The Scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
In the early 1930s the Christian pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and other Germans both Christian and non-Christian faced a number of daunting crises—the economic collapse of the Great Depression; the rise of virulent German nationalism; the worst form of that nationalism, Nazism; and a profound feeling of shame and betrayal over the country’s loss in World War I and the gross unfairness of the Treaty of Versailles. Bonhoeffer and other German Christians struggled to understand just how the Christian church was called to be and to act in that world of so many overlapping crises. Most German Christians bought into German nationalism and even Nazism. They saw no conflict between Christianity in its German Protestant form and German nationalism. Bonhoeffer and several other prominent German Christians responded by issuing the Barmen Declaration. That declaration was not as radical in its opposition to Hitler as it should have been. It was concerned primarily with resisting efforts by the Nazi regime to control the churches. It did not address the greatest atrocities of Hitler’s regime like its rabid anti-Semitism. Nonetheless it at least marked the beginning of Christian opposition to Hitler’s political madness.
Some of the people associated with the Barmen Declaration later formed something they called the Confessing Church as a counter to the German churches that had capitulated to and been taken over by the Nazis. Some individual Christians went farther. The best known of them is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Both he and his brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi participated in groups working to assassinate Hitler as the only way to stop World War II and the Holocaust. Bonhoeffer at least considered what he was doing a sin, but he thought it a necessary sin for which he would beg God’s forgiveness. The Nazis executed both Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi just before the end of the war. No German Christian organization was particularly successful in its opposition to Hitler, but at least some German Christians resisted, sometimes at the cost of their lives. In retrospect it seems obvious that the call of the German church under Hitler was to oppose and resist Nazism in very way possible. Some Christians did. Most didn’t.
We do not live in Nazi Germany or anywhere too much like Nazi Germany, and I do not mean to suggest otherwise. No one is going to throw me into a concentration camp for what I say here this morning. No one is building gas chambers disguised as showers in which to commit genocide. Yet we do live in troubled times, and I don’t even mean by that the pandemic, though it has laid bare many of the contradictions in America’s social, political, and economic structures. I mean mostly other huge issues before us—racism, the climate crisis, sexism, a woefully inadequate and unjust health insurance system, college costs that leave many students with debt that still burdens them decades after they finish school, the immigration crisis and the gross mistreatment of immigrant families at our southern border (mistreatment that sometimes amounts to a crime against humanity), and the gross income disparity between a small number of unbelievably wealthy people and the rest of us. One of our major political parties has become a cult of personality that will not tolerate anyone who will not genuflect before the Dear Leader. Tens of millions of American Christians belong to that cult, hard as that is for most us to understand. No, we don’t live in Nazi Germany. We do however live in a complex time, and we face a number of daunting challenges.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer and other German Christians of the 1930s asked what the role of the church was in the disordered and dangerous world in which they lived. Today we must ask the same question. What is the role of the Christian church in our disordered and dangerous world? Though it may not have sounded much like it when you heard our passage from John this morning, I think we can tease out of those complicated verses an answer to our question. Let me explain.
In these verses in which Jesus is praying to God he says two seemingly contradictory things. He says first of all that “they,” meaning his disciples, “do not belong to the world.” He actually says that twice in these few verses, I suppose to emphasize its importance. Christ’s disciples do not “belong” to the world. Yet Jesus also says here that he is not asking God “to take them out of the world.” He says that he has “sent them into the world.” So what precisely is going on here? Jesus sends his disciples to a place, the world, to which they do not belong. What does that mean? Why would Jesus do that?
We start with that it means that Christ’s disciples do not belong to the world. Jesus means, I think, that they are somehow detached from the world. In fact the early Christians always thought of themselves as apart from the world. They called the church the “ecclesia.” While that Greek word was originally secular, it became the Greek word for church. It means “called out of.” The earliest Christians understood themselves precisely as a group of people called out of the world, called to be separate from the world. They considered themselves as apart from the world because they had committed themselves to something far greater than the world. They called Jesus Christ “Lord.” They mean by that term that Christ was the one they had obligated themselves to obey, the one they were to follow. To them Christ their Lord represented a radical new way of being, God’s way of being not a worldly way of being. At John 18:36 Jesus says to Pilate “my kingdom is not from this world.” He meant that the kingdom of God is located on earth but arises and has its authority not from the world but from God. When the earliest Christians called themselves ecclesia they meant essentially the same thing. They, the church, were located in the world, but they were called by God, got their authority from God, and were committed to follow God’s ways not the ways of the world.
OK, but if Jesus’ earliest followers weren’t of the world in that way, if they didn’t belong to the world in that sense, why didn’t Jesus ask God to take them out of the world? Why did he specifically send them into the world? Certainly a lot of Christians have so emphasized being apart from the world that they have withdrawn from the world and wanted to have as little to do with it as possible. Monasticism in some of its forms is one example. Making the faith be only about an entirely inner pietism is another way that a great many Christians have understood and do understand the faith. That way of thinking effectively takes them out of the world.
Yet true Christianity does not call us and never has called us to that kind of withdrawal from the world. Bonhoeffer wrote at the height of World War II, and please excuse his male exclusive language, that a great many German Christians “fled from public altercation into the sanctuary of private virtuousness....” He considered doing so entirely unacceptable. He wrote, “Anyone who does this must shut his eyes to the injustice around him.” That’s something Bonhoeffer could not and would not do. He thought no true Christian could or should do it either. Rather, true Christian faith calls people into the world and into action in the world, and let me add that it doesn’t have to and shouldn’t be action to try to assassinate someone. Bonhoeffer wrote that “only at the cost of self-deception can [a Christian] keep himself pure from the contamination arising from responsible action.” Though we may not belong to the world, our faith calls us into the world not out of it. That’s why Jesus sent his friends who did not belong to the world into the world, not out of the world.
He does the same with us. Of course, we’re all at different stages of life, and we’re all our own people. So just what it means for Christ to send us into the world is different for each of us. Jesus understands if we are unable actually to go act in the wider world because of physical or mental disability. Still, out in the world is where the church belongs. It’s where at least most of us belong. The church is of little or no use to the world or to God if all it does is call people inward to concern for their own virtue and their own souls as so much of the church does. Yes, Jesus sought sabbath time for himself as a spiritual virtue and necessity, and we should too. But Jesus never withdrew from the world. His ministry had him constantly out in the world healing the sick, comforting the afflicted, afflicting the comfortable, and condemning all structures of injustice and oppression of all people but especially of the poor. He calls us to do the same. Maybe we like to think of our country as the land of the free and the home of the brave, and compared to much of the rest of the world it is. Yet our land is far from perfect. I named some of the crises we face at the beginning of this sermon. They aren’t going to be resolved on their own. God and Jesus Christ call us to tackle every one of them, though some of us are called to work on a particular crisis the way Meighan is called to work on the climate crisis and others are called to work on other crises. It is easy and largely just to condemn most Germans of Hitler’s time for going along with the Nazi madness, but some Germans resisted. Our call is to be not of the world but in the world resisting all of the forces that denigrate, oppress, or destroy God’s earth or any of God’s people. It’s not easy. It cost Dietrich Bonhoeffer his life. Still, it is our call. May it be so. Amen.
All Bonhoeffer quotes are from Elizabeth Seton and Fritz Stern, No Ordinary Men, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi, Resisters Against Hitler in Church and State (New York, New York Review Books, 2013), p. 101. The male exclusive language in the quotes is Bonhoeffer’s, not mine.