(1 Peter 2: 11-17)
So tell me what you believe.
Ever get asked that? I imagine you have, a time or two. I know you get asked it at least once a week in Sunday worship, leading into our Affirmation of Faith: What do we believe, Grace and I ask. And together we respond, as we will later this morning.
But I’m betting you’re asked it other times as well. When our confirmands join the church, they’re asked: what do you believe? Maybe in a hearty Sunday school discussion or Bible study: what do you believe? Perhaps we’re having a conversation with our neighbor and encounter one of those rare moments when the unstated ban on religion and politics is temporarily lifted: what do you believe? Or maybe some tragedy happens, as one did this past week in Nice, France; and we’re led to think about the bigger things for a spell: what do you believe?
It’s a loaded question. Because what we believe matters. What we believe informs what we value, what we cherish and hold dear. What we believe has a direct impact on the impact we make, or don’t make, with the life we’ve been given.
Last week, Grace and I began a sermon series titled “What We Believe” – “we” being us Presbyterians. We’re looking at five of the now-twelve confessions in our denomination’s Book of Confession. And as we do this, I fully acknowledge that the idea of a sermon series based on the Book of Confessions – in the middle of summer, nonetheless – sounds about as appealing as going on a six-mile run in the middle of a scorching July day with 90% humidity – in other words, any day this past week. UGH. If a “sexy sermon series” could actually be a thing, a “Book of Confessions” sermon series would seemingly be the furthest from that.
But here’s the thing about these confessions that we may not initially realize. They are not just a bunch of fancy words created in a vacuum by random people who couldn’t find anything better to do. Each of these confessions were birthed out of particular circumstances in the church’s history, moments when the church found itself at a crossroads – when something was taking place in the world around it and the church needed to speak out and speak up. To clarify where it stood in that crossroads, what it was in favor of and what it was opposed to. To state plainly and without hesitation what it believed and how that belief informed what it would then do.
Last week we looked at two confessions – the Confession of 1967 and the Confession of Belhar – that helped give voice to us in light of the horrific week of shootings that took the life of two African-American men and five white police officers. Today we look at a confession created nearly a hundred years ago in a small town in northwestern Germany. On the surface, the nearly-2000 words of the Theological Declaration of Barmen appears to be about little more than two core tenets of our Reformed tradition: solus Christus – Christ alone – and sola scriptura – Scripture alone. Important stuff for sure.
But there is, of course, more to this confession than just that. A lot more.
The year was 1933. The place, Germany. Still suffering from the aftermath of the first World War, a certain man named Adolph Hitler was appointed Chancellor. Within just a few months some alarming changes began to take place. Now history has well documented these changes – the adoption of the “Fuhrer Principle,” where Hitler was revered as the final and ultimate authority, where one race was elevated above all others, and most disconcerting, where one group of people were cast as scapegoat for the nation’s ills.
What may not be as well-known was the church’s role in this. Known as the “German Christians,” this movement held a national convention mere months after Hitler’s rise to power and pledged to reorganize into a single, national church. Moreover, they expressed full-fledged support for a church rooted in German nationhood based on an Aryan model. Hitler was viewed not just as authority over the state but “lord” over the German church, which now understood Christ and Christianity as uniquely Aryan. Proclaimed one German Christian document, “God has manifested himself not in Jesus Christ but in Adolf Hitler.”
With frightening ease, the vast majority of German churches succumbed to these pressures and embraced them willingly. It received support of noted scholars such as theologian Reinhold Seeburg and philosopher Martin Heidegger.
But other Christians in Germany, what would become known as the “Confessing Church,” openly opposed this encroachment of Nazi ideology onto the body of Christ. And roughly a year later, over a hundred of them gathered in the small town of Barmen to adopt a declaration drafted by Reformed theologian Karl Barth, which expressly repudiated the claim that other powers apart from Christ could be sources of God’s revelation. It never mentions Hitler, Nazi Germany, or Third Reich by name. But it obviously speaks against these, and speaks for Christ as the head of the church and the rightful focus of Christian allegiance.
And in one notable section of the declaration, near its end, the authors quote our scripture reading today from First Peter. Like their German brothers and sisters, the writer of this letter found himself him a “strange and foreign land” in late first-century Asia Minor. He and the Christian community he was writing to were, in essence, spiritual and social exiles. They were marginalized people living at the edges of power and prestige; a context that would have answered the “what you believe” question quite differently. 1 Peter is the writer’s attempt to help good Christians also be good citizens – in fact, making the case that being a good citizen in a society opposed to Christian tenets is in fact a faithful witness to the Christ they believe in.
But there are limits to this. It’s the 17th verse that the Theological Declaration of Barmen quotes, rendered more fully in this way:
Show proper respect to everyone,
Love the family of believers,
Honor the emperor.
Did you notice the structure of those words? Four brief statements: the first and last pertaining to the world outside the church’s doors; the middle two focusing on fellow brothers and sisters in Christ and Christ himself. And not only that, but the language difference between the two. The Greek verb used for the world-at large, “timao,” meaning to respect and hold in high regard. But the verbs in the middle are much more intimate: Love your fellow believers. Love the Lord.
First Peter’s message makes clear that the Christian community is called to interact and engage in the larger world, even and especially a world that does not conform to or even acknowledge Christian norms. But in no way should the church ever succumb to that world or confuse respect and honor with love. We are called to live fully in our world – to vote, to run for city council, to join the school PTA. We are called to respect our elected leaders, even if we disagree with them. But First Peter is clear on where our ultimate devotion and allegiance lies – with the God who created us and loves us still and not with human-made institutions and structures, or humankind itself.
It is no surprise, then, that Barth and his Confessing Church colleagues would incorporate this verse into their declaration, saying this:
Scripture tells us that, in the as yet unredeemed world in which Church also exists, the State has by divine appointment the task of providing for justice and peace. The Church acknowledges the benefit of this divine appointment in gratitude and reverence before him.
We reject the false doctrine, as though the State, over and beyond its special commision, should and could become the single and totalitarian order of human life, thus fulfilling the Church’s vocation as well.
In other words, Third Reich: hands off the church!
It was a bold statement back then. It cost some members of the Confessing Church their freedom, even their life. And yet later, some of its writers would later lament that it wasn’t strong enough – that they didn’t specifically name Hitler, Nazi Germany, Third Reich. That they didn’t do more to stand in opposition to the horrific and devastating effects of that evil.
And us? What does this confession, penned nearly a century ago, say to us today?
Sisters and brothers, we live in strange, strange times. We live in a politically volatile and polarized reality, the likes of which people who study this stuff readily concede we’ve not seen in recent memory. This summer finds us in an unsettling in-between time – ahead of us, an acrimonious election season comprised of two highly-disliked and some would say inherently flawed presidential candidates; and in our rear-view mirror the sobering aftermath of an isolationist philosophy as evidenced by England’s recent Brexit vote.
You throw on top of that the shootings in Louisiana, Minnesota and Dallas a couple of weeks ago; and the horrific mass murder this past week in France, and put simply, we live in a time of fear. Fear of what, you ask? Fear of those we do not know. Fear of those who think, live, look, believe differently than we do. Fear of where the next terrorist attack will happen; where the next mass gun shooting will occur. Fear of an economy teetering on the brink of collapse, one catastrophic event away. Fear of all those things out of our control, beyond number.
It was fear that lay at the very heart of the rise of Nazi Germany and the church’s complicity and furthering of that rise. And it is fear that undergirds much of our current political, cultural and religious dialogue. And like Barth and the Theological Declaration of Barmen he and a hundred Christians once authored, we in our day and time must bring to light all those fears and openly name them – in the same way the late preacher and Harvard professor Peter Gomes chose to speak it:
Fear represents the absence of courage and a poverty of imagination. To be defined by our fears is to accept as normal the lowest possible level of emotional intelligence.
And when this happens, and when we in the church find ourselves ruled by fears and not the hope and saving grace of the gospel, we are not at our best as a church or a society. We not only allow demagogues and narcissists to assume positions of power and influence, but we, against our better judgment in less-fearful times, cede authority to them. That is how things like the Holocaust happen; that is how a candidate for president can run on a platform of wall-building and religion-banning; that is how the voice of reason in gun legislation gets trumped by the unreasonable voice of gun escalation; that is how the stains of racism our country supposedly once dealt with continue to haunt us in ugly and violent ways.
And unless we speak up, unless we speak the truth in love together as the Church, we come to see the hard truth as voiced famously by German pastor Martin Niemoller:
First they came for the Socialists – and I did not speak out, because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists – and I did not speak out, because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews – and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”
So what is the church’s response – for the writer of First Peter, for the Confessing Church movement, for the church of today? How can the church speak over and above the fear that lies at the heart of our societal dysfunction? Listen to where Gomes picks up:
The opposite of fear is compassion. We fear what we do not know, and the mother of fear is ignorance. Compassion, however, leaves no room for fear, for we are too busy doing what we can, what we must, and what God wishes us to do, to take time to fear the consequences. Compassion has to do with the exercise of that inner strength that allows us power in the face of powerlessness and of the powers-that-be.
Compassion. Compassion is what keeps our ultimate allegiance in check. Compassion is what enables us to respect our leaders and love our God, and not get the two mixed up. Compassion is what calls us to speak the truth in love when we see instances where that line is crossed, so that, like the Barmen Declaration of nearly a century ago, the voice of the gospel and God’s ever-present love are proclaimed and heard not just inside the walls of the church, but down our streets, in the marketplace, on Wall Street, in capitol buildings and legislative halls, and throughout our world.
Just two weeks ago we lost Elie Wiesel – Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate, and also one who campaigned actively on behalf of victims of oppression in South Africa and Nicaragua and Sudan. It was Wiesel who once said: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.
Sisters and brothers, may we never be silent when it come to proclaiming who our God is and where our ultimate allegiance lies. May we not just believe in the power of compassion over fear, but live into that compassion every day of our lives. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_Faith_Movement, visited on 7.5.2016.
 http://groups.csail.mit.edu/medg/people/doyle/personal/enters/hermann/declaration.html, visited on 7.3.2016.
 Peter Gomes, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good About The Good News? (New York: Harpercollins, 2007), 106.
 https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007392, visited 7.3.2016
 Gomes, 107.
 http://www.wisdomquotes.com/quote/elie-wiesel-7.html, visited 7.3.2016