Jeremiah 31: 31-34
John 12: 20-33
“We want to see Jesus.” That is the request made to Philip by some Greeks, who had come to the festival. They were Greeks, not Jews, and John’s gospel is very specific about that identity. The Greeks, of course, were known for their tradition of seeking wisdom, a tradition that had not only produced the philosophies of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, but also the great tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripedes. The Greeks had produced giants, and there is no doubt that western civilization stands on their shoulders. And yet with all that wisdom at their disposal, the Greeks came to see Jesus. They were looking for something more.
Now seeing Jesus in John means more than mere eyesight. To see Jesus means to know the truth deeply, to follow the one who promises full and abundant life. Alas, many came to see Jesus, but failed to see him. And let’s face it, that is our struggle as well. We see Jesus through the stories we know so well, and we catch glimpses of him as we live out our faith in small and even large ways. And because we realize that seeing Jesus is not always so easy, we come to church to hear and ponder his lessons in the hope and faith that we really will see Jesus---although there may be times in our lives when Jesus seems hidden or obscured. At times we may not be so sure exactly what or whom we are seeing.
There was such a time in my life when Jesus was overshadowed by a whole lot of questions that I could not answer. Oh, I had been raised in the church from the time I was a little girl, and I always loved the stories of Jesus, and even when I went off to college and read the great atheists like Fuerbach, Marx and Freud, I was remained impressed by Jesus. To me he was a great moral teacher, a spiritual genius, but, though I admired him, I no longer saw him as savior and redeemer. Yet I was curious about Jesus, very curious, and there are times in our lives when curiosity can lead us to places we never thought we would go. And so I enrolled in a course at Harvard University, taught by Harvey Cox, who then was probably at the height of his reputation, known by many outside the theological circle for his book, The Secular City. Today I cannot tell you what the name of the course was, or what books we read. What I do remember is one particular lecture and a story about the Lutheran theologian, pastor and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
I did not know who Dietrich Bonhoeffer was, and perhaps some of you do not know, but he is certainly one of the 20th century’s heroes of the Christian faith. Having grown up in an aristocratic and highly educated family, he shocked his parents when he told them he was interested in studying theology. The family, after all, was not at all religious. His father was a psychiatrist and professor; his brothers studied law and science, but his parents believed strongly that their children should follow their interests, and although they had strong misgivings about the church, they encouraged their son. And so Bonhoeffer studied theology, wrote two doctoral dissertations, and undoubtedly would have had a brilliant academic career---had the war not come.
Germany had a state church, and when Hitler came to power, all Lutheran clergy, whose paychecks were signed by the state, were required to take an oath of loyalty to Hitler. Many, of course, did so willingly, while others signed with great misgivings, and still there were those who would not sign at all. Bonhoeffer not only refused to sign, he also helped to establish a resistance seminary at which he taught until it was closed down by the Gestapo in 1937. Considering the taking of the oath to be an act of heresy, Bonhoefer insisted there is only one head of the church and that is Jesus Christ. There can be no pledge of absolute loyalty to anyone or anything except Christ. As a committed pacifist, he argued that the duty of the church is to stand with the victims, to work and pray for peace, and to love the neighbor as well as the enemy.
By 1941 Bonhoeffer had joined the anti-Nazi movement through the German military intelligence, which was seeking to overthrow Hitler. At first he did no more than bring messages back and forth between Germany and England. But finally, all participants---even those like Bonhoeffer, whose role was not directly violent---were asked to agree that if the opportunity should come, they would be willing to end Hitler’s life. Now this constituted a terrible religious crisis for Bonhoeffer, who did not believe God ever commanded murder or assassination, not even the murder of a murderer. He despised what Hitler represented, but he also believed that Hitler was loved by God. He did not know what he should do, and all his prayers brought him no resolution.
On one cold afternoon in 1943 the conspirators met in a tiny room. All stood in a circle, while a gun was passed around, and if you could accept the gun, you were in the plot. If not, you were out. “There is no shame here,” one of the men said. “There are deeply religious men among us whose consciences may not permit their participation in assassination.” Bonhoeffer stood in the circle and watched as the gun made its way toward him. One man took it; then the next and the next; someone stepped out, and the gun traveled to the next man. Soon it will come to me, Bonhoeffer thought, and still I do not know what I will do, what I must do, what it is God would have me do. When the gun came to him, he put out his hand and took it. “God,” he prayed, “if this is your will I need your mercy. If this is not your will, I need your mercy. Every moment of my life, I need your mercy.”
To this day I can still remember Harvey Cox, standing there, his voice quivering with emotion. When he had finished the sentence, “Every moment of my life, I need your mercy,” he was silent for what seemed like an eternity. And the class was silent too. What can be said after that, and I have no idea what was said. I cannot remember a thing, except my own feeling of deep gratitude that there had been someone who had lived on this earth during such a terrible time, a time, when millions were being slaughtered, a time one could legitimately ask, Where is God? What is God doing amidst this horror? And here was one who answered not by seeking certitude, but by asking for mercy. I was barely 25 years old, and I was struck to the very core of my soul. Bonhoeffer showed me a new way of seeing Jesus.
We live in an age, where certitude is often embraced as strength and ambiguity and uncertainty are dismissed as the tools of the weak and confused. The common wisdom is that uncertainty and ambiguity lead to inaction and confusion, and so many people, all across our globe, are drawn to religions and politics, which offer certainty, the knowing assurance of God’s will. But consider again Bonhoeffer’s words: “If this is your will, I need your mercy; if this is not your will, I need your mercy. Every moment of my life, I need your mercy.”
It was not the certainty of God’s will, which led Bonhoeffer to act, for he realized that neither he nor any other human being could claim that certainty. Rather, it was the conviction of the universal need for mercy, which finally gave him the courage to act, to take upon himself the responsibility for his decision. He picked up the gun, not seeking God’s approval, but acknowledging his need for mercy.
Bonhoeffer never claimed his decision to take the gun was the right one. On the one hand his conscience remained committed to pacifism, and yet he acted against conscience, although as a Lutheran Martin Luther’s words must have rung in his ears: It is neither right nor prudent to act against conscience. But living with a clean conscience may not be the ultimate religious goal. Bonhoeffer’s life and death remind us that God calls us to act not with certainty but with faith—not faith in the rightness of our actions and the purity of our conscience, but faith in the love and mercy of God.
In today’s reading from the book of Jeremiah, we see an Israel, who has forsaken the covenant and broken the law time and time again. Nonetheless, through the prophet Jeremiah the people are told that God will make a new covenant, written upon the heart. We Christians see the new covenant in Jesus Christ, whose lifting up on the cross neither saves us from the responsibility of our decisions and actions, nor gives us the definitive answers about what we must do or what we must believe. The Greeks told Philip, “We want to see Jesus”, and we too want to see Jesus. But when we see him, really see him, we are not then given a list of absolute beliefs to which we must consent, but rather we come face to face with the cross, with the agony and challenge of decision and responsibility. We see, desite the horror, what the mercy and love of God really look like---nothing like our meager attempts at self-justification. Remember Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words: Every moment of my life I need your mercy. And so we do.
About Our Pastor:
I am very happy to be here at the First Church of Christ, Congregational in Unionville, CT. I arrived here in July, 2017, and have been warmly received. This is a wonderful church community. I have been an ordained minister for over three decades now, and I consider it a great privilege and challenge to be called to serve. Before coming to Unionville I served churches on Long Island, Middletown, CT and then ten years in New Haven, Center Church on the Green. My home is in Middletown, where I live with my husband, Donald Oliver, who is a professor of molecular biology at Wesleyan University. We have four grown children, two boys and two girls and three granddaughters, the youngest born on October 3, 2017!