By Father Casey Shobe
You may know of my appreciation for the 20th century pastor, teacher, and Nazi-resister Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His efforts did not go unnoticed, and he was eventually arrested by the Nazis, imprisoned for several years, and executed mere days before the Allies liberated his concentration camp. For most of the 1930s, Bonhoeffer was a leader in what is known as the Confessing Church. The Confessing Church consisted of a minority group of German Christians who spoke out against the bigotry and hatred growing all around them, including in the German (Lutheran) Church. The word “confessing” is connected with their desire to confess the Truth. They felt compelled to be truth-tellers and testifiers to Christ in a society where the claims of the Gospel were increasingly dismissed, and where bedrock Christian virtues like peace, humility, and mercy, were viewed with contempt. They knew that cultural and political forces were strongly against them, but they also knew their adherence to the merciful Way of Jesus was a sacred and important countering witness.
I think of Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church every time I come upon the gospel we’ll hear in church this weekend. In it, Jesus talks about strange days that lie ahead for his followers. Jesus’ disciples had been with him for many months at this point, and they’d seen him do some amazing things: heal the sick and feed the hungry and transform lives. So it’s understandable that they assumed things would just keep getting better and better forever, until finally earth would become like heaven. I sometimes have that same attitude, too – that if we can just hang in there long enough, eventually there will be universal goodness and kindness and love.
But then, inevitably, something happens that exposes my naiveté, and I remember that Jesus never once said or taught that humanity will just keep slowly progressing into a better world. Never once did he say, “One day everyone will eventually decide to be kinder and more loving. Just you wait, 2000 years from now, they’ll have it all figured out and things will really look like heaven around here!” No, Jesus was a savior, not a politician, so on his way to the cross, he told them that there would be days ahead when nations would be in conflict, the natural world would be a mess, and things would seem terribly frightening. He warned them that unaided human progress is not God’s strategy for salvation.
You see, as much as I want it to be true, being a disciple of Jesus is not a guarantee of ease or that circumstances around us will always go our way. Sometimes we live in the midst of strange and unsettling times. Sometimes we wake up and realize that today actually feels less peaceful than yesterday. But this doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love us, or isn’t still in charge. So rather than becoming hopeless or lost, for we who walk on the Way of Jesus, these moments have a purpose. When Jesus warned his disciples that strange and difficult days lay ahead, he told them that they are to testify. That was their purpose and calling: to proclaim by word and deed the Kingdom of God.
Which brings me back to Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church. In the span of just a few years in the early 1930s, the society they thought they knew and understood unraveled. They looked around and became appalled at what they saw: the way minority groups like Jews, gays, and Romani were scapegoated and targeted for harassment and violence; the way political leaders behaved like bullies and attacked anyone who disagreed with them; the way national identity swallowed up religious identity until patriotism was more important than faith. It was a strange, dark time, and yet through it all, members of the Confessing Church knew their sacred calling. They rejected hate and bigotry, and doubled down on what they believed to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life. And just as Jesus said, by their endurance, by their faith, by their courageous witness, they gained their souls.
We are living in our own strange day, in which hate groups are flourishing, mass shootings in schools have become routine, migrants are treated like cattle, and inconvenient science is dismissed for the sake of profits. In response to these strange and dark times, Jesus has given us a job to do. We are to be the Confessing Church. We are to testify with our lives that we believe in something holier and greater than our circumstances. We are citizens of the Kingdom of God, and so we are called to proclaim that Kingdom with everything we have and everything we are.
The lives of saints like Dietrich Bonhoeffer show us what is at stake when we stand with Christ. Bonhoeffer lived in one of the darkest times the world has ever known, but he clung to the Truth. He knew what he was called to be and do as a follower of Christ. He knew what the Church was called to be and do as Christ’s body in the world, and he joined together with other believers to become that Church. And as it was with him, so can be for us. Hold fast to Jesus. Be witnesses to our loving Lord. Testify to this world what you know and believe to be the Truth. And do not be afraid, for if we will let the love of Christ be our guide, we will discover that Christ himself is with us, and he will hold fast to our souls.
About Father Casey
Casey became the fourth rector of Transfiguration in October 2014 after having served churches in Rhode Island and Houston. He is married to Melody Shobe, also an Episcopal priest, and they have two daughters, Isabelle and Adelaide. Casey grew up in Temple, Texas, and holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Texas at Austin. His Master of Divinity was earned at Virginia Theological Seminary and his Doctor of Ministry at the School of Theology at the University of the South (Sewanee). He loves playing golf, road cycling, hiking, brewing beer, and working in his yard. You can contact Father Casey by email.