By Pastor Kind
About once a week I eat lunch at the Purple Onion Cafe in Dinkytown, just a few blocks away from Luther House. Its a great place, filled with students and profs and other university types. When I go to the Onion I always bring along something to read – something theological – something that doesn’t have anything to do with the class I’m teaching or the sermon I’m working on – something to be read for its own sake. Lately that something has been Hermann Sasse’s Letters to Lutheran Pastors.
Today I was reading a letter Sasse, who had left Germany and was then serving as a professor of theology in Australia, wrote in 1950 entitled Ecclesia Migrans, “the wandering Church.” In this letter Sasse makes the point that all Christians are wanderers: “wandering through countries and continents, through nations and races, through civilizations and eras of human history” (Letters to Lutheran Pastors, Vol. 1, p.200). History, he argues, has shown this to be true. The Church thrives for a while in one locale, then migrates to another never to return to the first. And this, Sasse says, is not strange, but helps to illustrate the nature of the Church as a heavenly, rather than merely an earthly institution. He gets this concept of the wandering Church from the New Testament which describes the Church and her Christians as sojourners, as pilgrims, as citizens of another realm – “In the world, yet not of the world,” our Lord says.
And yet, because the Church is in the world, she puts down roots, albeit temporary roots, in it. How can the Church influence the world without doing so? While she has no abiding city (Heb. 13:14), she still is active in and dwells in the earthly city, and as long as faith abides in that city, remains there. One thing Sasse said struck me in particular in light of the trends of today that argue that Churches do not need to be attached to a particular place, or have property and buildings and such, in order to fulfill their mission (being “missional” is the current catch phrase). He said: “Nothing more clearly reveals the earnestness with which the Church of Christ carries out its commission to go ‘into the world’ and to work ‘in the world’ than the tenacity with which the Church endeavors to strike roots in a given district, nation, or locality. What a temptation it must have been for the primitive church, with its keen awareness of being the wandering people of God, to roam nomadically about the world and quickly pass on the Gospel to all people” (p.205).
And yet it was not a temptation to which the Church succumbed. The apostles went into the world and established congregations in the cities and locales they visited. Those congregations remained in place so long as faith in the Word and grace of Christ remained in those places. They received or purchased land. They built buildings – great buildings even! Sasse says: “the Church already in ancient times becomes possessed of landed interests. In the eyes of men, landed property becomes the most valued earthly possession of the Church. It is more than an aftereffect of a late-ancient and medieval framework of economy that churches today are still property owners; also that they make every effort to compensate for the great losses which they have suffered in this respect… Underlying this is not merely a lust for power but also the realization… that the Church can influence the world only when she actually enters into the world, as her Lord and Master did and as He expects His church to do…” (p.205-206). In other words, it is important for the church to claim a piece of this world to call her own, even if only for a while, to lay down shallow roots, to be landed and to build. Why? Because she has been put in the world to bring the grace of Christ into the world through her preaching and her liturgical and sacramental life in the world. Claiming a place is a natural part of bringing the Gospel to that place. And that mission is accomplished more easily when there is a particular place from which the Church can do it, and to which people may be drawn. The Church is meant to wander in place. Until that place will have her no more.
The place where ULC wanders in place is Dinkytown USA, adjacent to the University of Minnesota. Like the Purple Onion cafe, Dinkytown itself is a place full of students – not just Minnesotans, but students from all around the world – and full of profs and other university types too. It is a place where the students, the pastors, and the members of ULC, have confessed the Gospel since 1925. It is where we have chosen to lay down our roots while we wander this earth.
Sasse also says: “we are reminded that it was a great misunderstanding to suppose that our churches and our congregations would necessarily maintain their status quo unto Judgment Day. To be “in the world” certainly means to stand where God has placed us and to maintain our stand to the very end. But it does not mean that God could not allow the place were we stand to be smashed to bits” (p.208)
How well we know it!
And yet we do not for a minute believe that we have reached “the very end” of our stand in Dinkytown and at the University of Minnesota. What God has allowed to be smashed to bits, He is also, it appears, allowing to be rebuilt. The roots have been shifted only 1 ½ blocks away. Our wandering in this place is not quite over yet.
As we are nearing ground-breaking (likely this Fall!), I ask you to help us lay the roots a little deeper and Build-it-Back.