Font size

Prioress Petra Kallies: Ecumenical Witness

Sermon on the 7th of November 2010 in Lübeck

Jesus Christ – yesterday, today and the same in eternity!

Dear Sisters and Brothers,

How can we be able to discern that a Community of Faith which calls itself “Christian”, really is the Church of Jesus Christ? This is not a modern day question, but has been asked by communities since the beginning. Then, during the first four centuries, there was a similar multitude of faiths and communities, as we have today. Agreement on the so-called four “characteristics of the Church” was reached rather quickly.

  1. Leiturgia – Liturgy – the Church celebrates Divine Services for the glory of the Lord, with song, bible readings, prayer and the Lord’s Supper.
  2. Koinonia – Communion – Christians pray and celebrate together; it is not the case that we come to the church at different times, say our prayers and then leave and be on our way. The Church is marked by concrete community, by meeting one another.
  3. Diakonia – the community has concern for those in want; the sick, the imprisoned, the dying, those who mourn, the wretched, the desperate. A community which has shut their eyes to its active charity loses its claim to be called a Church.
  4. Martyria – Witness. The origin of the word „Martyr“. In reality the concept describes something quite worldly: a Martys, a martyr, is a witness giving evidence before a court: “Was it like this, or was it like that?’.

Christians declare their faith not just by deeds (i.e. living by Christian values), but also by their words. They explain, they speak about their faith, about that which carries them, what supports them. What determines the values they live by: Charity, peaceableness. Viewed as such, Martyria, the witness is tightly bound with Mission: Explain your Faith and pass on the Good News.

As the young Church was persecuted, the concept acquired, in a way, a more pointed or narrow meaning. It became the description for “Blood-witness”. For men who were persecuted for their faith, were tortured, murdered. For men, who did not deny Christ, but bore his witness.

In the Evangelical Church we have lost the relation to martyrdom. It needs to be renewed and explained constantly, here too, in our Luther-Melanchton Parish, despite the fact that since 1993 we celebrate a memorial service annually and that an exhibition about the Four Lübeck Martyrs has found its place in the church gallery.

Today we remember. We tell of the four clergymen, three Catholic chaplains and the Evangelical pastor of the Luther-Kirche; we tell of Eduard Müller, Johannes Prassek, Hermann Lange and Karl Friedrich Stellbrink. We also remember the 18 Catholic lay people, non-theologians, accused together with them. They survived – but just as the clergymen, they stood up for their Faith, acknowledged Christ. And we remember all those who stood by them, their families, friends and parishioners and in so doing risked their own lives. Because Martyria, witnessing does not begin with just a worldly accusal, not just with a trial. It begins then, when someone makes a decision wrought with severe consequences because of belief in his Faith. “Whosoever wants to follow me, says Christ, let him pick up his cross and follow me”.

November is a time of remembrance: for the victims of terror, war and expulsion. We remember the Reichsprogromnacht (Crystal-Night), the Volkstrauertag (Remembrance Day of the Dead) We realise with alarm how quickly a regime of terror can assume power and within a few months can silence all its critics. With great regret we remember the many millions of victims – in concentration camps, of systematic liquidation, of war and expulsion. Ashamedly we acknowledge how guilt and complicity were quickly suppressed and denied after the war. We strive to learn for the present and the future from the failings of the past. Beware of the beginnings! Never again war or despotism! And we allow ourselves to be reminded, that things can be different – that even in those dark years people stood up for their beliefs or political principles, they professed with life and limb.

On the 10th of November the anniversary of the day of execution of the four martyrs comes around for the 63rd time. Some may ask: “All that happened long ago. What has that still got to do with us? That’s all old history”. And we realise: Our remembrances are changing, the historical witnesses, i.e. people who knew these clergymen, grow fewer. We, who have come after them need a different approach because we lack the personal recall. Yet still, the martyrs project themselves into our lives, into our everyday existence, even outside those times of remembrance. There are many examples, I would like to give you just one small example today; Lübeck Daily News, 2010. In Schlutup (an outlying suburb of Lübeck) there existed, as in some others during the war, factories producing war materials, ammunitions. The owners saw to the supply and made good money. Their workers were mostly people conscripted from occupied territories, forced labourers, torn from their homeland and forced to produce the weapons which were used against their families and friends. They had no rights, and that applied to their faith as well. So it was forbidden, for Polish women as well, to go to confession. Chaplain Prassek learned the Polish language, and met them in secret in order to be able to minister to them, hear their confessions. Doing what he did, he risked his life. He acted according to his conscience; he did what was his primary mission as a priest: caring for the souls of Christ’s children.

65 years later. In Schlutup there is a street named after the owner of one such factory, Günther Quandt, so named to honour him 73 years ago by the Nazis. There is now an initiative by the citizens to have this street renamed. The initiative is being discussed vigorously; and concern is there not just weighing up the fact of having been a camp follower and war profiteer. Opponents are concerned that a renaming might incur costs for the residents in that street. A renaming would be a belated recognition of the injustices brought against the forced labourer: We have not forgotten your distress. We have not forgotten that you were forced to live among us without rights. Today we even want to forget, that you were even deprived of living your faith or the consolation of confession. We need this time of remembrance – for our presence and our future!

Dear Sisters and Brothers, I cold say „Amen!“ and thereby could have navigated around a perilous cliff, which we, in my opinion however, should not try to avoid. This coming June, 68 years and two days after they were sentenced to death, the three chaplains will be beatified in Lübeck. The desire to see them beatified had existed for many years, but there were always those voices advising against it – afraid that it might undo the ecumenical unity of the Four. “Never speak of Three, only of Four! “ – This was Adolf Erdtmann’s dictum and is our obligation.

„The Evangelical Church does not know about beatification,“ Archbishop Werner Thissen said in his salutation to the Northern Church Synod. That is theological diplomat-speak. What is really meant by that is „There is no beatification in the Evangelical Church“. For good reason, we think, because The Congregation for the Beatification and Canonisation states: Every beatification is an act by the Pope, permitting the local adoration of a servant of God and giving notice of his decision to that effect through an apostolic missive made public. That does not conform with Evangelical Church understanding. However, the decision has now been made, there will be a beatification. We must now find a way to maintain what already unites us. The Four Lübeck Martyrs were pioneers of Oekumene. What appears to us, at least here in Lübeck, to be self-evident, common divine services at the beginning or end of a school year, excursions for seniors, ecumenical weddings, the stand against Neo-Nazi propaganda, the ecumenical Way of the Cross on God Fridays, and many more, would have been unthinkable in their days. Their brotherly coherence was also a vision for the Church – how it could be and how it should be.

After the war the Oekumene was like a delicate seedling, mutually cared for and protected, and still is. But some subjects have been deliberately excluded: the understanding of Church and Ministry, and our common Communion. Because we know that will be difficult.

To have proceeded in this way was correct, because by meeting, discussion and by what could be done together; our personal trust and appreciation grew. The relationship has become stronger, able to stand strain. Maybe, the time is ripe for us to dare tackle more difficult problems. If we look at the legacy of the Martyrs, it won’t do to forever just sum up: “ If things get really hard, if it becomes a matter of life or death, Christian women and Christian men will stand together!”
In Germany, at the beginning of the 21st century, in a world where fewer and fewer people are growing naturally into and are educated in the Christian faith, Martyria, witnessing increasingly becomes a challenge for our Churches.

I, for my part, wish that we, as Evangelicals, don’t think of this beatification as a purely „ intra-Catholic affair“. That would not do justice to the legacy of the Four Lübeck Martyrs. It must lead us all to closer unity!

How do we as Christian women and men attest to our Faith before the world? It is no longer enough to just be living together as good neighbours. Will we be successful to one day establish an ecumenical school with ecumenical religious instruction? Shall we be successful one day, to celebrate communion together, the visible sign of communion with God and one another?

How do we show, that our Faith can move mountains, can jump over walls with our God, how do we prove that credibly not just as neighbours, but as sisters and brothers, as members of God’s family?

In this beatification, as difficult as it may appear to us Evangelicals, there is the great opportunity for the Oekumene. Johannes Prassek, Eduard Müller, Hermann Lange und Karl Friedrich Stellbrink are far ahead of us in their unity. „Their Oekumene, as they lived it, is a prophetic sign“, that is how a fellow witness at that time, Prof. Stefan Pfürtner, once put it. In their example is this promise: Christian unity in a diversity of forms.

So let us ask God to grant us the wisdom, to find the right words, to take the correct, next step, to give us the strength to endure what divides us and the courage to dare something new.



Translation: Hans-Heinrich Boeker, Wyoming, Australia



Prioress Petra Kallies of Lübeck preached on the 7th of November, 2010 in Lübeck’s Luther Church on the occasion of the 67th anniversary of the death of the Martyrs about forms of expression of Christian witness and the ecumenical dimensions of the Martyrs’ commemoration.