Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice. Amen.
In April 1933, German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer first argued that National Socialism and Christianity were incompatible, going so far as to share his sympathy for Jewish victims under the Nazis. For a Protestant of his time, this was an unpopular stance.
Of the 60 million people living in Germany in 1933, roughly 40 million were Protestant, with the majority identifying with the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Preceding this time, members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church had long considered themselves a pillar of German culture and society. They loved the nation that God had given them and all that it stood for. In fact, a group of them went so far as to call themselves “German Christians,” not unlike those who might call themselves “American Christians.”
As pillars of society and culture, German Christians went along with the national trends of the day. When Nazis were voted into power, the German Christians quickly adopted their beliefs. They felt that it was their civic duty to comply with the Nazis’ platform to “exclude all those deemed impure and embrace all ‘true Germans’ in a spiritual homeland for the Third Reich.”
To live into their German-Christian identity under the Third Reich, the government urged all Protestants churches to unite under one national church, which was to be led by a Nazi leader. No longer would Protestants be identified as Lutheran, Reformed, or Church of Christ, but as one national German Evangelical Church. And, instead of identifying people by their religious affiliation, as was done in the past, people within the church were now to be categorized by their racial heritage.
In 1934, just a year after Bonhoeffer spoke out against the Nazis, the government told the German Evangelical Church to rid itself of all “Jewish influence.” The church compliantly rooted out all clergy with Jewish heritage and, under direct Nazi instruction, considered removing the Hebrew Scriptures from all Bibles, and read the New Testament through an anti-Semitic lens. The gospel we heard this morning was commonly misinterpreted to pin Christ’s death on “the Jews” as opposed to all of humankind, as a way to further inflame antisemitic sentiment.
In opposition to such developments, a group of Protestants formed the “Confessing Church” – with Dietrich Bonhoeffer as one of its leaders. The founding document of the Confessing Church, authored by Karl Barth, was called the Barmen Confession of Faith. This short, evangelical-leaning, six-article declaration of faith affirmed the Confessing Church’s primary identity in Jesus Christ, who is the church’s head, and reoriented the church’s relationship to the state. Article 3 named Jesus, not the state, as the true head of the church, and reads:
We reject the false doctrine that the Church could have permission to hand over the form of its message and of its order to whatever it itself might wish or to the vicissitudes of the prevailing ideological and political convictions of the day. Barmen Declaration of Faith, Article 3
The Barmen Declaration of Faith and the Confessing Church served as course-correctors to a church led astray from her true identity.
The challenge of preserving the church’s true identity—keeping Jesus, not the state, or any cultural trend or celebrity, as head – is not a new challenge to the church. History repeats itself. The church has long experienced both successes and failures on this front.
When the book of Revelation was first drafted, the church was similarly struggling to preserve her identity. The book of Revelation is a letter written by John of Patmos (different from the John who authored the gospel of John) to seven churches in Asia. This letter was written during the time of persecution by the Roman Empire. Under Emperor Domitian, all subjects were required to pledge allegiance to the Roman Emperor. Failure to do so meant death by state execution. Unlike the German Evangelical Church, which capitulated to the state, Christians living under Emperor Domitian in AD 90 refused to pledge their allegiance to the emperor. For these Christians, Jesus was their true head, their true king – an allegiance they would maintain even unto their death.
In John’s letter, he encourages the churches undergoing persecution to stand firm in the faith and to remain faithful to the One who has eternal sovereignty, who is “the ruler of the kings of the earth.”
Despite their present suffering under the hands of an unjust ruler, they were to stay faithful to their true king, Jesus, who, as the Alpha and Omega, the King of kings, and the Lord of lords, would have the final judgment at His second coming. They were to remain faithful like the Israelites in the book of Daniel, remembering that His “kingship is one that shall never be destroyed” and his dominion “shall not pass away.” They were to remember that while the Roman Empire could kill their bodies, it could not harm their souls.
They were to stay loyal to a King whose power was shown not through domination, but through self-giving. Who “had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” (Isaiah 53:2). They were to stay faithful to Jesus whose kingship subverted imperial leadership, and whose life and death offered a better way.
These early Christians were to remember Jesus’ words to Pilate: that his “kingdom is not from this world.” That his kingdom was not to be found in the places that the empire would expect – the halls of power, fancy buildings, displays of military might, expanded borders, or great walls of self-preservation – but, instead, in and among his followers. Jesus made his people to be his kingdom, priests serving his God and Father. His kingdom, his followers were to be found among the poor and the poor in spirit, widows, orphans, children, any and all who would follow him. This king Jesus and his kingdom looked markedly different from the kingdoms of the world, and most especially the Roman Empire.
On the Sunday before Advent, we celebrate the feast of Christ the King. In a way, Christ the King Sunday serves as a checkpoint to the season of Advent. As we prepare to wait for the coming of the infant Christ and for Christ’s second coming, we are invited to take stock for whom we will wait to receive again. Christ the King Sunday reminds us that the One for whom we wait is our King. He is the source of our identity as individuals and as a church.
During this time of transition, as we get back in touch with our church’s identity, may we remember that our identity is first, foremost, and finally in Jesus. May we remember the words of John in the book of Revelation, that Jesus has made us to be a kingdom. That we, the body of Christ, are the church.
Let us not, on the final analysis, find our identity in anything else. Not in our colonial history, as much as I admire it. Nor in 9 buildings, 45+ acres of land, preschool, thriving ministries, staff … or may I add our budget and endowment. Yes, of course, all of these bits make up part of who we are at this particular church in this particular time and place – but they cannot, should not, do not ultimately define who we are. We, the people, are the church. We the people of St. Thomas’ Church are God’s kingdom.
And as followers of Christ, our ultimate allegiance and identity is found in Jesus. Yes, we may have different loyalties when it comes to the partisan politics of our day, we may forever bleed red or blue – or perhaps we have a strong national identity, or commitment to the Episcopal Church. This is all well and good. But these are not the sources that ultimately define us as a church, as part of the Jesus movement. These are not the sources that ultimately lead us as a church. We belong, in the end, all and only to Christ the King.
It is through the waters of baptism that we are made part of Christ’s kingdom, indeed Christ’s very body. We are incorporated into a body, a kingdom that is not contained within buildings or borders but extends throughout time and history, creed and country, race and ethnicity.
As we reconnect to our past and reestablish our identity as a congregation, may we remember the witness of the church in the past in all her successes and failures. May we be like those course-correcting witnesses such as Bonhoeffer and the Barmen Declaration of Faith when the church goes astray. May we have the steadfast faith of the first-century martyrs. And may we, always, worship Christ our King.