Visiting the past in Ethiopia, changing the world with a message of truth
If you ask Mike Rodewald, one of the joys of serving as executive director with Lutheran Bible Translators, in Concordia, is the opportunity to travel and see God at work in different places. In February, Rodewald and his wife, Cindy, traveled to Ethiopia for meetings with church leaders of the Evangelical Ethiopian Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY). The EECMY began in 1959 with roughly 20,000 members as the result of missionary efforts, and is now the largest, at an estimated nine million members, Lutheran church in the world. As a Christian from the West, Rodewald said he tends to focus on his own denominational history strand. But there are other histories, he said. Ethiopia is one such place.
“We landed for a day in Aksum in the north,” Rodewald said. “Here, Christianity was established in the fourth century AD, and the Bible was translated into the Ethiopic language of Ge’ez. This language is no longer used, except within the Ethiopian Orthodox church, but there is no doubt that Christianity flourished when it was established.”
In Aksum, ancient Christian kings erected stelae, or obelisks, to memorialize their graves. These stelae were quarried as one piece and dragged by elephants three miles before being chiseled and erected. The main stelae yet standing is 79 feet tall, and carved as one piece. The level of detail and precision in the chiseled doors and windows of each story reminds some of skyscrapers, and are of such precision that the guide told the Rodewalds that some people think ancient aliens were responsible.
“The thought certainly crossed my mind,” Rodewald admitted.
Aksum is also reportedly the repository of the Ark of the Covenant. According to legend, the Ark was brought to Ethiopia by the son of the Queen of Sheba, and spirited away from King Solomon because of the danger of a Babylonian invasion. The Ark reportedly sits in a building tended by a single monk. He is the only living person to actually see it. When he dies, another monk is appointed to be the caretaker.
“So is it there?” Rodewald asks rhetorically. “You’ll have to come to your own conclusion, but the local Christians certainly think it is — without question.”
From Aksum, the Rodewalds took a flight to Lalibela, where they were met by their guide. In the 11th century, Christian King Lalibela carved 11 churches out of huge stands of granite, literally hewn from the rock.
“Again, the massive excavation and attention to detail by ancient workers without power tools was impressive,” Rodewald reports. “Legend has taken over again. Our guide told us that while the people worked on the churches during the day, angels worked at night. All 11 churches were finished over a period of 23 years.”
Back in the capital city of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, the Rodewalds met with church leaders to form a new Bible translation initiative in the EECMY seminary. The EECMY and other evangelicals describe themselves in Reformation to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
“We couldn’t help but note the similarities to the German Reformation,” Rodewald said.
He went on to explain that the Bible translated into Ge’ez is no longer understood, except by the priests. The meaning of God’s word is hidden behind opaque practice and language. Orthodox Christians are very devout in their practice, but many don’t know why they practice as they do. Those within the EECMY see God’s word as the corrective.
“We were told of Onesimus Nesib, a slave rescued by Swedish Lutheran missionaries who became an evangelist, and later translated the Bible into his mother tongue, Oromo,” Rodewald said. “It was the beginning of rediscovery as people read in their own language the truths of scripture lost in the legends of saints and ancient language. Later, we discovered that one of the EECMY church officials is the great grandson of Onesimus.”
Each of us has our own histories, Rodewald said.
“But each is only a thread in a Christian movement which has changed the world,” he continued. “For Cindy and me, it is an honor to be serving through Lutheran Bible Translators that others might also hear God’s message of salvation through Jesus Christ in the Bible. This Easter season, we remember again that God sent his son Jesus — to not only die on the cross to atone for our imperfection — but also rise again, defeating our inevitable death. That message of hope continues to change the world.”