It’s Friday morning here in Michigan. As I write, I’m watching the State Memorial service from Cologne (Koln) Cathedral, for the 150 people killed in the “Germanwings” flight in the French Alps on March 24th. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel was present, along with the German President Joachim Gauck. Spanish leaders were also represented. These were the two countries that lost the most people in the disaster.
The Cathedral is about a thirty-minute drive from Dusseldorf Airport where the plane was due to land after a short flight from Barcelona in Spain.
Koln Cathedral is one of the most magnificent buildings in Germany, an architectural marvel from the Middle Ages, a time of great faith in European history. At such a time as this, faith is a great help to those who have lost loved ones. The peace and serenity, together with inspiring music and the presence of 1,500 people, seemed to bring some comfort and closure to the relatives and friends of the victims, who still await burial.
The service is being relayed on BBC World, with occasional interruptions to bring the latest world news. Religion is a common theme running through the morning’s news program. Koln Cathedral is a reminder of the religious certainties of the past. Construction of the gothic cathedral began in 1248. The church remains a Roman Catholic cathedral, in a country divided by Lutheran Protestantism five centuries ago. The German Chancellor is the daughter of a Lutheran minister and grew up in the officially atheist German Democratic Republic (communist East Germany). The German president is a former Lutheran pastor who came to prominence as an anti-communist civil rights leader in the former communist state. The professed atheism of the eastern European countries did not bring the utopia that people had hoped for. I first visited the cathedral as a 16-year-old exchange student. The German student I stayed with was also an atheist.
Fifty years ago it seemed that religion was a thing of the past. Now, it dominates our news on a daily basis. This is especially true of news involving the Middle East.
A frequently mentioned news item this morning is the arrest of fifteen Muslim immigrants arriving by boat from Libya. The men originated from West African countries. 10,000 refugees have landed in Italy in the last seven days. The fifteen were all on the same boat and had deliberately pushed twelve Christians overboard during a religious dispute, killing all twelve.
Another news item was of regular chlorine bomb attacks on Sunni Muslims by the Shi’ite Alawite government of Syria. Victims included small children who died agonizing deaths, witnessed by survivors.
Switching for a few minutes to a US based channel, concern was being expressed over a US citizen who had spent two months in Syria training with ISIS, and was arrested on his return to the United States where he was planning terrorist attacks on Americans in uniform. The concern is that he is the first of many more to come, people motivated by extremist religious views, intent on mass killing.
In such a time of religious confusion, comfort can certainly be drawn from the religious certainties of the past. But those certainties hide a disturbing reality. In 1248, when the foundations of the cathedral were laid, beliefs were based more on tradition, on ignorance and superstition than on revealed scripture.
The Bible was not the foundation of the medieval church. It wasn’t until 1534 that the Bible was first published in German, having been translated by Martin Luther. It was the revealed truths in the scriptures that divided the medieval church, still clinging to beliefs and traditions that could not be biblically substantiated.
The Bible tells us that Jesus Christ is the truth. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Jesus Christ is truth. He is also “the Word.” (John 1:1, 14) God’s Word is truth. (John 17:17) The Apostle Paul adds: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” (II Timothy 3:16)
The same Bible also tells us, in this age of great religious confusion, that salvation is only possible through Jesus Christ. (Acts 4:12)
The solid walls of Koln Cathedral may be a reminder of religious certainties but they also reflect certainties that were wrong. Today, we should be thankful that we have access to the scriptures, thanks to men like Martin Luther and his contemporary William Tyndale, who died to bring us the Bible in English.
Five centuries later, it was revealed just a few days ago, the Bible has still not been translated into 57% of the world’s languages.
For those of us who are blessed with a translation in our own language, we should renew our commitment to daily Bible Study and remember the importance of working out our own salvation (Philippians 2:12).
Martin Luther showed that it wasn’t the medieval church that could guarantee us salvation. That remains true today. Only Jesus Christ can guarantee us salvation. Our eternal life depends on Him. The Church can help guide us in the right direction, but salvation depends on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
The sister of one of the German victims of the crash prayed a very moving, yet simple prayer before the congregation: “Lord, please dry our tears.”
This simple request brought to mind a verse in the last book of the bible: “And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev. 21:4)
Understanding the real truth of God brings a peace of mind that truly sets us free. (John 8:32)