When I first started going to church as a teenager in the 1970’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer frequently got a mention. Hands up anyone who can tell me anything about him?
He got mentioned for two main reasons. He wrote theology which was down to earth and engaged with the world. The realities of the modern world were not just things he mused upon. He had been in the centre of the storm. But probably the main reason was that he fitted the category of modern martyr, being executed by the Nazi regime hours before Berlin was liberated by the Allies in 1945. No one could argue that he didn’t give testimony to his faith, and although I was only about 14 when I first heard of him, for my parents’ generation and the one above, the shadow cast by both World Wars was still overwhelming.
I am always reminded of Bonhoeffer whenever I read passages like the ones from Jeremiah 20 and Matthew 10. Bonhoeffer not only took an active part in one of the plots to kill Hitler, he was also a double agent working for German intelligence and a man who believed killing was wrong. He was involved in a plot to kill because he was so intensely against murder. And when you read some of his thoughts from the time before his arrest, you see into the mind of someone who knew about the power of conscience and the fear of death and the contradictions involved in doing what is right and courageous in the service of people and God.
The prophet Jeremiah speaks about the same tensions in his poetic and angry outburst against God. He complains that God has seduced him into being his messenger and thrown him into a situation of terror. This isn’t mere mental anxiety that we all feel at times. His words here come in the wake of him being put into the equivalent of the stocks by the religious authorities and subjected not only to dishonour but to a kind of public torture.
The great Reformation theologian Calvin couldn’t believe that Jeremiah could really rant like this against God, and suggested he was being ironic. But the next thing that Jeremiah says, ‘Cursed be the day I was born’, cropped up word for word a hundred years later in the book of Job, that breath-taking meditation on suffering
In our Gospel reading today we have some extremely scary advice from Jesus on the Cost of Discipleship – which was also the title of one of Bonhoeffer’s most influential books. Probably, the standout example is verse 34: ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.’
But if we take a step back and consider how St Matthew has shaped his Gospel, this may seem less startling. St Matthew was a great clumper, and he has just finished with Jesus’ spiritual and ethical teaching all gathered together in the Sermon on the Mount. He has now turned to what Jesus said about some of the great dangers and challenges of taking a different path – the sorts of considerations that would have tempted Jeremiah to say ‘I will never be a prophet, as it is far too dangerous’ and Bonhoeffer to keep out of politics and not risk his own soul and his life and separation from his family and fiancée in a perilous enterprise.
St Matthew’s Gospel was written when the church as we know it was coming into being, and Matthew would not only have been quoting the traditions about Jesus but also adding in reflections on them in the light of experience. Isn’t this last what we all have to do whenever we read or listen to Scripture?
There are Christians who risk their lives daily for what they believe. There are people who try to protect indigenous people and their homes from ruthless business interests, who know that any moment could set their loved ones grieving. And we can think of them and pray for them.
But all our lives have dilemmas over when to speak up or keep silent. When we should act or do nothing. Like in the House of Commons last week. And far more often than we care to admit we can’t square the circle. We do the wrong thing or act in ways which are compromised. We don’t necessarily choose to do something wrong, but find ourselves in situations which are grey or murky.
I think one of the most valuable parts of church ritual and practice is the confession. It is not a simple form of words to get us off the hook and neither is it a way to dwell on our flaws and frailties in a negative way. It gives us the chance, like Jeremiah to be honest and to be angry, and like Bonhoeffer to be open about our contradictions and bring them before God in assurance that we are heard and can start again. There is a cost to discipleship, but sins are forgiven.