“In truth, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest.”
The twentieth century German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer focused much of his brilliant mind on the problem of ethics and particularly the problem of ethics in the face of violence. Bonhoeffer, having witnessed the take-over and transformation of Germany by the Nazi Party, knew and experienced violence and hatred personally.
His theology proceeds, as does any really good theology, directly from his lived experience. In it, Bonhoeffer argued strongly and persuasively that there are no ethical principles – none; and that Jesus was not a teacher of morality. Yet Bonhoeffer argued that for the Christian there is simply one guide and one guide only: Jesus Christ. Each moral decision, Bonhoeffer said, presents us, as individuals, with a fresh and unique moment of choice. Each choice is a unique opportunity, to make a choice, unrelated to any choice we have made before, or will make hereafter. And that choice is about one thing and one thing only: Is what I choose consistent with my calling as a disciple of Jesus Christ or to put it another way: Am I, in this particular instance, choosing love? Always, the same question: Am I choosing love?
They haven’t been much in the news lately, but I remember an NBC news report that there are nearly 200,000 Nigerian Christians threatened by Boko Haran, the radical Nigerian-based terrorist group. Boko Haran has pledged its allegiance to ISIS. Like a lot of other terrorist organizations, Boko Haran has been able to attract members not only because of the emergence of a particular brand of Islamic fundamentalist, but also because of years of structural unemployment, government discrimination, corruption and violence. Its current violent policies intensified only after Nigerian security forces killed its leader in 2009.
Boko Haran is not the official name of this group at all. Boko Haran literally means “no Western education.” That name helped to clear up a lot of my own confusion around why this group has targeted students and particularly female students in their kidnapping sprees. For Boko Haran, Western education in particular and Western values in general, are pernicious influences threatening religious and gender-related tenets of their particular interpretation of the meaning of the Koran.
Of course, I’m saying this not to defend the group’s actions. But only to remind us that in their particular ethical system these actions make perfect sense. They are not simply random acts of terror and violence. But rather they are seen in the “Boko Haran world-view,” if I can use such an expression, as serving some higher faith-based good.
We can all access deplorable reports about threats to people of faith throughout the world. Of course, the disgrace of people of faith killing other people of faith has a long, long history. As Westerners, it is easy for us to forget or ignore that Christians have been killing Muslims for more than a thousand years. Something not only disheartening but, I would say, unconscionable given that as Christians we claim to be the disciples of Jesus Christ. Jesus, of course, taught non-violence and love for one’s enemies, both real and imagined. This teaching is a highly problematic given that this man of love and non-violence ended-up nailed to a tree. Because being a disciple of Jesus can be a dangerous calling. Choosing discipleship and love can be very costly.
In our culture, we are largely shielded from the harsh possibility of actually dying for Christ’s sake. It is, however, a very real possibility for Iraqi, Turkish, Indian, and African Christians as it has been for countless numbers of Christians ever since the beginnings of the church. But, a hard fact I find difficult to grasp is that more Christians have died for the sake of the Gospel in the last hundred years than in all previous centuries combined: Armenians, Russians, a growing percentage of Middle Eastern Christians to give only a few examples. These accepted the challenge to die for their Lord, choosing love and discipleship in the face of hatred and violence.
So where does this leave us, the wealthiest, most privileged human beings, not just in the world, but in the entire history of the planet; citizens of a nation that has lost no more than two million people in all of its wars? To put that sad number in some perspective, Russia lost more than 25 million civilians alone in World War II. So where does this leave us, participants in a society in which nursing homes, hospitals, and popular culture can shield us from the fact of death?
I don’t think we should beat ourselves up for being so privileged, but we need to ask ourselves seriously if there are ways of living for Christ that can carry the same weight as dying for him. The saints sometimes give us examples of this kind of life in Christ: Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa, Dag Hammarskjöld, Mahatma Gandhi, and Desmond Tutu. But how can we live a life that even hints of equivalency to these?
We can begin by facing honestly the times we have denied our Lord by word or deed and refused to share the Gospel, refused to speak up or to act in ways that say something about him. Maybe it has even happened here, in this setting, in this place. What about while on vacation or at home when we’re with members of our family or old friends? Do we speak up about injustice or calls for violent retaliation against enemies both real and imagined or do we just shrug it off as too pervasive to deal with? Do we let words of prejudice slide by us, giving approval by our silence? We don’t need to burst into flame like Jesus driving the moneychangers out of the temple, although this might work sometimes; but we do need to speak the truth in love to those closest to us, not seeking to inflate our egos by proving “you’re wrong, I’m right” but instead speaking courageously and lovingly, letting our words or actions speak for themselves, trusting that they will reflect the Word made flesh and bring him to dwell in the moment or the situation. Do we choose discipleship? Do we choose love?
Death in Christ for us will primarily be putting our false self to death, letting the seeds of our selfishness and pride fall into the earth and die, and trusting that God, in mercy, will bring forth the fruit of the Holy Spirit within us and through us. Paul lists those fruits in his letter to the Galatians – those fruits are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, tolerance, and self-control. To these we might add faith, hope, justice, non-violence in the face of violence and respect for the dignity of every human being.
Jesus said, “Anyone who loves is life loses it; anyone who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and my servant will be with me wherever I am. If anyone serves me, my Father will honor him.” The kingdom of God turns this world’s values upside down.
To follow Christ means taking up our cross and following him by putting to death pride and the self-righteous of the false-self that interferes with our bringing Christ to others. It is when we do this repeatedly and live in obedience to the teachings of Jesus that there forms within us, in the context of our lives over an extended period of time, a dwelling place for God. If we are faithful, we slowly begin to bear consistently God in our words and deeds. Like Mary who was given the title “Theotokos” or “God-bearer” by the fathers of the Fourth Ecumenical Council (BCP p.864), we too become in reality – not in fantasy or the fiction of overweening sanctimoniousness – we, too, in some way begin to carry God within us.
And what does God do when this happens? “If anyone serves me, my Father will honor him.” How does the Father honor us? Jesus gives us a clue in the fourteenth chapter of John’s gospel: “In my Father’s house there are many places to live in.” God the Father, who through Christ has created all things, begins to create us anew – that’s otherwise known as redemption. The Father honors us by giving us a dwelling place in the Body of Christ. As Paul lays out so beautifully in his passages about the Body of Christ and the ministries to be found in it, we are each called, and if we respond, we are shaped and formed, transfigured and recreated, to become all that God created us to become, a unique way of being like Christ our Savior and Lord.
When the grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it bears much fruit for the building up of the Body of Christ, for the spreading abroad of God’s love in the world, and for giving us a dwelling place in God here and now. A dwelling place in God here and now is where we find blessedness in this life.
Death will come. We can be certain of that. But the life Jesus offers us means that we can experience God where we are now and in this particular moment. We can trust that we can know that blessedness now if we choose love.
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