Summer Sermon Series: Say It Like You Mean It – Confessing Our Faith
John 14:1-7 and 1st Peter 2:13-17
This morning we continue our summer sermon series “Say it Like you Mean it” about our Book of Confessions. We began with a look at the ancient creeds of the early church and then we spent two weeks discussing the Reformation confessions. This week we move into what is living memory for some of us, the period of WWII.
This morning we are looking at the Theological Declaration of Barmen which was written in 1934 by a gathering of over 130 clergy and lay people representing Lutheran, Reformed, and United churches. The confession was written in Germany in the city of Barmen-Wuppertal in direct response to the tensions between church and state in the lead up to World War II.
As with the other confessions we have studied, there was a lot of history and strife leading up to the moment of writing this declaration of faith. Germany had a state church for many years but it ceased to exist after the end of WWI in 1918. The protestant denominations remained though throughout the country.
As National Socialism began to rise with the power of Hitler, a similar movement was brewing in the church. Called the “German Christian” movement, this group within the church sought a full embrace of the national socialist movement including its anti-Jewish, anti-international, and racial purity ideals. By July of 1933 a movement for a new national church, the German Evangelical Church was created and in a series of sham elections among religious leaders, the German Christian movement took over the new national church.
Reaction against such a distortion of the gospel was swift and in September of 1933 the Pastor’s Emergency League was formed. Thousands of Pastors signed on and would frequently read statements from their pulpits denouncing the German Christian movement.
The rhetoric increased and in November of that year the German Christians held a rally in Berlin to declare that the German reformation that had begun with Martin Luther would be complete in the Third Reich by formation of a new church, a “mighty, new, all-embracing German national church.” Dr. Reinhold Krause preached for the cause making clear the ideals for creation of this church including getting rid of “the Old Testament with its Jewish morality of rewards, and its stories of cattle dealers and panders.” The New Testament was to be purged of all its superstitious passages as well as the theology of the Rabbi Paul. Talk of a crucified Jesus was to be avoided in favor of talk of a “hero” savior. Any members not agreeing to the changes were discharged from the church.
The Pastor’s Emergency League again preached against the German national church, protesting in their pulpits. The following January, in 1934, the First Free Reformed Synod met and issued a statement against the Nazi leanings of the German Evangelical Church. The response was swift when a day later the Reich Bishop issued a muzzling order which forbade any public criticism of church administration or discussion of church controversy. The Pastor’s Emergency League responded by again preaching protest from their pulpits.
Things continued back and forth until April of 1934 when the Pastor’s Emergency League created the Constitutional Evangelical Church of Germany and declared that it, not the German Evangelical Church, was the true church of God. The group knew that there would be no compromise with the German Christian movement or the Nazi regime. They declared that unity of the German church could only come from God, and could not be forced by false doctrine or governmental decree.
In May of 1934, the Synod met at Barmen and crafted the statement that appears in our Book of Confessions today. The majority of the document was written by now famous theologian Karl Barth. The document pointed out the idolatry of the German Christian movement’s members who were giving ultimate allegiance to the state, rather than to God. It also lifted up the Lordship of Jesus Christ above all other sources of authority. It was from this gathering that the Confessing Church movement was formed, which would struggle against the Nazi regime throughout the war, and who would influence many great pastors including Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
After the war, Karl Barth said this of the confession he wrote:
“Even it was not a total resistance against totalitarian National Socialism. It restricted itself to repelling the encroachment of National Socialism. It confined itself to the Church’s Confession, to the Church service, and to Church order as such. It was only a partial resistance. And for this it has been properly and improperly reproached . . . In proportion to its task, the church has sufficient reason to be ashamed that it did not do more; yet in comparison with those other groups and institutions (meaning universities, legal professions, business, etc.) it has not reason to be ashamed: it accomplished far more than the rest.”
One issue that plays a prominent role in the Theological Declaration of Barmen is the Lordship of Jesus Christ. This is the idea that no authority is greater than the work of God in Jesus Christ. We see that in our reading from the gospel of John where Jesus declares that he alone is “the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” The German Christian movement was claiming a revelation apart from Jesus Christ. They claimed that in race, folk, and nation there was an order of existence granted to them by God. In their race and in their nation, they saw a truth that enabled them to declare that some people, Jews in particular, were not worthy of citizenship or human rights. The Declaration of Barmen declares this to be false; the only true revelation is Jesus Christ himself, who was a Jew.
The other issue, and perhaps one that resonates quite strongly in our world today, is the sin of idolatry. The German Christian movement had placed devotion to country above devotion to God. Country and the allegiance it required became an idol. Rather than being a piece of wood or gold, like we imagine from Old Testament stories; an idol is anything created by humans that we give our ultimate allegiance to. Idolatry is giving our total commitment to anything that is not God. We see this everywhere in our lives today, be it a commitment made to money, to power, or simply to our cell phones.
In our reading from 1st Peter, we are reminded that faithful Christians accept the role of human authority that we find in government. But, we also recognize that only God is the Lord of our life. Only God is worthy of our full allegiance. It is easy for us to see the mistakes the German Christians made and to write them off as non-Christians, or somehow worse than us. Yet, I think the subtle creep from patriotism to idolatry is a surprisingly slippery slope. We too, should be wary that we don’t follow this same path as we live in a country that many want to declare a Christian nation.
One of the leaders of the anti-Nazi movement within the German church was Pastor Martin Niemoller. You might not recognize his name but I am confident that most of you will know the quote that he is most famous for:
“In Germany they came first for the communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unions and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.”
Niemoller was a powerful witness against the Nazis but also spoke eloquently about the role of all people in allowing such an atrocity to occur. When he was released from Dachau in 1945 he declared “We have no right to pass off all guilt on the evil Nazis . . . We the church failed.” All Germans needed to repent.
So, why do I care? Well, just like before, these issues are as relevant in our lives today as in the time that the Theological Declaration of Barmen was composed. Many things vie for positon of Lord of our life, not the least of which is patriotism and our love of country. As folks long for a return of Christian values and to lift up the United States as a Christian nation, we would do well to take a lesson from history. Few German Christians, when pledging allegiance to the state of Germany, realized what an idol it had become. Nor could they have imagined the awful turn that such a course would take in human history. It is good for Americans to love their country, but it is important for Christians to love their God more.
This week has been an especially hard one for our country, as violence has erupted across our nation. There are many issues in play from questions of gun control, to the rise of racism, to questions of the use and abuse of authority. As forces in politics and the media continue to seek to divide us, the people of one country, into separate camps and tribes, confessions like the Theological Declaration of Barmen seem especially relevant. Who is the Lord of our life this day? And how do we show that in our interactions with others who share this great nation with us?
Today we gather around the communion table, and state clearly that Jesus alone is Lord of our life. In this place we reject the story of a hero Jesus, and lift up instead a picture of weakness, a crucified savior, a man unjustly killed. At this table we affirm the Old Testament ideal of covenant, and celebrate a new promise of freedom given for us in Jesus Christ. This table is where our allegiance lies, honoring a sacrifice of body and blood, and pledging to live our lives in the model that Christ has taught.
Before we gather at table though, we will pause to confess our faith. In your bulletin insert you will find words from the Theological Declaration of Barmen, declaring our beliefs about the relationship of church and state. Let us stand together, and “say it like you mean it!”