Sermon for Trinity 2 – June 21, 2020
When I was a teenager, there was a phrase we heard a lot in youth-oriented church ministries: being “on fire for Christ.” Being on fire for Christ meant going to youth group every Friday, and showing up for Sunday School every week at 10 am. It meant going to the various youth retreat weekends on offer throughout the year, and going to Bible camp in the summers. It meant signing up for short-term missions. Being on fire for Christ meant going to the front of the church when the worship band was playing to sing and dance, raise your hands and speak in tongues. Being on fire for Christ meant going back from these mountaintop experiences to your school and telling your classmates about how cool God is, and how cool you were by association. Being on fire for Christ meant being fearless. You couldn’t care if anyone was looking at you, or talking about you. But that’s easy, right? What teenager cares about those things anyway?
When I was a teenager I wanted to be “on fire for Christ,” insomuch as I wanted to fit in with those kids at youth group and retreats and summer camp. Which is the actual, lived experience of all teenagers. As far as my actual, lived-in relationship with God during those years, what I really wanted was something a bit more nuanced, and something a bit more honest.
Because when I was honest with myself, what I was as a teenager, was scared. I didn’t want anyone looking at me, or talking about me. I just wanted to get through and get out! And I wanted God to help me with that. I wanted Him to help me with that by not asking me to start a prayer group at lunch in the school cafeteria.
I think, no, I know, that there are lots of people for whom the concept of being on fire for Christ is a rich and meaningful expression of their experience of being a disciple of Jesus. It just wasn’t for me. But there was another expression of discipleship I encountered as a teenager which has had a much bigger impact on my life.
I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I read Corrie ten Boom’s memoir “The Hiding Place.” There was a period when I read a number of accounts from World War II and the concentration camps; Anne Frank’s diary, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and Papers from Prison,” Elie Wiesel’s “Night.” But Corrie ten Boom and her sister Betsie have remained lodged in my imagination in a particular way.
For those unfamiliar with the story, Corrie ten Boom belonged to a family of watchmakers in the Netherlands. She and her parents, her brother and sisters were all devout Calvinist Christians in the Dutch Reformed Church. Before the war, their home was a hub of their community. Corrie and her older sister Betsie ran a church group for developmentally disabled people, and another for teenage girls.
When the war started and Holland was invaded, the whole family joined the Dutch resistance, and they began hiding Jews, students, and others who ran afoul of the Nazis. They were betrayed to the Gestapo by one of their neighbours in 1944, and the whole family was sent to prison. Their father, who was 84 at the time, died within weeks of their arrest, and Corrie and Betsie were sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp near Berlin.
Corrie struggled with all that had happened to their family, and with the cruelty and sadism they encountered in Ravensbrück. Everything they had done, the resistance, hiding Jews from the Nazis, had been done in God’s name and because of their faith. And how had God repaid them? By sending them into hell on earth. But Betsie, though frailer in body than her sister, was strong in spirit, and in Corrie’s account, Betsie never wavered in her belief that God’s purposes for them were good, and that there was work for them to do for his kingdom even in such a place. The sisters continued to preach the gospel at every opportunity, to the other prisoners, and to the guards and prison officials as well.
There is one scene in “The Hiding Place” which seems to me to be emblematic of the faith of the ten Boom sisters and their conception of Christian discipleship. As the winter of 1944 grew deeper and Betsie’s health grew frailer, Corrie describes the tests of endurance the prisoners faced:
“Though Betsie was now spared heavy outdoor labor, she still had to stand the twice-daily roll call. As December temperatures fell, the roll calls became true endurance tests and many did not survive. One dark morning when ice was forming a halo around each street lamp, a feeble-minded girl two rows ahead of us suddenly soiled herself. A guard rushed at her, swinging her thick leather crop while the girl shrieked in pain and terror. It was always more terrible when one of these innocent ones was beaten. Still the Aufseherin continued to whip her. It was the guard we had nicknamed “The Snake” because of the shiny dress she wore. I could see it now beneath her long wool cape, glittering in the light of the lamp as she raised her arm. I was grateful when the screaming girl at last lay still on the cinder street.
“Betsie,” I whispered when The Snake was far enough away, “what can we do for these people? Afterward I mean. Can’t we make a home for them and care for them and love them?”
“Corrie, I pray every day that we will be allowed to do this! To show them that love is greater!”
And it wasn’t until I was gathering twigs later in the morning that I realized that I had been thinking of the feeble-minded, and Betsie of their persecutors.”
I wondered at 16, and I wonder still, what I would do in such a situation? If I were made to endure the worst that humans deal out to one another, would I pray for my enemies and mean it? Would I give thanks for the fleas infesting my mattress, as Betsie ten Boom did, only to find out later that the fleas kept the guards out of the dormitory, leaving her free to preach the gospel to the other prisoners?
What does it mean to be a disciple of Christ in any and all circumstances? Indeed, without regard for circumstances at all? I mean, look at the list of things Jesus says happens to disciples of his in today’s Gospel lesson:
A list of what happens to disciples – Matthew 10
- If people call Jesus, the head of our household, Beelzebul, or the prince of demons, you should expect to be called worse. I.e., if they have no respect for the Son of God, they really won’t have any for you.
- Don’t be afraid of bullies who can harm only your physical body. I.e., there are people out there who will hurt you for expressing and acting on your faith in God. Do it anyway.
- God knows when sparrows fall, even though they are not highly valued. You are highly valued, so how much more can you expect God to notice when you fall. Please note that God doesn’t prevent the sparrows from falling.
- If you acknowledge Jesus before the world, he will acknowledge you before God. But not vice versa.
- Being a disciple means loving Jesus more than you love your family. And it may mean making hard choices when it comes to your family. We want comfort and safety and protection for our families. But as we’ve just established in points 1 to 4, being a disciple requires letting go of all those things. It’s not unreasonable to think this might lead to conflict.
- If you try to hang onto your life, you’ll lose it. But if you give it up willingly, Jesus will give it back to you.
This is not the picture of a quiet, stress-free life. When you follow the footsteps of a man whose life led straight to being nailed to a cross, quiet and stress-free aren’t really on the table.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is another of God’s World War II martyrs. He wrote in his book “The Cost of Discipleship” about this passage in Matthew 10:
“The time is short. Eternity is long. It is the time of decision. Those who are true to the word and confession on earth will find Jesus Christ standing by their side in the hour of judgement. He will acknowledge them and come to their aid when the accuser demands his rights. All the world will be called to witness as Jesus pronounces our name before his heavenly Father. If we have been true to Jesus in this life, he will be true to us in eternity. But if we have been ashamed of our Lord and of his name, he will likewise be ashamed of us and deny us.
The final decision must be made while we are still on earth. The peace of Jesus is the cross. But the cross is the sword God wields on earth. It is hardly surprising that the harbinger of God’s love has been accused of hatred of the human race. Who has a right to speak thus of love for father and mother, for son and daughter, but the destroyer of all human life on the one hand, of the Creator of a new life on the other? Who dare lay such an exclusive claim to man’s love and devotion, but the enemy of mankind on the one hand, and the Saviour of mankind on the other? Who but the devil, or Christ, the Prince of Peace, will carry the sword into men’s houses? God’s love for man is altogether different from the love of men for their own flesh and blood. God’s love for man means the cross and the way of discipleship. But that cross and that way are both life and resurrection. ‘He that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.’ In this promise we hear the voice of him who holds the keys of death, the Son of God, who goes to the cross and the resurrection, and with him takes his own.”
Jesus says all of these things to his disciples as he prepares them to go out on their own to preach the good news. On the one hand, he gives them incredible power over diseases and demons, to heal and to cast out. On the other hand, he sends them out without money or even a change of clothes. They must be utterly dependent on God to put people in their path whom they can minister to, but who in turn will minister to them by taking care of their basic physical needs. This is the hard path of discipleship.
As Bonhoeffer said, time is short. Eternity is long. The final decision must be made while we are still on earth. Will you commit to the path of discipleship, knowing what lies ahead? Because in spite of the difficulty Jesus warns about, what, ultimately does he tell his disciples? Do not be afraid. The path of discipleship may be difficult, but remember the reward. “Whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” Amen.