Today, as we approach a week of remembrance, as we consider loved ones lost on this All Saints Sunday, we are presented with the Beatitudes in our Gospel. We are given a divine version of what makes a person powerful and worthy: not strength, and ambition, but humility, and peacemaking, and a willingness to lose for the sake of a greater good. It is a timely gospel, as we look ahead to Nov 11, where that lesson of sacrifice – and the warning for humanity of the alternative – looms large.
For Lutherans, the timing might feel even more complicated. We have just celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation – where Martin Luther famously resisted the self-serving ambitions and corrupted power of the church – and now we arrive at the monument to War, to the war where Martin Luther’s most abhorrent writings about the Jewish people served as a weapon for Hitler. For the first, we celebrate him. And for the second, we must condemn him. We must face that too. And own it. The new church who resisted 500 years ago for the sake of the people; in power, became part of an evil that needed to be resisted for the sake of the world. It is always this way: as individuals, as communities working together, we are one and we are the other, and we are both. And Jesus understood this struggle. The Beatitudes aren’t about bestowing blessings or shaming those with good fortune. They are a call to resist – to stand against warmongering, hubris, greed, and hate, wherever we are. They are a call for us to be righteous resisters. We have the lessons of Lutheran history to show us how. Indeed, we have the story of Dietrich Bonhoffer.
Now many of you will recognize the name, and some of you may not. Dietrich Bonhoffer was perhaps an unlikely member of the resistance. He grew up in a prominent, aristocratic, family. At 14, he decided to become a preacher and theologian, to his parents disappointment. He was in his mid-20s when Hitler became chancellor and then president of Germany. While many of his peers underestimated the risk, and even embraced Hitler’s dogma, Bonhoffer recognized the danger immediately, and, while many in the church were being co-opted by the Nazis, he spoke out against them. During that time, he wrote the Cost of Discipleship, in which he defined cheap grace as the kind without commitment, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus – that is the kind of grace that failed to resist as evil spread. Bonhoffer began to speak out against what was happening to the Jewish people, to call on Germans to see their fellow Jewish citizens, as the person who was brought down by thieves in the parable of the Good Samaritan – and to be that Good Samaritan, in the midst of the thieves. When preaching failed to change the tide, he joined the German resistance, which was plotting ways to assassinate Hitler, and was trying to help smuggle Jewish families to safety. In April 1943, he was arrested by the Nazis, and eventually sent to a concentration camp.
In prison, he continued his act of resistance. In his writings, he articulated a vision of Christianity, not defined by religious acts, but by participation in what he called “sufferings of God in the secular life.” To resist, in other words, the inclination to look away, or stay silent, or do nothing, even when the cost was great. For Bonhoffer, it was: in 1945, one month before Germany surrendered, he was hanged for his role in the resistance.
When we remember people – loved ones we knew, soldiers who fought – we might think in terms of their sacrifice: what they gave up, perhaps to raise us and love us, perhaps to go off and risk everything for a war across the ocean, all those years ago, and even yesterday. That is an important way to remember – for sacrifices give weight to their deeds. But let’s also think about how much our love and honouring of them is really about their resistance. The soldier who resisted the safety of doing nothing. The people we love most, the heroes we know personally, and those we admire from afar, show the attributes of the beatitudes. They resist greed, and hatefulness. They resist the instinct to make life all about them. They resist the tendency to look inward. How else would they see us, when we need them?
The Beatitudes tend be interpreted as an embrace for those facing misfortunate, a reminder that God has a different way of judging value. That difference is significant because of the most famous line: The meek shall inherit the earth. Don’t worry, Jesus is saying, it will get better. But let’s not strip those words of their greater power by limiting them. The Beautitides are just as easily a call to arms for the gospel. A prescription for perpetual resistance to protect and defend what we can so easily lose in the world. A warning for those who find themselves in power to resist those more dangerous human tendencies.
This week, let us honour the resisters, those who have come before us, and those who walk among us. Christ-like people who called out evil for what it is and defended us against it at great cost. Christ-like people who have taught us, when there was no glory in it for them, how to love and show mercy. Christ-like people who have been peacemakers while around them the world was at war. People, who as Bonhoffer wrote, could not walk by the person who had fallen in by thieves. People blessed by God. And who, through their actions, bestowed those blessings, in turn, upon us.