Bishop Paul’s letter
Rev Paul Smith
Bishop, Lutheran Church of Australia and New Zealand
When I became the pastor at Immanuel Lutheran Church, North Adelaide, some of the parish folk told me the story of the recent time when the church building had been broken into. The thieves took the historic ‘mission field’ crucifix from the altar. Thankfully, after a statewide appeal, it was returned. The story told to me was one of the confident witness of God’s people: ‘They can never take the cross out of the church.’ The members would explain to me that even though the crucifix from the altar had been stolen, the sign of the cross was still everywhere: on the paraments, on the font, on the doors, on the pastor, on the charity box at the door, even on the front of each of the hymnals.
We cherish this sign that the Lord has placed over human history as his seal of promise that we have a God who is gracious and merciful. A God who will suffer and die for the forgiveness of sin.
For Martin Luther, the sign of the cross was central to his passion in seeking to reform the church. In one of his early writings, Luther invites us to become ‘theologians’ of the cross. This is when we take stock of everything around us through the lens of Jesus’ death on the cross and through suffering. Martin Luther suggests that when we do this, we will be honest about the world and about ourselves. We will see more clearly sin at work in the world and in our own selves.
When I entered the Lutheran Church through St Peter’s Lutheran College in Brisbane, I was helped to reflect on this way of the cross through the architecture in the chapel building. The St Peter’s college chapel has a large cross at the front in the sanctuary, starkly positioned in front of a plain white wall. This is God’s marker over all time. But then in the private prayer chapel on the side of the main space, is an almost life-size carving of the Lord’s body in pain on the cross. This is the space where I kneel alone before this image of my Lord and confess, ‘He has done this for me. He has done this out of love for me. He died while we were yet sinners, out of his love for the world’.
As I write to you, Lent 2022 is near. In this third year of COVID-19, we are deeply aware of human frailty. We are reminded daily that we are dust and to dust we shall return. We have images on television and our personal devices, showing that human greed and power reign throughout the world as we see places where people are too poor to have access to hospital care and life-saving ventilators. Lent is the season to be ready for the message of the cross, on Good Friday. Historically, Lent was the season of preparation for people who were ‘catechumens’ – that is women and men preparing for baptism. These folk fasted for 40 days, as Jesus did in the wilderness, to be ready for their baptism over the Easter weekend.
Lent eventually became a common tradition for Christians in many places. In our modern society in New Zealand and Australia, fewer people celebrate Lent. However, for many in our schools, aged-care communities and other similar places, ‘Pancake Tuesday’ (or Shrove Tuesday) has become a bit of a regular festival. However, as with Halloween, there is often little awareness of the significance of the pancake tradition. (It was to eat up fatty foods before the fasting of Lent.)
I believe the popularisation of Pancake Tuesday is a gift to the people of the church. It’s an opportunity to be ready to give a good account of the hope within us, of the gracious work of God in the way of the cross. It can help us to bear witness to our faith at work in the Lenten journey, that ‘God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life’.
Your fellow in Christ,
‘Lord Jesus, we belong to you,
you live in us, we live in you;
we live and work for you –
because we bear your name’