by Jason Micheli
Matthew 5.13-16 (click to see Scripture text)
“Jesus Christ [not the Bible] is the one Word of God whom we have to hear, and whom we have to trust and obey in life and in death…Jesus Christ is God’s vigorous announcement of God’s claim upon our whole life.”
Those lines constitute the opening salvo of the Barmen Declaration, the Confession of Faith written by the pastor and theologian Karl Barth in 1934 on behalf of the dwindling minority of Christians in Germany who publicly repudiated the Third Reich. Barth wrote the whole document while his colleagues slept off their lunchtime booze. “We reject the false doctrine,” Barth wrote, “that there could be areas of our life in which we do not belong to Jesus Christ but to other lords…With both its faith and its obedience, the Church must testify that it belongs to and obeys Christ alone.”
One of the teachers from whom I learned Barth’s theology is Dr. George Hunsinger. Professor Hunsinger has a thick, white beard and usually wore reading glasses perched precariously at the end of his nose. Often his wife would sit at the back of the classroom and signal to him when it was time to wrap up so prone was he to lecture on and on, oblivious to the time.
I remember we were discussing Barth’s Barmen Declaration in class one morning, and Dr. Hunsinger, uncharacteristically, broke from his lecture and took off his reading glasses. His jovial countenance turned serious, and he said, seemingly at random though not random at all, “just outside the Dachau concentration camp in Bavaria, immediately outside the walls of the concentration camp, there was and still is a Christian church.”
It was an 8:00 class but suddenly no one was fighting off a yawn.
“Just imagine,” he said, “the prison guards and the commandant at that concentration camp probably went to that church on Sunday mornings and even Wednesday evenings. Every week they walked from gas chambers and gallows, through razor wire, and past cattle cars to the church where they confessed their sins and received the assurance of pardon and prayed to the God of Israel and the God of Jesus Christ, and then they walked out of the church and went back to the camp and killed scores of Jews not thinking it in any way contradicted their calling themselves Christians.”
“How does that work?” someone joked, trying to take the edge off.
“It happens,” he replied, “when you reduce the Gospel to forgiveness and you evict Jesus Christ from every place but the privacy of your heart.”
His righteous anger was like an ember warming inside him.
“Whenever you read Karl Barth,” the professor told us,” think of that church on the edge of the concentration camp. Think of the pews filled with Christians and the ovens filled with innocents and then think about what it means to have been called by Christ our Lord.”
Jesus begins his Sermon on the Mount with metaphors so familiar to us— salt and light— that it’s easy for us to miss the tone of ridicule, contempt even, with which Jesus preaches: “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket…” How many parents have nailed boxes into the walls around their children’s nightlights? Who turns on a floor lamp and then wraps it in a quilt or puts duct tape over the end of a flashlight? Just because “bushel basket” strikes us as a more biblical object, it does not make the image Jesus conjures any less ridiculous.
Unlike Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Plain, Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount does not include Christ’s list of woes: “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you…” Jesus does not issue any such woes in Matthew’s Gospel, yet it was clear to the ancient church fathers that Jesus begins his Sermon on the Mount with this same tone of scorn and derision. Quite simply, Jesus obviously thinks it’s ridiculous that his disciples could ever think that they can live in a manner no different than anyone else or never dare speak of the hope that is within them. That the community of disciples could be indistinguishable from the world, that the life of the Church could look no different than the ways of the world, is as absurd and risible as hiding a desk lamp in the dishwasher, as preposterous as planting a church next to a concentration camp. It’s Nicodemus who scurries to Jesus in the dark anonymity of the night. Disciples are those whom Christ has summoned in the clear light of day, saying, “Come and follow me.” If we are truly following Jesus, the contrast between us and those who do not follow Jesus should be as self-evident as light in the dark. Discipleship cannot help but make us visible to the world and distinct from the world.
The saltiness of salt and the luminescence of light are their essential qualities without which they become useless; likewise, a private, hidden commitment to Jesus Christ— a faith which can only be inferred— renders you useless. It renders you useless precisely because a public, visible obedience to the Kingdom Christ has brought near is the very reason Jesus has called disciples and constituted a contrast community called the Church. I may be justified by faith alone, but faith alone does not make me a Christian. It makes me useless. It’s not about eternity; it’s about utility. As the famous British preacher of the last century, David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, put the matter plainly in a sermon on this text, “As I understand it, and it seems to me to be an inevitable piece of logic and interpretation, there is nothing in God’s universe that is so utterly useless as a Christian in name only.” Scripture makes the same assertion with even less elegance when he writes that such so-called Christians have “the form of godliness but deny the power thereof.” Or, to paraphrase Paul, if Christians are not distinct from everyone else in the world, we are of all people in the world the most to be pitied.
The community of disciples should be different from the world because the Church is the difference Christ has made in the world. Our calling as a community is not to make the world a better place; it’s to be the better place Christ has made in the world. We can’t obey that calling if we’re all merely covert Christians or if we’re all more comfortable identifying as members of a congregation than as belonging to Jesus Christ. A hidden, private commitment to Christ is a ludicrous contradiction just to the extent that discipleship is straightforwardly how one behaves if it’s true that the one who preached the Sermon on the Mount is not only not dead but Lord of Heaven and Earth.
Some time ago, as part of the NLI process, the district staff asked us to distribute a self-assessment called the “Real Discipleship Survey.” To my delight— and I count it as a fruit of my preaching— a fair number of you rebelled at participating in the assignment. Actually, the number of people who rebelled against it nearly equaled the number who completed it. I found the survey problematic for two reasons. Firstly, I do not think discipleship can be— or should be— measured according to practices that Jesus himself does not include in his Sermon on the Mount. Bible study is important and edifying, of course, but Bible study is not a practice Jesus commands us to do in his Sermon on the Mount. Spiritual practices might be helpful to you, but the only prayer Jesus commands us to pray in his Sermon is the Lord’s Prayer. Secondly and more importantly, because we are all sinners, we are remarkably adept at self-deception. Therefore, I believe I am the last person in a position to assess the depth and genuineness of my discipleship. You are the least reliable person to measure your own level of faithfulness. Not even Pam Jones should trusted to evaluate the discipleship of Pam Jones. If we really wanted to gauge accurately the character of our commitment to Jesus Christ, we should distribute such a survey to the people in our families, to our friends— our non-church friends— to the teachers in our children’s schools, to our coworkers and neighbors and the poor in our community. If someone ever asks you if you are a Christian, your only response should be something like, “I don’t know. Here’s a list of my enemies. Ask them.”
They shouldn’t be asking you.
It’s not about what’s in your heart. Don’t invite Jesus into your heart. There’s nothing in your heart but sin and cholesterol. Jesus doesn’t want your heart. Jesus wants the whole damn world. The sign they nail above his head on Golgotha is ironic, but it is not wrong: King. He wants to rule. And for whatever reason, in this meantime before he comes again, he has elected to inaugurate his reign by calling ordinary, unimpressive people like you and me to live according to the Kingdom he has brought near.
In other words, I cannot claim to be a Christian and live a life of functional atheism. I have no choice but to attempt a life that makes no sense, no sense at all, if God has not raised Jesus from the dead. And I have to live out my commitment to Christ and his Kingdom in a sufficiently visible manner that those who do not share my commitments will hold me accountable to my convictions.
I thought you were a Christian, Jason.
Don’t you all have a problem with violence?
I thought you were a Christian, Jason.
Don’t you people believe in forgiving those who’ve wronged you?
I thought you were a Christian, Jason.
What happened to being a partisan for the oppressed instead of for power?
I have to live out my commitment to Christ visibly enough that the expectations of others hold me accountable to my counterintuitive, cruciform convictions. Which means— here’s the bad news— I have it easier than you all do. I have to talk about Jesus at least once a week. People are never not evaluating me. But you— you can get by under the radar. It’s easier for you to be an undercover Christian. To hide the light. And make a life in the darkness of the world.
Early one Sunday morning in December 1996, Judith and Martin Markovitz were awakened by the sound of shattering glass in their Bucks County, Pennsylvania home. Anti-semites had crept across their front lawn and smashed the large window in their living room in order to destroy the electric menorah that the Jewish couple had kept lit through the night for the celebration of Hanukkah. According to the NY Times reporting at the time, word about the incident spread quickly through the Markovitz’s neighborhood, a neighborhood where they were the only Jews. By nightfall the following day, the final night of Hanukkah, all the other homes on Water Lily Way— eighteen of them— were lit with their own electric menorahs.
“More families would have put menorahs in their windows,” the article reports, “if local stores had not run out of them.”
A thirty-six year old woman named Margie Alexander came up with the idea to distribute and light menorahs of their own across their community. When asked what motivated her to respond in solidarity with the Markovitz’s, Margie answered “I’m a Christian— a Roman Catholic.”
“We can’t just give in to the world’s darkness,” she said when asked about the possibility that her home and her own family would become a target next.
She then described to the reporter how it was not easy to find electric menorahs at the end of the Hanukkah season was not easy. Neighbors spread out and searched BJ’s Wholesale Clubs and Thrift Stores. One of Margie’s neighbors persuaded a pharmacist to comb through the store’s computer inventory to find electric menorahs at other pharmacy locations. As darkness fell, Margie Alexander was able to distribute eighteen menorahs throughout the neighborhood.
”I am shocked that so many people think we’ve done something unusual,” Margie told the reporter, “Of course we would respond in a way like this. We had no choice. Most of us— we’re Christians.”
Margie Alexander went to say that she intended to display the menorah the next year too. “I will put the light out for the rest of my life,” she said.
If a Real Discipleship Survey had been mailed to Judith and Martin Markovitz, they would’ve been able to answer, “Yes, Margie Alexander is a Christian.”
It’s about visibility.
A covert, undercover Christian is an oxymoron.
A commitment to Christ that is hidden and private is not a commitment to Christ exactly because the light we are to shine is the Kingdom Christ illuminates in his Sermon on the Mount. The light we are to shine is not a feeling, a sentiment or an emotion. To let your light shine does not mean that you are to be joyful. It’s not like the Care Bear Stare. Remember, Christ is the Light of the World; for you to be the light of the world means that you attempt to live visibly in the world in conformity to Christ and his Kingdom. That to do so risks conflict and confrontation is implied in Jesus’s use of the word “world.” Whenever the New Testament wants to express something positive about our world, it uses the word creation. The word Jesus uses here in the Sermon, kosmos, refers exclusively in the New Testament to the territory occupied by the Powers of Sin and Death, Satan, the Prince of Lies. In commanding us to let our light shine before the world, therefore, Jesus has not summoned us to a risk-free endeavor. Nor does Jesus allow us to imagine that it’s no big deal if we look more like the world than we resemble him.
To hide the light is to be in darkness.
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes of this passage in the Sermon on the Mount,
“[Having been called by him] the followers of Jesus are no longer faced with a decision. The only decision possible for them has already been made. Now they have to be what they are, or they are not following Jesus. The followers are the visible community of faith; their discipleship is a visible act which separates them from the world— or it is not discipleship. And discipleship is as visible as light in the night, as a mountain the flatland. To flee into invisibility is to deny the call. Any community of Jesus which wants to be invisible is no longer a community that follows him…the community that has stopped being what it is will be hopelessly lost.”
Bonhoeffer goes on in Discipleship to suggest that the visible community often hides its light for three primary reasons:
I don’t know about you, but I feel seen by all three.
Back in the winter of 2021, just after the insurrection, Fleming Rutledge sent me a text message. As many of you know, she’s a retired Episcopal priest and author and, I think, one of the Church’s best preachers.
“If this is not a status confessionis, I don’t know what is,” her first text read.
The term status confessionis goes back to Bonhoeffer. It refers to certain circumstances in which the true Church can take only one position, rejecting the alternative.
“If this is not a status confessionis, I don’t know what is. If this is not a time for courage in the pulpit, I can’t imagine what that time would be. From the sermons I’ve watched online, all I have found is studious avoidance of the Big Lie. Jason, you must risk not being liked and take seriously your responsibility to the Lord to preach and teach the truth in this Empire of Lies. If we continue to live in an Empire of Lies and never speak out, never bear witness to the Kingdom, never dare to live the difference Christ makes, we are no better than liars who’ve hidden our light under a bushel basket.”
Again, I felt seen.
No sooner had I read her text message than another one dropped below it.
“Although,” she wrote, “you’ve never seemed especially preoccupied with whether people like you or not.”
And then she followed that text message with an eye-wink emoji and then a kissy-face emoji.
Looking back at my sermons after Fleming grabbed me by my virtual lapels and shook me, I think “studious avoidance” captures my preaching better than “courageous.” I certainly wasn’t bold enough to dare use a phrase like “Empire of Lies.”
I was not who she had reminded me that I am to be.
Because, despite what Fleming thinks, I want you to like me.
What’s more, I love you all.
I didn’t want to provoke conflict.
So I hid the light.
Stanley Hauerwas says, “The world cannot survive Christians pussyfooting around in the expectation that redemption and justice will arrive as a matter of course. Neither can anyone claiming to be Christian.” That is, Christianity cannot survive Christians pussyfooting around in the expectation that redemption and justice will arrive as a matter of course. Christianity has suffered more causalities from the faux faith of its adherents than the honest doubts of atheists. The problem appears rather easy to identify; namely, the problem is the people that Christ continues to call to be Christians. When I look at the world and our Empire of Lies, it certainly seems like there are far more bushel baskets on fire than there are faithful followers bearing the light that is Christ and bearing the consequences of it.
I don’t know about you, but if I were God this is not how I would do it. I would not have the Kingdom come through people like me. I would not work the reconciliation of all things through people like you. I suppose the good news is that Christ could only afford to be so patient, he could only have the luxury of wasting time on unfaithful, frightened people like us, if the outcome was assured. If he had the win in the bag already. He could only afford to call ridiculous, basket-wearing people like us if what he says is already true, “I have overcome the world.”
So come to the table. Here the Son once again summons us to step out of the shadows. And here, in creatures of bread and wine, the Son gives himself to us; so that, we might be capable of attempting lives that remove the veil from the Father’s face. Here, through bread and wine, Christ has promised to nourish us with himself; so that, we might be able to to love the world so much that we refuse to look like the world.
13 ‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
14 ‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden.15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
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