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The Faithfulness of Christ During Difficult Times

June 22, 2014

This past Wednesday was our last full day in Budapest, and I used it to learn more about our Hungarian counterpart, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hungary. I knew two things ahead of time. First, that recent church history in Hungary had most certainly been shaped by the period of communist rule and second, that there was virtually nothing else I knew about Hungarian church history.

Both assumptions were confirmed.

I spent the day with a number of representatives of the church, including a pastor and professor of church history and some members of the staff of the diaconal ministry office. The history that unfolded (insofar as I understand it, and I apologize for my limited knowledge – this will soon be rectified!) was fascinating.

Unlike some of their communist allies, the regime in Hungarian sought not so much to stifle the church as to use it. This had interesting consequences. Three factions emerged within the church, which I would describe as the confessional, the revivalist, and the communist-sympathetic (or “red,” as it was described to me). The second of these, the revivalist, seemed to play the smallest role, shifting its allegiances between the other two. The first and the third were where the drama played out, and each was embodied by a figure of lasting significance.

The confessional wing’s champion was Bishop Lajos Ordass. Elected as bishop in 1945, Ordass ran afoul of the new regime in 1948. He refused to acknowledge that the state had authority over the church, particularly in regard to Lutheran schools, and clung instead to Christ as his only authority. This earned him two separate stints in jail and little formal authority; the state replaced him as bishop (twice), even though many of the faithful still claim him as the only valid bishop of this time. His resistance was heroic in many ways and no doubt gave hope to the faithful suffering under communist rule.

Bishop Zoltan Káldy charted a different course, and was rewarded for it in many ways. The deposition of Ordass helped bring him to ecclesiastical power and he often cooperated with the state and the party. During his time in office, he developed a theology of diaconia, which was centered on serving those in need. In Hungary at the time, this mostly meant the elderly and those with physical disabilities. Diaconia is thoroughly biblical. It was also appropriate to Káldy’s time. One of the great lies of the communist state was that all of society’s problems had been solved. Clearly, this was not true and diaconia gave the church a vehicle to work within the system for the betterment of those who would have otherwise been ignored. Some believe that Káldy’s program was meant to endear the church to the state and secure its place. Others view him as a visionary who sought to do what he could for God’s people in a difficult time. Either way, I tend to think of those who were helped by his theology and its fruits rather than his motivations (Káldy served as president of the Lutheran World Federation in the 1980s; at the same time, it seems, he was an agent of the communist state).

Interestingly, Lutherans in Hungary seem to do two things simultaneously: celebrate Ordass and maintain the program of Káldy. In the post-communist period, the heroism of Ordass is worth celebrating. Still, diaconia – whatever the original motivations – remains a hallmark of Hungarian Lutheranism. This, it seems to me, is as it should be. After all, Lutherans represent only about 2% of Hungarians and are, with all denominations, losing members and participation (sound familiar?). They are a small group, but one that – with the help of God – can make a difference in a nation that continues to face difficulties. What better way to witness explicitly to the gospel of Jesus Christ than to care for the lowest, the lost, and the least among them?

All of this got me thinking about Paul’s letter to the Romans (a church that had some knowledge when it came to living out the faith under an oppressive regime). Paul writes: “But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (3:21-22). Much ink has been spilled of late regarding the preposition between “faith” and “Jesus Christ.” It has traditionally been translated as “in,” as in, “the faith we have in Jesus Christ.” But a fine case can be made for “of,” namely that what Paul is driving at here is that God’s righteousness has been shown not through our faith in Jesus, but in Jesus’ faithfulness in saving and redeeming us.

I cannot get into the motivational minds of Bishops Ordass and Káldy. I admire the one’s desire to honor the truth above all else without disregarding the other’s desire to serve his fellow humans in the name of Jesus during difficult times. It is not for me to judge. What I do know, and celebrate, is that neither bishop’s response is determinative. It’s not if or how we are faithful to Jesus, as important as those are; it’s Jesus’ faithfulness in God’s saving mission for us that matters most. Either way, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hungary is committed to bringing the Kingdom in today, and doing so explicitly in Jesus’ name for the sake of their neighbors. They are letting God be faithful through them. In so doing, they are showing their faithfulness in return.

I am thankful that I have never had to serve God’s gospel within a repressive state. I will not, therefore, judge too harshly the actions of those who have found themselves in such a situation. What I do know is that the Lutheran Church has been alive and well, if small, in Hungary since the 1520s. They’re alive and doing justice in Jesus’ name today. Why? Because of their faithfulness? As impressive as that has been at times, no. It is because God is faithful in Christ to them during difficult times, working new life when all seems lost. Thanks be to God!

“Yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” Galatians 2:16

From → Sabbatical 2014

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