You should know there are plenty of reasons behind me taking the time to write and send out something like this every Sunday morning for the past eight years.
Admittedly, one of the chief reasons is my near-mental-illness type urge to write. I’ve shared with you before that sometimes I feel as though my head will split open and spray words all over the wall if I don’t open the valve of my fingers and release the words into and through my keyboard. Still, I have better reasons than this.
Another of my reasons is to break down certain barriers between me and the people I serve. It’s far too easy for the relationship between the pastor and the parishioners to become sterile, almost hygienically distant, especially if the parishioner is relatively uninvolved. Folks know I’m married. They know I have children. They know my style of preaching and teaching. They know lots of different things about me. However, it’s one thing to know about someone and something altogether different to be a part of that someone’s life. I write these things to welcome you in. When I become more open to you, revealing my real humanness—what marriage is like for me, what parenting is like for me, what happens to me during the week, the things I’m thinking about, the substance of things that make me smile, frown, laugh, or cry—the distance between us is bridged, even if only a little.
As I said, it’s one thing to know about someone. It’s something altogether different when you are introduced to that person and a friendship is allowed to bloom. Perhaps better, this can happen in spades when I unpack my own walk with the Lord in relation to all that is “me.” It steps past the casual conversation to the substance of a person and his or her role. In other words, you get a better sense of my integrity—that is, whether I, a man called to stand in the stead and by the command of Christ to administer Word and Sacrament, really believe what I’m preaching and teaching. By our time together here, my hope is you’ll get a better sense that I do.
Now, I sense two ways forward in this conversation. The first is the nagging urge to encourage you to give this same exercise a try in your own home. I’m not saying you need to write as much as I might, but what I am saying is to put something into words—a few sentences sharing a thought, concern, or something worth relaying in relation to your faith in Christ. Do it as regularly as possible for those closest to you. See what happens. My guess is that the results will be good.
The second is for me to continue doing the same with you right now. This morning I crossed paths with and was intrigued by the following quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
“Only he who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chants.”
Perhaps you already know Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor in Germany who participated in the Valkyrie plot to assassinate Hitler. The plot was eventually discovered, and Bonhoeffer was hung by the Nazis. Still, does the knowledge of these things serve to interpret Bonhoeffer’s words? Maybe a little. But we need more. And we get it, not only from his writings but from those who were closest to him. Eberhard Bethge, a friend to Bonhoeffer, helps us greatly:
“Bonhoeffer introduced us in 1935 to the problem of what we today call political resistance. The levels of confession and of resistance could no longer be kept neatly apart. The escalating persecution of the Jews generated an increasingly intolerable situation, especially for Bonhoeffer himself. We now realized that mere confession, no matter how courageous, inescapably meant complicity with the murderers, even though there would always be new acts of refusing to be co-opted and even though we would preach ‘Christ alone’ Sunday after Sunday. During the whole time the Nazi state never considered it necessary to prohibit such preaching. Why should it? Thus, we were approaching the borderline between confession and resistance; and if we did not cross this border, our confession was going to be no better than cooperation with the criminals. And so, it became clear where the problem lay for the Confessing Church: we were resisting by way of confession, but we were not confessing by way of resistance.”
Bethge points to something worth our consideration, in particular, the Nazi’s disinterest in tangling with churches that devoutly preached Christ and yet were hardly inclined to live as Christ’s people in the world around them. The Nazis saw no need for concern, knowing all too well that words without deeds remained a toothless beast, one leaving them to continue with their agenda unhindered.
I spoke at the beginning about bridging a particular gap between people. Bonhoeffer made it a point to highlight the strange dissonance that sometimes exists in the lives of Christians, revealing how the gap between what we believe and how we live so often needs to be bridged. This was clearly the case in Germany, and so he was right to do this. Plenty of pastors talked about Christ but did not introduce the people to what it means to be His follower. Of course, Bonhoeffer was more aggressive in his language, implying that one only has the right to sing along with the Church in faith when the fruits of that faith are being worked in the world beyond the Church’s doors. Again, it sounds harsh, but what he’s saying is that faith and works are never divided. In truth, he’s saying exactly what Saint James says in James 2:14-26. And if you take a moment with the text, you’ll notice James’ tenor of encouragement to grow in this behavior. When it comes to talking about this stuff—that is, the keeping of God’s Law as a fruit of faith—I like how Philip Melancthon describes it in Article IV of The Apology of the Augsburg Confession. Among many so many great portions there, he wrote rather crisply in lines 136 and 140-141:
“Therefore, we also hold that the keeping of the law should begin in us and increase more and more. But we mean to include both elements, namely, the inward spiritual impulses and the outward good works…. We teach, furthermore, not only how the law can be kept, but also that God is pleased when we keep it—not because we live up to it, but because we are in Christ…. So it is clear that we require good works. In fact, we add that it is impossible to separate faith from love for God, be it ever so small.”
Did you notice what Melancthon said at the beginning about “both elements”? What he meant by this was the bridging of the spiritual with the physical. Bonhoeffer called this being “fully human.” As a Christian, it translates into the understanding that both are in submission to Christ, and one cannot be in motion while leaving the other behind. They do—and must—go together.
You know as well as I do that the challenges before us are ever-increasing. In the middle of it all, not only is a right confession of Christ a necessity but so also is a willingness to be God’s people in a way that results in action. Rewording Bonhoeffer’s words, and as they meet with this generation, we might hear, “Only he who cries out for the unborn may sing Gregorian chants.”
My prayer for you today is that you’ll at least consider these things. I’m hoping you’ll know I’m your servant in all of it. I suppose lastly, I’m counting on you to know that together we can be God’s confessing people who act, having trust in one another, not only as members of a church but as members of Christ’s family.