PRELUDE + MEDITATION
O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger. When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas. O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
We gather to meet with God
Father, Son and Holy Spirit
To be aware of your presence in our day
For you, Lord, are here now;
your Spirit dwells within us
To bring you our worship
And offer you our praise
To be conscious that you walk beside us
And we do not make the journey alone
Father, Son and Holy Spirit, draw near to us
As we draw near to you
PRAYER OF ILLUMINATION
Come, Holy Spirit, giver of life;
breathe into us that we may hear a word of truth this day.
Draw us into communion,
enable us to love,
conspire to make us one with you
for the world you so deeply love. Amen.
SCRIPTURE Matthew 28:16-20
16Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. <sup>17</sup>When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. <sup>18</sup>And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. <sup>19</sup>Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, <sup>20</sup>and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age
When should the church speak? When the truth is distorted? When the gospel is compromised? When God’s voice is desperately needed? There have been historical moments were the church needed to declare Christ’s law of love and speak to a particular crisis.
The Barmen Declaration of 1934 was written on one of those occasions. The setting was Nazi Germany under the rule of Adolf Hitler. While many of us know the horrors of the holocaust, fewer know what happened to the churches. One of the saddest things is that most of the Christians kept silent. Why? Because, from the beginning, Hitler worked to coopt the churches. Within four months of Hitler becoming Chancellor, a national convention of the new “German Christians” was held. All Protestant churches would join as one national church under one Bishop, just as there would be only one political party. When Hitler’s candidate failed to win election as Bishop, a new title was invented and the role given to him.
There was more: all of the church youth work was given to the Hitler-Youth organization. Churches were told to exclude any Christian with Jewish ancestry. At one point, “storm troopers… commandeered the headquarters of the German Evangelical Church.”
At first there were protests, like when a speaker at a German Christian rally urged that the Old Testament and letters of Paul be excised from the Bible. Within a month of that incident, a muzzling order was declared, threatening pastors with suspension if they criticized the national church government – in the same way news publications were censored. There was a huge outcry, with a protest read in 400,000 pulpits. When Hitler met with leaders of the German Protestant churches, it was ostensibly to find a compromise. But through the use of dirty tricks, Hitler split the opposition. Most of the church leaders endorsed Hitler’s choice for national Bishop. Within a year, the take-over was almost complete.
As our Book of Confession describes, “Most Germans took the union of Christianity, nationalism, and militarism for granted, and patriotic sentiments were equated with Christian truth. The German Christians exalted the racially pure nation and the rule of Hitler as God’s will for the German people.
And yet… there were a small number of brave and determined souls who united as the German Evangelical Church, a federation of Confessional churches. Reformed, Lutheran and United Church pastors and professors came together to find a common voice of protest. In May of 1934, their delegates met in Barmen, and unanimously adopted a theological statement we now call “The Barmen Declaration.” Written largely by Reformed theologian Karl Barth, their declaration is a call to resistance.
What’s interesting is how it was written. It doesn’t make a case-by-case argument against the Guiding Principles of the German Christians. It certainly doesn’t call out the Nazis or Hitler by name. It doesn’t even lift up the plight of the Jewish people. Instead, it lifts up the core of what it means to be Christian, which is the centrality of Jesus Christ as he is known in scripture, and the call to be disciples of Him.
The Barmen Declaration tried to bring the church back to the Jesus of scripture, and faithful followers of Him. As another theologian describes, “The issue was to listen to the Word of God as though one had never heard it before.” No other source has the authority of scripture, they argued, and Jesus cannot be re-made in someone else’s image. Together, they proclaimed, we are to “speak the truth in love, growing up in every way into Christ.” Our call is to testify in the midst of a sinful world, and to live our faith in obedience solely to Christ. There are no areas of life which do not belong to Christ. Religion is not a private affair.
As Jesus taught his disciples when they sought power and authority, we are to be servants of all. There are offices within the church, but they do not exist for dominion over others but for the sake of the ministry of the church. The church should never allow itself to be ruled by “special leaders vested with ruling powers.” The church can’t let itself be governed by the State, and the State cannot fulfill the work of the church.
The Confessing church spoke an alternative voice when it was dangerous and unpopular to do so. They would not keep silent in spite of the danger, and there were consequences. As one historian recounts, The great theologian, Karl Barth, found himself escorted to the border and expelled; the fearless pastor, Martin Niemoller, languished in a concentration camp for eight… years as Hitler’s own personal prisoner; Dietrich Bonhoeffer [who taught at the Confessing Church’s seminary], suffered a martyr’s death… just days before the Second World War ended.
Which leads me to wonder: what testimony is needed for our time? In light of the conflict in our world today, what should we be saying as Christians? After I asked those questions, I realized that they were not what we should be focused upon, but upon another question: what should we be doing as Christians?
We should be doing….discipleship focused upon Christ’s law of love. We should be disciples of none other than Jesus Christ! A disciple is a student of a particular teacher or mentor. A disciple is formed by learning and practicing the ways of that teacher. Jesus sent his friends with his authority to teach what he had taught them: the law of Love. The law that he left them with just prior to his ascension that we find in our text from Matthew 28, today.
In the previous chapter in Matthew, the women followers had seen Jesus alive in the garden after his resurrection; he instructed the women to tell the men that he would meet them in Galilee. The eleven disciples – remember, they were down by one without Judas – trekked north to meet Jesus on the mountain.
This was same mountain where Jesus was transfigured in front of the Peter, James and John; the same mountain where he taught eloquently to the crowds; the same mountain where he escaped to be alone to pray, especially when everyone was driving him crazy.
When the eleven saw Jesus, some prostrated themselves at his feet and worshiped, but some among them doubted. What an intriguing detail Matthew includes.
Weren’t these 11 disciples with Jesus for three years, his closest students and friends?! The ones to whom he entrusted his deepest struggles and thoughts about the kingdom of God?
Jesus ate and drank with these guys, he laughed and cried with them. They were there when Jesus healed lepers, children and Peter’s mother in law; they saw him heal a woman who had been bleeding for 12 years. These guys were there when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead; they witnessed him outsmart the authorities; they were there when 5,000 were fed with one boy’s meager lunch on that hillside. They were there when Jesus was tortured and killed.
But some of them still doubted? What did they doubt? That Jesus was there in flesh and blood? Or that he really didn’t have all authority in heaven and on earth – but if so, why then did he die? Or did they doubt his charge to them-that their confused band of fearful disciples could actually go out to all nations and change the world? It turned out that it didn’t matter that some fell on their faces and worshiped and some remained standing. They were ALL commissioned to GO; perhaps that made them more than doubtful. ALL were called to participate in the ministry of their Savior!
Imagine a Presbyterian congregation in our city; say, one that is unable to gather because of a virus. The faithful are finding new ways to be disciples during these challenging times This is not an uncommon story over the past 11 weeks. Imagine though that this group of disciples believes that they have been given the commission to go out into the world with all the authority of Jesus and to make disciples in his name. It happened once with only 11 disciples; it could it happen again. To paraphrase Margaret Mead, God only knows what a powerful impact on the world a small group of passionate disciples can have.
Discipleship – the intentional spiritual formation of a follower of Jesus – is the ministry to which the church is called. Again Discipleship – the intentional spiritual formation of a follower of Jesus – is the ministry to which the church is called, not to walk lock-step with political leaders and governments. We baptize those who enter into our community, marking them as children of God in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and we are called to live out the law of love given to us with authority by Jesus Christ!
Our Lord is greater than any leader, any nation, or even our own agenda. This is the courageous word of those who came before us, who confessed the faith, no matter what the cost.
And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
Commentary provided by Karen Chakoian, Ulrich Mauser, William Stacy Johnson, Eberhard Busch, NT Wright, Susan Hylen, Scott Hoezee, Craig R. Koester, David Lose, Richard Beaton, Clover Beal, and John Buchanan
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE & THE LORD’S PRAYER
We are a world that is desperate for you, God.
When powers struggle for dominance,
and war, oppression and abuse result;
When groups of people oppose one another
because of ideology, religion or culture;
We need a God who is bigger than ourselves,
and our personal interests.
When people are disregarded and devalued
because of poverty, geography or disease;
When compassion and justice is withheld to some
because of sexuality, race or gender;
We need a Saviour who is more compassionate than we are
who includes even those we would exclude.
When resources are mismanaged and abused,
and the world and its creatures are destroyed;
When motivation is scarce and creativity is in short supply
to address the challenges that we face;
We need a Spirit who is more powerful and more creative
than we could ever be.
Lord God, Loving Saviour, Empowering Spirit,
we offer you these prayers
because we need you so desperately.
Captivate us, call us and fill us,
that we may be carriers of your eternal life
to this world that you love so dearly. Amen.
–who taught us to pray:
Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.
So now we leave this time of worship
And while so much of the road ahead is uncertain,
the path constantly changing,
we know some things that are as solid and sure
as the ground beneath our feet,
and the sky above our heads.
We know God is love.
We know Christ’s light endures.
We know the Holy Spirit this there,
found in the space between all things,
closer to us than our next breath,
binding us to each other,
until we meet we again,Go in peace. God’s peace.