesan Dean and Bishop Elect of the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland (ELMDF) has been charged by Finland’s Prosecutor General with incitement against a group of people. The charges stem from a 2004 booklet published by Luther Foundation Finland (the legal entity behind the ELMDF) which articulates historic Christian teaching on human sexuality.

“As a Christian, I do not want to and cannot discriminate against or despise anyone created by God,” Dean Pohjola said in reaction to being charged. “Every human being, created by God and redeemed by Christ, is equally precious.”

At the same time, he continued, “this does not remove the fact that, according to the Bible and the Christian conception of man, homosexual relations are against the will of God, and marriage is intended only between a man and a woman. This is what the Christian church has always taught and will always teach.”

Finland’s Prosecutor General began an investigation of the ELMDF in 2019 for its booklet “Male and Female He Created Them: Homosexual Relationships Challenge the Christian Concept of Humanity,” despite an earlier investigation by Helsinki Police which concluded no laws had been broken. The booklet was published in 2004; Finland legalized same-sex marriage in 2017.

The booklet argues that homosexual activity must be identified as sin by the church on the basis of the teachings of Scripture. The author, Dr. Päivi Räsänen—a Finnish Member of Parliament—further argues that a failure to recognize sin as sin undermines the very need for a Saviour.

Dr. Räsänen has now been charged with incitement by the Prosecutor General, both for the booklet and for other comments on human sexuality. As Dean Pohjola is editor-in-chief of Luther Foundation Finland’s publications—including the booklet “Male and Female He Created Them”—he also was charged.

“This decision of the Prosecutor General says a lot about our time,” Dean Pohjola commented. “While I am concerned about the state of religious freedom in our country, I trust that the judiciary will make the right decision.”

The International Lutheran Council has earlier expressed concern about the investigation of Lutherans in Finland for upholding historic Christian teaching. That concern is deepening. “Recent actions in Finland have created an international scandal which continues to grow,” said Rev. Dr. Timothy Quill, General Secretary of the International Lutheran Council. “The implications of the decision to charge Juhana Pohjola and Päivi Räsänen are clear: if the authorities are willing to do this to a respected pastor, reverend doctor, and Bishop Elect, as well as a Member of Parliament and former Minister of the Interior, then that sends a message of fear and intimidation to everyone in Finland who follows the Scripture’s teaching on human sexuality.”

“Faithful Christians need to demonstrate solidarity with their suffering Finnish Lutheran brothers and sisters,” General Secretary Quill continued. “We must not be silent but express righteous indignation at the actions of the Finnish authorities and demand an end to the persecution of those who adhere to historic Christian teaching on sexuality. I encourage Christians around the world to pray for Juhana and Päivi, and to follow the example and command of Jesus: ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ (Matthew 5:44).”

The ELMDF is a member church of the International Lutheran Council, a global association of confessional Lutheran church bodies representing millions of Lutherans worldwide.

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See also the ELMDF new release here (in Finnish).

Martin Luther at the Imperial Diet at Worms

Luther at the Diet of Worms: Anton von Werner, 1877. (State Gallery in Stuttgart).

500 years ago from April 17-18, 1521, Martin Luther appeared before the imperial assembly in Worms, a major event in the history of the church. Dr. Andrea Grünhagen, in charge of the church and theology division at the Hannover headquarters of the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church in Germany (Selbständige Evangelisch-Lutherische Kirche), explains the significance of this event:

by Andrea Grünhagen 

Dr. Andrea Grünhagen

Luther in Worms! It’s easy to imagine this image in your mind’s eye, the lowly monk standing up to the emperor and the assembled leaders. And in general, the life of the Reformer does seem like a series of impressive scenes, each of which seems to serve as an example to be emulated, depending on one’s personal predilection. In humour, one could observe: some think that Lutherans should be able to sing like Luther; or get married like Luther. Others say we should take a firm stand like Luther, always ready to oppose injustice.

But originally it was not a question of opposition, as if Luther was intent to really give the emperor a piece of his mind. It was the other way around. The young Emperor Charles V had opened the imperial assembly in January of 1521. Various problems were to be dealt with concerning the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. At the outset the dispute about Luther was not on the agenda. Only at the insistence of Luther’s ruler, Frederick the Wise, did this become a topic to be discussed. And Luther thought he’d be given the opportunity to defend himself and his teachings before the assembly. He had been promised safe conduct. But appearing before this august gathering on April 17, the only question to be dealt with was whether he was willing to recant his writings. No discussion. Yes or No.

After a day of consideration he made the famous statement that ended with these words: “If I am not overcome by the witness of Holy Scripture or on the basis of clear reasoning—for I neither believe the pope nor the church councils alone, since it is evident that they have often been shown to be in error and have contradicted themselves—I therefore remain convinced by my quotations from the Scriptures and with my conscience being captive to God’s Word. I cannot and will not recant, because it is neither certain nor salutary to act against your conscience. God help me. Amen.”

That’s what he said. The famous phrase “Here I Stand” is a rather free summary of his remarks. But the point at hand is not why someone might be convinced that he cannot do otherwise; the point is the conscience that is bound by the Word of God! Everyone must for himself hear and follow this admonition not to act against the conscience that is bound by the Word of God—just as Luther had to struggle with this before the emperor and the nation.

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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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No major damage after volcano eruption in Nicaragua

San Cristobal Volcano erupts. (Photo: ILSN Dcn. Mayra Lara)

NICARAGUA – An eruption at Nicaragua’s San Cristobal Volcano on March 9, 2021 showered the nearby area, including the city of Chinandega, in ash but otherwise caused no major damage.

Following the eruption, Nicaragua’s National System for the Prevention, Mitigation, and Attention of Disasters encouraged locals to remain calm but stay two kilometres from the crater of the volcano. San Cristobal is Nicaragua’s largest volcano and is considered moderately active.

The Lutheran Church Synod of Nicaragua (Iglesia Luterana Sínodo de Nicaragua – ILSN) is headquartered in Chinandega, and Lutheran Church–Canada (LCC) has a mission centre in the city. ILSN President Marvin Donaire confirms that people in the area are doing fine despite a bit of ash in the air, and that they are grateful the eruption proved to be minor. Staff at LCC’s mission centre also write that the volcano has returned to its normal state.

Ash falls in Chinandega. (Photo: ILSN Rev.Luis Turcios)

Rev. Mark Smith, Lutheran Church–Canada’s Missions Executive, expressed thanks that the situation in Chinandega seems to have returned to normal. He also encouraged Lutherans around the world to remember their Nicaraguan brothers and sisters in prayer:

Almighty God, whose loving care is everlasting, with relieved hearts we are grateful that the latest volcano eruption of San Cristobal in Nicaragua wasn’t as severe as first feared. We implore You to continue to watch over and protect Your people in Nicaragua, especially those faced with dangerous ash and debris in the air. We also pray that You strengthen the faith of Your Church through Your Life-giving Word that she may bring comfort and aid to those in need; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Lutheran Church Synod of Nicaragua and Lutheran Church–Canada are both members of the International Lutheran Council.

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