3rd Sunday after the Epiphany
In C.S. Lewis’ book, Mere Christianity, made up of radio broadcasts he made during the years of World War II, Lewis discussed possible reasons why God appeared on earth in human flesh. “Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed (you might say landed in disguise) and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage…[but] why is God landing in this enemy-occupied world in disguise and starting a sort of secret society to undermine the devil? Why is He not landing in force?”
70, almost 80, years ago now, some Lutherans in Germany formed what was called the Confessing Church. They were opposed to the direction the Church in Germany was taking, enamored as it was by the seductive rhetoric of their Chancellor, Adolf Hitler. The Reich Kirche believed that the Holy Spirit was doing a new thing in Hitler. Herr Hitler was bringing new life to the nation, and he would lift the Church from her stodgy old ways and set her on a new path of influence and prosperity.
Not everyone agreed. 25 theology students and a headmaster gathered in the Pomeranian city of Finkenwald to form a seminary apart from the Nazified Reich Kirche. That headmaster was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He and his students recognized that their life together would be an act of resistance.
Bonhoeffer wrote a little book about their experience, called Life Together. It remains a book for our time, because we are plagued by a kind of laissez faire Christianity, like the German Reich Kirche, a Christianity which goes with whatever flow is flowing. Ours is a Christianity that lacks the camaraderie, the discipline which united Bonhoeffer’s Confessing Christians, a people who knew themselves to be living under a dark shadow.
We don’t have that mentality, so we Christians today do not gather late at night in basement rooms to study the Word of God. We don’t see ourselves as insurgents, planting the explosiveness of the Gospel at the weak points in the walls of materialism and secularism, to set free the captives within. Our eyes don’t meet on a public street like members of the resistance, who recognize the flame of eternal friendship, who speak without a word, “You and I will die for this cause and join hands in the resurrection.”
No, we don’t feel like a fifth column devoting our strength to the liberating cause of Christ, and therefore our life together is not so intense. In fact, too often, it’s kind of petty. The things that exercise us today, pro and con, are often incredibly petty! In fact, all of this WWII underground resistance language sounds over the top! Ah…but then the Confessing Christians in Germany had their heritage taken from them by the Nazis…we today are giving up our ancient Christian heritage by our own volition and neglect.
Still Bonhoeffer’s words about “life together” have the ring of authenticity for us when we read them. They were written at the brink of a great cataclysm, so his words have the sound of an otherworldly commitment that we may dream about, that we may even crave, but, sadly, only a very few actually pursue.
In 1939, before the world went crashing into war, Bonhoeffer wrote in that book, “Among earnest Christians in the Church today there is a growing desire to meet together with other Christians in the rest periods of their work for [a] common life under the Word. Congregational life is again being recognized by Christians today as the grace that it is…[for] the Christian life.”
Then Bonhoeffer comes to a very profound point, a point that lies buried under the overwhelming familiarity of this story in our Gospel Reading today. He writes, “If somebody asks a man, Where is your salvation, your righteousness? he can never point to himself. He points to the Word of God in Jesus Christ which assures him of salvation and righteousness. He is as alert as possible to this Word. Because he daily hungers and thirsts for righteousness, he daily desires the redeeming Word….
“But God has put this Word into the mouth of men in order that it may be communicated to other men. When one person is struck by the Word, he speaks it to others. God has willed that we should seek Him and find His living Word in the witness of a brother, in the mouth of [another human being]. Therefore, a Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without [betraying] the truth. He needs his brother as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine Word of salvation. He needs his brother solely because of Jesus Christ. The Christ in his own heart is [far] weaker than the Christ in the Word [spoken by] his brother….” This is what Jesus is getting at when He calls the disciples to be “fishers of men.”
Now, if you have read the Gospel of St. Mark, you know that the group Jesus gathers around Him never turns into a disciplined commando unit. St. Mark is rather unkind toward the disciples, and words like “stumble” and “bumble” seem tailor-made for them in his Gospel. Even at the end, on that Passover night when Jesus tries to explain to them what is coming, and everything suddenly seems to spin out of control, they remain what they are—fishermen, a tax collector and the like—and they run away rather than face the Gestapo that comes by night to arrest Jesus.
And here is why we too are always tempted to think that the “real action” happens in some other way than Christ and His Word. Like those German Christians of the Reich Kirche back in the 1930s, we believe that God’s glory and the ways of the Word in which Jesus operates cannot be all that there is. There’s got to be something…something more, something more eye-opening, more powerful, more passionate, more bold, more innovative, more entertaining, more anything than the Word of God…if only an entrepreneur, if only der Führer would show us!
But no…Jesus sets the Word of His kingdom in the ordinary things that make up daily life, like fishermen and their nets. He goes among the people as the Word made flesh in their everyday lives. He dines with high and low. He lives and works and travels and laughs and cries with them in the sheer ordinariness of their lives…and He dies among them.
In our lives, our ordinary lives—lives that ensure there’s food in the refrigerator, that we get to work on time, that our kids finish their homework, that we find fulfilling ways to pass our time, that we just plain make it through this life. The ordinary things. What Jesus’ call to follow means is that we are to explore where His kingdom Word is breaking through, like a saboteur, into our daily lives and to point it out…if only to ourselves, as also to others.
But…to answer that call, as Peter & Company did—walking through life really looking for the extraordinary Christ in every ordinary moment—ah, that takes a lot more guts than you think. Think of what it came to mean for those first disciples in all their fear and wonder. Imagine what it meant for Herr Pastor Bonhoeffer and his students under the cruel gaze of the Nazis.
And for Peter, James and John, things would get a whole lot worse before they would see Jesus’ Resurrection. There would be storms on the Sea and storms with the Pharisees and storms among the crowds of the here-today-gone-tomorrow followers…and there would be that crucifixion.
Through all of it they learned what Jesus meant by “Follow Me” …as did Herr Pastor Bonhoeffer and his Confessing Christians also learn by their woes with the Nazis. “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.”
And for us…well, between the Mayans and the politicians who knows how this year will come to an end…with a bang or with a whimper?! Yet to live an ordinary human life with God’s hope right in the midst of it. To find reasons to do what we can in Christ’s name, wherever we are, rather than pile up reasons for all that we cannot do because of the present circumstances…
Can we answer the courage, the faith of the disciples who have gone before us with faith and courage of our own? Can we speak and listen to the Word of Christ with one another, look into the face of each other and see the face of Jesus Christ? Can we be His Word made flesh among us? Can we be “fishers of men”?
Can we say in the midst of ordinary days, that if there has been a divine invasion, if there is indeed an insurgency at work by the presence of Christ and His Word, that it is also occurring here, now with us? Can we, at least, admit on the basis of this Gospel Reading that this is what God wants? “Come,” Jesus said, “follow Me!”