A couple of things have come together in the last two days … our church ‘service’ on Zoom yesterday, and my continued reading of the biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
In the mid 1930’s Bonhoeffer was working on a book that would first be published as ‘The Cost of Discipleship’ (Later as simply Discipleship’). In it, he describes how he sees the way that the Protestant (Lutheran) Church in Germany had a tendency to portray faith as a purely private thing. For Bonhoeffer this meant that faith had become for many Christians a refuge from obedience to yhe call of Christ, abandoning the public realm for a private sphere in which faith was all about personal salvation.
The events that propel Bonhoeffer to a call for the church to be more active in the public arena were of course the rise of Hitler, and especially the treatment of Jews.
The German title for the book was Nachfolge – Follow me, which points to Bonhoeffer’s assertion that the Christian life must be one of concrete acts, integrating private and public, inner life and outer reality, hearing and following. There was no other way to be a Christian.
By the mid 1930’s the vast majority of Protestant Churches were part of the ‘German Christian Church’ – adhering to the policies of National Socialism, which excluded Jewish Christians from communion and worship – which in Bonhoeffer’s eyes challenged the very identity of the church as a Christian Body.
The establishment of the ‘Confessing Church,’ which stood against Hitler and Nazi rule was one way in which Bonhoeffer was to live out hs faith in the public space. (Which in the end of course cost him his life).
Now to yesterday’s service. Our services, conducted at the moment through ‘Zoom’ consist of a readings, prayers, possibly a hymn or song, and some time to reflect together on the Gospel passage for the day. There is no sermon, but each person can bring some thought on the passage.
One of the things that came up yesterday, which went a bit beyond the scope of the passage, was the way in which different gospels treat the same question.
So for example, Matthew’s Gospel ends with what Christians call ‘The Great Commission’ in which Jesus says to the discipes – ‘Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’
This is definitely taking the Chrisain Faith out into the public arena.
By contrast, John’s Gospel has Jesus meeting with the disciples after the resurrection and saying “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”
If we think about how the Father sent Jesus as described in John’s Gospel, it is more to do with Jesus ‘being with’ us. There is of course the very public element of Jesus’ ministry in John’s Gospel, but there are large chunks where Jesus is talking with the disciples, and emphasising the importance of staying close to Jesus. (Remain in me).
At its extreme, Matthew leads to a Christianity that is focussed on proselytising, making converts, even by force, as history shows. Whereas John might lead to a quietist faith that is only concerned with nurturing the faith of the believer.
Clearly, neither Gospel is advocating either of these approaches, but we can see how at different times, and in various places, both of these approaches have held sway.
The question I have is this – we need faith that is personal but not private. But how in today’s world, and especially with the current Covid 19 pandemic, do Christians take their faith into the public square. One way of course is through being active in a wide range of serving roles, through food banks etc. But while for Christians, those ways of responding would likely arise from a Christian sense of service, there are many people of other faiths responding and people of no faith who are simply acting out of a sense of common humanity.
We also see people of all faiths and none acting in the areas of justice and peace.
But is there something else that Christians might offer in the public space – something that is distinctly Christian ?