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For Freedom Christ Has Set Us Free – Sermon of Archbishop Urmas Viilma at the EELC Jubilee Congress on 27 May 2017 in Tartu

Archbishop Urmas Viilma. Photo Tiit Kuusemaa

“For freedom Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1a)

Dear members of this festive congregation, sisters and brothers in Christ!

I begin my sermon with a quote from a newspaper, which is dated 3 June 1917 and is from the “Päewaleht” and it describes the church congress that gathered here in Tartu 100 years ago. In the newspaper it is written:  “This is a unique event, that this very year, when our Evangelical Lutheran Church celebrating the laying of its foundation, the reformation movement’s 400th anniversary, that also the hour of its rebirth has arrived. This renewal is the very best and most influential gift for this anniversary year. This event needs to be highly valued in terms of faith and public life and from the standpoint of our people. /…/ The Church Congress made once again visible that in which there was no doubt: The church is still very influential for this generation of our people and taking into account its influence on the situation of the land and the people and their development, makes its removal impossible. /…/ There were plenty of pastors, also from outside of Estonia (Riga, England, etc).  But overall there were much more laity present. /…/ In some questions addressed by the congress they spoke as worthy equals to the clergy.  Well founded, clarifying speeches and presentations were of course given by the clergy; but in discussions the laity used their voice more than the clergy. From the words of those who spoke one could feel how important was for them the church and its renewal; one could feel lively joy, and in some cases high enthusiasm that for once congregations had voice in their own affairs and that this voice could be heard.”

This lively description of the congress continues in the article for a long time. I read this section because from this short quote one can very well see what was meant at the first church congress with the words “free folk church”. It meant first of all to congregations which were made up of country folk or Estonians, self-determination and the right to make decisions. It meant taking these rights in its boldest sense, because no one was going to offer these to the Estonians, just like one hundred years ago no one offered to our people our national independence. So this, deciding as a church and as a nation to become independent was a sign that we had finally become inwardly independent. We were ready to decide for ourselves and to bear responsibility. This inward independence was given to us by the grace of God. Likewise, we were granted for our church’s and national independence favourable periods in terms of social-political times.  However, the decision to use these periods in time in which we could take into our own hands the decisions about the future of our church had to be made by the people of the church themselves. This is why the church congress assembled in Tartu.

The key word “freedom” was used very often in the presentations made at the congress. Much was discussed about the freedom of conscience especially when referring to membership in the church. Today it is important to know that just a century ago almost all the population belonged to one church or another and many critical words were directed at nominal Christians who were on church rolls but did not wish to tie themselves with the church. So under discussion was the creation of the Estonian Lutheran Church on the model of a free church, where all those who wished to be members of the church, first of all had to openly express this and then they would be enrolled as members of the church. In the discussions and final votes it was the proposal by the pastor of Laiuse, Johan Kõpp, that the free folk church model be adopted which meant that all who were baptized would be counted as church members and those who wished to leave the church so needed to separately express this wish.

We can say that even now the keeping of membership records in the EELC works on these same principals – through baptism one becomes a member of the church and one leaves the church through a personal declaration to effect or otherwise “feet first”.

A separate question was that of nationality or the national church. Do Estonians have to have their own church and do the Germans then have their own? Which comes first, is it faith or the nationality that one belongs to?  Johan Kõpp finally says in one of his speeches: “Taking into consideration the present reality, I would say that one needs to be finally free from that which was formerly often heard and repeated even emphatically now: be first a Christian, then an Estonian (or whatever other nationality). /…/ As an Estonian I can be a Christian and as a Christian I can be an Estonian.”

The free folk church as such as it was established a century ago meant, supported by the words of Kõpp,  a bonding together national feelings as a people and Christianity so that one did not have precedence over the other but both were taken into account and both were valued.

This helps us understand why representatives and clergy of the Lutheran Church have always been socially active and through more than century of history have had voice in state or national, including political affairs. Politicians who are representatives of the church tend on the whole to be more nationalistic and conservative.

The folk church has always shared concern over the endurance of the people and nation as well as stood for the national ideals. So the church through its representatives had a significant role in the declaration of an independent Estonian State one hundred years ago; in the silent resistance and as the preserver of freedom during periods of occupation; not the least 25 years ago in prelude to and during the restoration of Estonian independence through active national and heritage preserving movements, which were largely born in Estonian parsonages and churches.

That these themes are no longer in today’s deliberately secular state as actual as they were a quarter of a century ago does not mean that today it is not the role of the church any more to speak in the society and to be concerned – together with the jubilant Estonian state celebrating its 100th anniversary and its not so secular population – about today, that is our present, and about our endurance, that is about our future.

Freedom is not just something that can be seen and experienced in the making use of the right or the opportunities of the church and its members to be active in society. Freedom that is derived from the Gospel has first of all a spiritual, even a salvation-story measure to it.

In an introductory text “Landmarks of Freedom 2017-2018” explaining the meaning of  the anniversaries we celebrate in these years we have written about the liberating spirit as follows: “According to the Christian understanding, a human being is liberated through grace, or in faith. This is the theological meaning of freedom in religion. A church is free if it allows itself be guided by the gospel and relies on Jesus Christ, who is the Lord of the one, holy, universal and apostolic church. As such the mission of the church is always directed to the entire population, to the whole of humanity that was atoned on Christ’s cross. /…/ We have been liberated in faith, as free people, in a free church and a free country.” (

The slogan for the jubilee year, the verse of scripture that forms the theme of this sermon,

“For freedom Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1a) directs our thoughts to the freedom of conscience but also to the freedom given to us through the gospel. What kind of freedom has Christ given us? Let me answer, using again the thoughts of one of the key speakers, Johan Kõpp: “Jesus did not bring regulations, legislation, but internal, spiritual freedom. /…/ The person’s soul is of the highest worth, it seeks union with God and here one cannot and should not let another interfere with this.”

The church cannot have the right to step in between a person and God as a filter or limiter of the relationship. The task of the church according to the command of Christ is to proclaim the word of God, to convey it, to mediate it. Likewise according to the teaching of our church God has entrusted the church – alongside the word of God – also with the means of grace, the sacraments. This freedom to use them to bring people closer to God should not be turned by the church into a codex of rules and norms through which grace becomes unattainable or costly. God’s grace is priceless! Not in that it is by any means worthless but that it is so valuable that the only possibility for people to be partakers of it is to receive it for free through God´s grace. Just like this the grace of Jesus Christ is available to all because redemption has no other price than Jesus´ blood poured out voluntarily and innocently on the cross.

Christ made God’s grace available to all, who believe in Him. Martin Luther reached this understanding five centuries ago when he read the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans where he found the words: “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” (Romans 1:17) It is held that this verse formed one of the key parts of scripture which led Luther to understand that the church, which has brought people through human and regulatory rules into bondage of the law, needs renewal and cleansing.

On the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and the 100th anniversary of our church becoming independent form the patronage of the state governor, we have to again ask ourselves what does our freedom mean for us?  Does it give us the right to do with our church, congregations, our personal faith and life all that I want or do I also have a grain of responsibility for my fellow human being,  fellow Christian or toward the entire society, when exercising this freedom?

This afternoon at the church congress we will be discussing a statement of the church congress about the role of our Estonian free folk church, our dear EELC, in Estonian society. We plan to adopt a statement which includes the words: “The church bears a shared responsibility for Estonian people and culture.” What does this mean that the church bears a shared responsibility for the people and the state? Who is this church that is responsible? You may set your gaze upon this pulpit, if you are looking for the church, however…. I reflect this gaze back into the pews of this church and even through the television camera into homes, quoting the next sentence of the same statement: “The free people´s church relies on shared public responsibility of all members”.

For each of us, our freedom is twinned with responsibility. Every Christian is responsible for one’s personal faith. Parents are also responsible for the faith of their children and for a Christian upbringing. The church is responsible for fulfilling Christ’s command to proclaim the pure word of God and to administer the sacraments to all peoples. For free!

This is the task that Jesus left all of us, his disciples, when he said the words of scripture that we read today: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8).

At that time the end of the earth, here by the shores of the Baltic Sea, the first proclamation about our Lord Jesus Christ came about one thousand years ago. We, the members of the Estonian free folk church, together with our fellow Christians in Estonia share the responsibility to keep the light of the gospel burning. For this we have been called.

For the previous century – Many happy returns!

Many blessings for the awaited days of our Lord!
Urmas Viilma

27.05.2017 St Paul’s Lutheran Church in Tartu