Grace Doesn’t Make Sense

Philippians 1.1-11

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and the deacons. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and the praise of God. 

There’s no such thing as a solitary Christian.

The work of the church, that is the body of Christ, never takes place in a vacuum. It was, and always will be, rooted in community and carried out for the sake of community. 

At least, that’s the idea.

On January 30th, 1933, Adolf Hitler became the democratically elected chancellor of Germany and thus began the Third Reich. Germany, the land that produced the likes of Bach, Goethe, and Durer was now being led by a man who consorted with criminals and was often seen carrying around a dog whip in public. Hitler’s words and orations regularly incited violence from his crowds and Germany would never be the same.

Two days after Hitler was elected, a twenty-six year old theologian named Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave a radio address throughout the German nation. The speech was titled “The Younger Generation’s Altered Concept of Leadership.” The talk itself was highly philosophical, but it also specifically argued against the type of leadership that Hitler would use over the following twelve year, inevitably leading a nation and half the world into a nightmare of violence and misery.

However, before Bonhoeffer could finish, the radio signal was cut off.

Only two days after Hitler’s election, the Nazis were already suppressing the voice of one calling into question the powers and principalities made manifest in a nation.

Paul begins his letter to the church in Philippi with his standard, and yet magnificent, greeting: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Words, admittedly, that we throw around a lot in the church but contain multitudes. 

To begin with grace is a recognition that grace is Christ’s presence to all of us as a gift. It is God’s contradiction of sin and death, it is God’s contending against the powers and principalities of this life. For, grace is the opposite of how the world works.

Grace is unmerited and unearned favor. Which stands in contradiction with a people who live by merit and favor, by power and violence. 

The world says, “do this and do that.” Grace says, “It’s already done.”

The cross of Christ, hanging empty in the sky, is a stark declaration and reminder that God stands against sin, evil, and death. It is, problematic language not withstanding, God’s war on our behalf. Grace invades into existence not because we believed in God just enough, or because we said the right prayers, but simply because God is merciful.

And grace never stops coming. 

It marks the beginning of Paul’s letters, it is the thread that runs throughout every single correspondence, and it is the foundation upon which the church stands. Grace exists to deliver us from sin and death. It comes, that is, to deliver we sinners from what we really deserve. 

And we really don’t deserve it.

We are all highly susceptible to the powers and principalities of this life, the myriad ways that sins sinks us lower and lower into the pits of our own making. We all do things we know we shouldn’t and we all avoid doing things we know we should. One need only scroll through the likes of Twitter or Facebook for five minutes to be bombarded with our total depravity. 

But grace comes to bring mercy and life instead of condemnation and death.

That’s why grace is always unsettling and always new – it is completely contrary to just about everything else in this life.

According to the ways of the world, grace doesn’t make sense.

And it’s with grace that Paul begins his letter. Grace, that is, and peace.

Peace is a challenging word for the church because we can define it in all sorts of ways.

Is peace simply the absence of conflict?

Is peace possible only when we lay down our arms?

For Paul, peace means conflict with the world, even as peace with the world means conflict with God. Living in the light of God’s grace and peace will bring those who follow the Lord into contention with all that the world stands for. 

Peace is not sitting idly by hoping for the best, its not singing kumbaya by the father, its not a CocaCola advertisement.

The peace of God contains the wisdom to change what can be changed while refusing to accept the things that cannot be changed (contrary to the so-called “Serenity Prayer”).

God’s grace and peace put forth a radical retelling of the cosmos, and they cannot be stopped.

Things became very difficult for the young Dietrich Bonhoeffer after he made that first radio address. As Germany further descended into Fuhrer worship with the German church emphasizing the politics of a nation over and against the theology of scripture, Bonhoeffer struggled with what it meant to be faithful to the Lord. Eventually, he began training other pastors through an underground seminary where the chief message was to remain faithful to God even if it meant being at odds with your country. 

By 1940, Bonhoeffer was forbidden from speaking publicly and he had to regularly report his activities to the German police. Within a year he was no longer allowed to print or publish any of his writings. And on April 5th, 1943, ten years after his first radio address, Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Gestapo for his continual Anti-Nazi remarks and involvement with the Abwher’s plot to undermine Hitler.

For two years Bonhoeffer sat in prison and, strangely enough, sympathetic guards smuggled out his letters and papers that included his theological reflection in the midst of his imprisonment.

One might expect that Bonhoeffer would question his faith behind bars, or recant from his previous beliefs if it would mean his release. But most of his letters, though excluding the occasional complaint about his particular conditions, contain thoughts on the joy of discipleship even with its costs.

He wrote from shackles to a people immersed in the second World War of God’s unending grace, even while the world stood in contradiction.

Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, beginning with grace and peace, reveals the condition of his own condition: “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now… It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.”

Paul writes of joy from his own joyless location to a people who, apparently, felt no joy. Throughout his letter there are signs of anxiety from among the Philippians – they suffered for their convictions whether it meant Roman persecution or social hostility.

And yet Paul points them to the joy of the gospel in spite of whatever their hardships might be. 

But notice: He does so not as a denial of their present circumstances, not as a prosperity gospel in which things will get better if they just work harder. No, Paul writes about joy because, as disciples, they know God!

Its as if Paul is saying, “Look, I know it’s rough. But if all you ever do is look at your own failures or the failures of those around you, that’s all you will ever see. But here’s the Good News (the best news): no matter how bad your sins might be, no matter how trying your circumstances might be, God is greater than your sins and your suffering. So don’t put your hope in yourselves or the people around you. They might make some changes, but in the end God is greater. Despite all our failures and all our weaknesses, despite all our disappointments, God has already changed the world. Everything else is sinking sand.”

Though Bonhoeffer remained hopeful for the end of the War and his release from prison, he was condemned to death in April of 1945. He was killed by handing just two weeks before the US military liberated the camp where he was being held.

Shortly before his execution, Bonhoeffer concluded a worship service for his fellow inmates, and as he walked toward the waiting noose he said to another prisoner: “This is the end – for me the beginning of life.

Bonhoeffer and Paul’s joy in the midst of their own respective incarcerations is instructive for those of us who follow Christ today. Because whether in prison or in the courtroom, whether in chains or freedom, they both strived to do one thing above all else – share the Good News.

For, the Good News is that another one bound by shackles, God in the flesh, ridiculed, betrayed, and abandoned, marched to his own execution while carrying the instrument of his death. He hung from the cross for the world to see, and yet as he look out on the world he proclaimed forgiveness for a people underserving. 

His earthly life ended as it began – by, with, and through grace. 

Grace is a joy and it will forever stand as God’s defiant “Nevertheless!” to the powers and principalities of the world. And it cannot be stopped. 

The only thing we have to do is take Jesus at his word. 

And when we do that, when we put our trust in Jesus instead of ourselves and all of our schemes, then we are living in his grace.

And no matter what happens to us in the course of trusting – no matter how many waverings we have, no matter how many times we fail – we believe that Jesus, by his death and resurrection, has made it all right, all we have to do is say thank you and rest.

Because all that we have to show for ourselves is not much to begin with. And, contrary to how we would run the show, Jesus chooses not to condemn us whether are works are bad or good. 

Jesus is our grace.

And that makes all the difference. Amen. 

God Will Not Be Distracted

On Christmas Eve 1943 Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote to Eberhard and Renate Bethge (Renate was Bonhoffer’s niece and Eberhard was Bonhoeffer’s student at the underground seminary in Finkenwalde) about their imminent separation on account of the Second World War. That the letter was written while Bonhoeffer was incarcerated for “crimes against the state” and it was smuggled out by sympathetic guards makes it all the more poignant. 

I’ve come back to the letter on a number of occasions throughout my ministry, but it is hitting quite hard right now during a time when so many of us are separated from one another because of the pandemic. I yearn for the time that I can gather with the church on Sunday mornings for corporate worship, for backyard barbecues with neighbors, and chance interactions with strangers at the grocery store. But until such a time, Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on separation are a gift:

“First, nothing can make up for the absence of someone whom we love, and it would be wrong to try and find a substitute; we must simply hold out and see it through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time it is a great consolation, for the gap, as long as it remains unfilled, preserves the bonds between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap; he doesn’t fill it, but on the contrary, he keeps it empty and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain.

Secondly, the dearer and richer our memories, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude changes the pangs of memory into tranquil joy. The beauties of the past are borne, not as a thorn in the flesh, but as a precious gift in themselves. We must take care not to wallow in our memories or hands ourselves over to them, just as we do not gaze all the time at a valuable present, but only at special times, and apart from these keep it simply as a hidden treasure that is ours for certain. In this way the past gives us lasting joy and strength.

Thirdly, times of separation are not a total loss or unprofitable for our companionship, or at any rate they need not be so. In spite of all the difficulties that they bring, they can be the means of strengthening fellowship quite remarkably.

Fourthly, I’ve learnt here (prison) especially that the facts can always be mastered, and that difficulties are magnified out of all proportion simply by fear and anxiety. From the moment we wake until we fall asleep we must commend other people wholly and unreservedly to God and leave them in his hands, and transform our anxiety for them into prayers on their behalf: With sorrow and with grief… God will not be distracted.” (Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Letters & Papers From Prison [New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1972], 176-177.)

On The Perils Of Going With The Flow

Ephesians 6.10-20

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against the enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and have done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrow of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly as I must speak. 

A few weeks ago a young pastor got on the radio to address the nation. He offered a speech entitled, “The Younger Generation’s Altered Concept of Leadership.” Though most of the talk was highly philosophical and kind of dense, it also constructively argued against the type of leadership all too common these days. It boldly claimed that unless something changes, and changes soon, our nation will be lead in a nightmare of violence and misery.

The pastor said a true leader must know the limits of his or her authority. The good leader serves others and leads others to maturity. The leader puts the values of other first, like a good parent does with a child, wishing that child to someday be a worthy parent. 

The young preacher then said this type of leadership is better known as discipleship. Only when we see that leadership is a penultimate authority in the face of an ultimate, indescribable authority, in the face of the authority of God, then real leadership has been reached.

The pastor said, “All leaders are responsible before God.”

And right then, at that exact moment, the speech was cut off and the line held dead.

Authorities representing those in leadership found the words to be too controversial, and too critical, to allow it to continue. And so, the young pastor’s message on leadership was suppressed all under the auspices of control. 

Can you believe it? Someone was so afraid of that pastor’s words they yanked the power to the radio station just so the words would not hit more ears than they already did. Can you imagine the fear required to stop an address like that? Can you fathom the trouble the preacher got in for saying what was said?

Perhaps you can’t believe it. Maybe you’re thinking, “Surely in today’s world, no one would be so foolish to speak out against the governing authorities and the powers and principalities!” 

Or maybe you’re thinking that the freedom of speech we hold so dear in this country would prevent anyone from being cut off even if he or she was being hyper-critical of those in power.

If you’re thinking any of those things, you’re right. It didn’t happen. At least, in didn’t happen the way I described it…

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

On January 30th, 1933, Adolf Hitler became the democratically elected chancellor of Germany, and thus began what we call the Third Reich. Germany, the land that produced the likes of Bach, Goethe, and Durer was now being led by a man who consorted with criminals and was often seen carrying around a dog whip in public. Hitler was known for his ruthless uses of power for destructive purposes, his love of overwhelming propaganda, and his fear-mongering through scape-goating.

Not many of us today can remember what it was like when he ascended to power simply because we weren’t alive, but the world shuddered when his reign began.

Two days after he was elected by the people of Germany, a young pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave a radio address to the entire nation spelling out the dangers of worshipping a leader the way Christians were meant to worship the living God in Jesus Christ. He critiqued a people who were blind to the injustices around them already, and those surely to be committed, and called for Christians to stand firm against an idolatrous nation that would be marched to its doom.

And they pulled him off the radio before he could even finish.

Paul is quite clear in his letter to the church in Ephesus the the role of the Christian is the opposite of going with the flow. He calls for the church to stand, in faith, with all of the armor of God against the evils and injustices of the world made manifest in the powers and principalities. Stand your ground against enemies, rules, authorities, cosmic powers, and all spiritual forces of evil.

This is a call, here at the end of the letter, to be courageous with every fiber of our being regardless of the circumstances. Because standing up in our faith, not necessary for our faith but in our faith, for the vision of the kingdom of God made possible in Jesus Christ will make us unpopular, at least according to the terms and values of the world and culture around us. 

Going against the flow runs the risk of ridicule, if not worse, as we strive to be faithful people living in the community of faith.

Paul’s vision of a church that stands firm in its convictions about the first being last and last being first implies a willingness to debate, a willingness to listen, and a willingness to call into question the powers that be when their values stand in opposition to God’s. In this proclamation, God’s kingdom is the goal, while maintaining the basic principles of discipled living offered to us throughout the centuries.

Sadly, Christians like us are told all too often to just go with the flow, or to chill out, or to relax about everything under the sun. But Paul’s words beg us to reconsider our posture of passivity. 

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We are not merely sitting along for the ride while the world falls apart around us. 

We are bound to the created world around us even if we are no longer able to harmonize with it. 

We have a responsibility of standing up for those who can no longer stand, speaking up for those who no longer have a voice, and empowering those who have been disenfranchised.

And friends, this is not a popular thing to do! We would rather hear from St. Paul about how much easier our lives would be if we could just go with the flow, we’d like to read a passage about how much our lives are going to get better if we stick together, we want God to tell us that every little thing’s gonna be alright. 

Being a Christian isn’t popular, and it certainly isn’t easy.

Paul calls for us to put on the armor of God because we’re going to need it!

Some Christians, since the time of Jesus, have been willing to name the powers and principalities for what they were. They’ve stood firm, without fear, bearing the repercussions of their actions knowing full and well that God was with them regardless of the outcome. They knew the kingdom of God was more important than whatever their lives might be.

Things became quite difficult for young Dietrich Bonhoeffer after he made that first radio address. As Germany descended into Fuhrer-worship with the German church emphasizing politics more than theology, Bonhoeffer struggled with what it meant to be authentic to the Word of God as a pastor. 

With each passing day he saw the injustices and evil being perpetrated in the name of his beloved country to such a frightening degree that when he was once asked about his prayer life, he responded by saying, “If you want to know the truth, I pray for the defeat of my nation, for I believe that is the only way to pay for all the suffering which my country has caused in the world.”

By 1940, Bonhoeffer was forbidden to speak in any public forum and he was required to regularly report his whereabouts and activities to the police. The next year he was forbidden to print or publish any of his thoughts. And on April 5th, 1943, ten years after making his speech on the radio, Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Gestapo for his continual Anti-Nazi remarks. 

He went to prison for two years and was thankfully able to smuggle out letters filled with theological reflections to friends and family. And though he remained hopeful that the second World War would come to an end, and that he would be released, he was condemned to death just weeks before the camp where he was held was liberated.

Right before his execution, Bonhoeffer was allowed to preside over one final worship service and his last words to his fellow prisoners were: “This is the end – for me the beginning of life.”

Now, there is a strong temptation for any of us here to hear a story like the one about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and regard him as an exceptional example of what it means to be a disciple. We encounter the story of his firm standing with his faith and because it is such an extreme example we can appreciate it, but we cannot resonate with it.

And this makes sense considering the fact that it is extremely unlikely that any of us here will ever be silenced, or imprisoned, or murdered for our Christian commitment to going against the flow. And yet, Paul is bold enough to conclude this letter with a call to be strong in the Lord in the strength of his power.

We might not encounter a sweeping governmental and idolatrous disaster like the one in Nazi Germany, but we all know the slippery slope that begins when we worship those in power the way we are meant to worship God.

We might not have the opportunity, nor the desire, to speak to the entire nation about the evil in our midst, but we all know of particular ways that our voices can draw attention to injustices that are happening here in our community.

We might not be punished with jail time or threatened with death for calling the powers and principalities into question, but we can all imagine the stress and anxiety that would begin if we did so in small and tangible ways here and now.

Pain and suffering will always come when one prepares to engage with the things that really matter. That’s why we need the church community surrounding us, we need the armor of the Lord protecting us, and we need the voice of the Lord empowering us.

It can be a hard word to any of us who believe that we are a Christian nation, or that Christian values are normative here, but following Jesus actually implies a willingness to be counter-cultural. It means that what we stand firm in and for are not necessarily the same things that the culture around us stands in or for. 

I often joke that Jesus could use some better PR because the stuff the church has to offer doesn’t sell very well. We don’t have simple fixes and salves that make your life go back to normal, we don’t shuffle everyone in here just to pat ourselves on the back and go on our merry way. It should come as no surprise (the more we hear what Jesus had to say) that the once large crowds all but disappeared by the time Jesus was hanging on the cross.

All of this going against the flow isn’t something we’re naturally disposed to. It is so dissonant with much of what we’ve been taught about the ways the world works.

But the kingdom is not the same thing as the world. 

We do this difficult and challenging work not because it is easy or fun but simply because it is what God did for us! If God went with the flow, or just chilled out, we would still be left to our own devices, twiddling away the good gift of creation, still suffering under the reign of sin and death.

But God, in Christ, stood firm for something different. Wearing the armor of God Jesus mounted the hard wood of the cross with the divine declaration that the power of sin, and the empire of the powers and principalities, had come to an end. With a sure and firm foundation the Lord of lords inaugurated the beginning of a new time, one in which real power would be felt in weakness, where standing firm is worth the pain, and where life could be found in death. Amen.