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Bishop Maria Jepsen: Indebted only to Christ

Sermon on the 13th of November, 2005 in Hamburg

Text: Luke 16,10-13

Dear Parishioners,

Beatification and Canonisation are unfamiliar to us Lutherans, yet we know that we need models of Faith and that there were, and are, singular people who lived according to and allowed themselves to be led by their faith in a special way.  
In our Principal Denominational Writings, the Augsburgischen Confession of 1530, it is written: „ Devotion to the Saints is taught by us thus: That one should remember the Saints to strengthen our faith when we see how they gained grace and were supported by their faith; besides, one should follow their example of good deeds, each one in his own way“.

Thus, our Lutheran Church has kept “Saints days”, but just for such persons so named in the Bible: like John the Baptist and Mary, the apostle and evangelist John, as well as Stephanus and others, and on their feast days we mention Jesus Christ in special ways, as the liturgical colour, white, shows it belongs to the Christ-feasts.

During the early stages of the Reformation some other feast days were also observed in Hamburg, one reason being that one did not want to change everything at once, another being that these days were of importance to some students for financial reasons, who would rely on donations for their Kurrendegesänge (Street-singing for alms) to meet their living expenses.
All this has since changed, and it is for me a question to be taken seriously, if we should allow our Faith, our private and spiritual life to be influenced by such reasonings, yes, how much our faith as such is influenced by custom and human estimation, is totally subject to private or communal influences.

Are we living our Christian Faith always based on the Bible, only the Bible, sola scriptura? Or have we already mixed it with many other things, allowed other things to colour it.

When, for instance, we celebrate the remembrance of the founder of our Hamburg Church, Ansgar, ecumenically, we allow ourselves to remember, that it was he who anchored the Christian Faith here more securely during a time, when we had not yet been split apart, when Eastern and Western Rome still recognised one another fully and the medieval development of the Church had not yet led to assuming strong individual characters.

Good deeds by people should serve us as an example. It is the motivation that we celebrate our Reformationstag (Reformation Day) and allow Martin Luther’s theological insight to influence our minds in a special way, not to live our Faith just half-heartedly and luke-warm, but to also view and reform our Church critically as the Gospel of Vindication and Sanctification, which God promised to us.

God deeds should serve as an example, it says in Confessio Augustana, and we are admonished there to call on Jesus Christ as the only Saviour, Seat of Mercy and Advocate before God.

During the universal remembrance of the Dead on Volkstrauertag (National Remembrance of the Dead) this morning we also remembered those who found death, because they clung to their Faith, and we are celebrating this divine service to remember these four Lübeck clergymen especially. They resisted tyranny because of their faith; they allowed themselves to be guided by the Gospel not to serve two masters. They owed their allegiance to God alone, bound to Christ alone.

To be faithful in the most unimportant as well the most important things was what mattered to them. They spoke in a clear voice, and served without uneasy hypocrisy or convenient adaptation.

Their Churches then, did not support or protect them as they should have done. The leadership of both the Lutheran as well as the Catholic Church were intent on getting along with both streams of authority, to accommodate both biblical and ecclesiastic tradition, to give room to the Gospel, and at the same time get along with society and politics in general and not to make “too many waves”. Courageous words of protest remained wanting, because one was trying to “get along” or was aligned with that ideology.

The four clergymen each lived their faiths in their own distinct way, at the critical moment, demonstrated who is Lord over Heaven and Earth, who holds claim to our lives, wether we are consecrated, ordained or not. Because through baptism we have all been taken into God’s realm, exculpated though always proving still weak, and our thoughts and aspirations are evil since our youth and we always remain imprisoned by Sin.

Johannes Prassek and Hermann Lange, Eduard Müller and Karl Friedrich Stellbrink followed Him, as was formulated in the Barmer Erklärung (declaration) of 1934 thus:: „ We reject the false teaching, as if there existed spheres in our lives not belonging to Jesus Christ, but other lords, spheres not requiring vindication and salvation through Him.

They did not want to serve two masters, but just one, Jesus Christ, who expects from us clarity and straightforwardness, in little as in big matters. And they were prepared to stand up for it, even unto death, as they were threatened with and which after a long and terrible time in prison, and waiting, they suffered here nearby.

To take their good deeds as an example to follow, - that is what we have been called to do, all of us, who call Jesus Christ our Lord, and we must learn from their initiative and courage, to be faithful in small and big matters today. That concerns in one sense our life, which more often than not is directed by Mammon rather than God’s compassion, by charity which Jesus has urged us to show our neighbour in His Sermon on the Mount.

What is more important to us? Where do we stand up for the poor and oppressed among us and in the wide world? Where do we raise our voices, when refugees are refused shelter, when our European states shutter themselves off, at any cost?

Johannes Prassek grew up in Hamburg, went to school here and attained his Abitur (High School Certificate) at the Johanneum. A boy, like many others, a boy, who after his theology studies was ordained a priest and later performed ecclesiastic duties in Lübeck, just like the other three. Surely, they would not have been the most courageous at all times, but let themselves be guided by the Gospel when the time came to decide, to carry out their duty faithfully and obediently, in accordance with the Gospel. They strengthened each other’s faith and fulfilled their ecclesiastic duties. They did not become subordinates to the dominion of NS-ideology. They obeyed God more than men.

Today, we also need such brave men, who do not live their faith half-heartedly. We need the mutual support to call into question all the distortion or trifling of God’s Good Message in our personal and ecclesiastic, societal and political lives. We must carefully examine ourselves and all that happens or is said and passed on in our churches and compare it with what is demanded of us in the Bible, and only the Bible.

Maybe, we ourselves no longer notice the many times we make concessions to public opinion, we no longer notice our own cautious conduct and willingness to adapt; but our partner Churches do notice it and tell us quite bluntly, how luke-warm we have become.

God is our Lord, the Father of Jesus Christ; it is He we must follow, even when there is a call for caution and moderation in the critical, social responsibilities of the Church, when there are calls for active assistance for someone wanting to die, to be exempt from punishment. “ You shall not kill!“, this is a commandment we must obey and do everything to prevent death penalty and a lonely death. 
God is our Lord, the Father of Jesus Christ; He is with us on all our journeys, even at the darkest moments.

This was the Faith the four clergymen lived by and in this faith they went to their death, when they were decapitated by guillotine at three minute intervals on the 10th of November, 1943 in Holstenglacis Prison.

Johannes Prassek wrote just a few hours before his execution to his family: „Don’t be grieving! What awaits me are joy and happiness, against which all happiness here on earth amounts to nothing. What I was able to do for you, praying for you daily, I shall be able to do even more so.” That is how they all lived and died.

Dear Parishioners, may God give all of us this strength of Faith, so that we may remain faithful in all situations, important or not, follow God’s commands at home and in public, thus making room for His compassion and sanctity, wherever and however we live and die. For this is truly so: Whoever believes this, loses all fear and may go on his way with confidence as a man loved and blessed by God.




Bishop Maria Jepsen, Bishop of the Hamburg district in the Northelbian Lutheran Church, held this sermon in the St. Ansgar church ("Kleiner Michel") on the 13th of November 2005, commemorating the 62nd anniversary of the Martyrs’ death.