The Nature of the Christian

September 16th, 2012

Preacher: The Reverend Doyt Conn

In 1933 Adolf Hitler passed the Enabling Act which boycotted Jewish owned stores throughout Germany.  On the day the law was enacted Julia Bonhoeffer, the 90 year old grandmother of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, went shoppingwhere she always went shopping because that is where she shopped. When the Storm troopers tried to restrain her from entering a store, she informed them that she would shop where she liked and she did so.  Later that day it happened again,this time at the famous Kaufhaus des Westens, the world’s largest department store. She stepped through the line of soldiers and entered. Her courage had a great impact on her grandson, Dietrich.  (The Courage of Julie Bonhoeffer, July 19, 2011 in Eric Metaxas, Hitler/Nazism)

He was the famous Lutheran Pastor and theologian that Jonathan Roberts will be speaking about at today’s forum.  Bonhoeffer was a man who had a great impact on post World War II Christianity.  There are a lot of reasons for this, but primarily it had to do with his character.  His Christian character would not allow him to be formed by the powers and principalities that swirled around the world leading up to and during World War II.

Character matters and has an impact on the world.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s character changed the world, as did his grandmothers.  In the kingdom of God character has impact whether its can be measured or not.  Some of you may remember the story I told last Sunday about the impact of the man who tipped his hat to Desmond Tutu’s mother.

Habits of the heart matter, and over the next few weeks Kate and I are going to be preaching about character.  We believe that character is formed one way or another; accidentally or intentionally;  the question is: are we managing our character formation or not.

My emphasis today will be on the nature of accidental formation over and against the power of intentional formation. The Apostle Peter will be the role model for getting it wrong.  Then we’ll look at how Jesus put both Peter and the world back on track.  And finally we’ll witness the model of a man who followed the model of Jesus, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

We start with Peter in today’s Gospel.  We have two vignettes placed back to back that are linked by accidental character formation.

We find Jesus and the disciples in Caesarea Philippi.  It was a city built in a beautiful valley with winding rivers and sharp bluffs.  It was considered a spiritual place, dotted with shrines and temples; a perfect place for Jesus to ask: “Who do people say that I am?” One answered John the Baptist, another Elijah. But Peter said, “No, you are the Messiah,”  and Jesus concurred.

They left Caesarea Philippi to return to Galilee, and as they walked Jesus began to teach about the Messiah; how he was to be persecuted, then killed, only to rise again after three days.  Peter pulled him aside and rebuked him, to which Jesus responded, “Get behind me Satan.”

Now this seems a rather abrupt response, given Peter’s A+ answer on the earlier Messiah question.  But it should come as no surprise that Jesus identified Satan as the source of Peter’s confusion.  Before I say why, let me run a quick refresher on Satan.  I spoke about him two Sunday’s ago. (You can check out the sermon on the website)Satan is a tricky character to preach about, primarily because no one believes in him and everyone has an opinion about him.  Here is my bottom line:  it is not that we need to believe in Satan, we just need to know why he is important.

The role he plays is as the enemy of Christ who tells half-truths as whole truths toward the ends of pitting people against each other, carefully and insidiously.  And since Christ is the great uniter, he calls out and conquers the great divider.

Bonhoeffer shows us how this Christ centered battle is fought during his time at both Buchenwald and Flossenburg concentration camps.  While there, they say, he was admired by everybody because he treated everyone equally; Gypsy and Jews, gays and even guards alike.  His enemy was never his neighbor, even in a concentration camp.  The powers and principalities of evil when distilled down to a single enemy is always named Satan, and never anyone else; which frees Jesus up to call everyone else friend, as Bonhoeffer modeled in Buchenwald and Flossenburg.  So back to Peter and the rebuke.  You see Peter had been formed by a half-truth about the Messiah.  The true half of this half-truth was that the Messiah was to be a Jew, sent from God, to save the world.  The false half was that the Messiah would be a conqueror of people, Rome, in particular,  and would put the Jews in charge of the world. Jesus smashes Peter’s half-truth with the hammer, “Get behind me Satan.”

The battle against half-truth begins at the beginning of the Bible in the Garden of Eden.  You may remember the story.  God told Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge or they would die.  The serpent, Satan, begged to differ and convinced them otherwise.  They ate, and after they did the serpent was quick to point out they did not die; which was the first great half-truth meant to pit humanity against God.  For Adam and Eve were driven from the Garden separated from God, and in the end, after all, still died.

In the Garden of Eden Satan wove a curtain of deceit, and used it to conceal our vision of our immortality.  The curtain is called death, and has become the canvass upon which Satan paints his half-truths to pit people against each other and against God.

I know a thing or two about half-truths, and so do you.

I was reminded of one earlier this summer when visiting an old friend.  We were having coffee, and he was reflecting the ups and downs of his marriage, when suddenly he broke in, apropos nothing, to say “Did you see her?” “Who?” I responded. “Her, that woman who just walked by.” “No.”  “Did you know her?”  “No, I just asked if you saw her.”

And it reminded me of the accidental formation that happened in the hockey locker rooms of my youth.  And it reminded me of a LEGGS TV commercial that ran many years ago, built on a half-truth sold as the whole-truth…that it is natural for men to gawk at women.    You may remember the commercial.  A good-looking lady walks by, and a man’s blatantly stares at her until his girlfriend or wife whacks him with her handbag.

That seemingly benign reflection on the nature of man is neither benign or true, and only serves to undermine relationship…as we see when the woman hits the man with her bag.

Now I can imagine someone making the claim that lingering eyes upon an attractive lady is a natural evolutionary instinct that perpetuated a gene pool and strengthened the tribe.  And that argument may have legs if we believed that our lineage is our legacy after we die. But we learned a different reality from resurrection, that death is a half-truth not the whole-truth.

Which was Peter’s mistake.  He saw the Messiah as coming to build a kingdom to perpetuate the Jewish race and their supremacy, which would then be Peter’s legacy.  Jesus smashed this idea with a hammer:  “Get behind me Satan, You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things. ”

Christian character has a trajectory that pierces the curtain of death; our character is eternal, and so I ask: are you managing your eternal character formation or not?  Are we living accidental lives painted on a canvass of death, or are we living eternal lives that piece the veil?

The hope of Christian formation is to develop character habits that focus on divine things. Which isn’t to say that we go around wearing sandals, chanting Psalms, and reciting prayers. But it does mean that we understand what relationships are primary in our lives, and that those we see along the way have primary relationships as well.

Real, true, sturdy, incarnate relationship is what makes Christianity so potent, and the primary relationship is with Christ.  After all God so loved the world that God came to walk in our midst, like us, as a human, with a name, which is Jesus.

The resurrection puts us back in the Garden of Eden even though it may look like Epiphany’s gardens, or the Conn household, or Buchenwald concentration camp, or Tegel military prison.

That is where Dietrich Bonhoeffer was first taken after arrested by Hitler’s Storm troopers.  And while there he had a chance to escape, but he chose not to.  He stayed because he knew the terrible consequences his escape would have on those who reminded behind.  His relationship with his neighbors there in prison mattered more to him than death.  And when it was his time to die, just 23 days before the Germans surrendered to the Allies, he was heard to say, “This is the end, but for me the beginning of life.” [Eberhard Bethge  and Victoria J. Barnett, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, p. 927]

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake,” Jesus says, “will save it.”