Who are we? Who are we called to be…together? And what does that have to do with complaining?
In the season of Lent, in the middle of our strategic planning process, we are pondering the question of ccommunity together. And we have a dialogue partner: Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I think his classic book Life Together has a lot to say to this moment in the life of Plymouth Church.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a pastor, theologian and a key leader of the Confessing Church movement in Germany, which resisted Hitler’s regime for the sake of Jesus Christ. He had a comfortable position serving a congregation of expatriate Germans in London, but friends prevailed upon him to come back to Germany and lend his gifts to the resistance. He became the head of the underground seminary in Finkenwalde –training ministers to serve in that small segment of the German church that refused to capitulate to Hitler.
Bonhoeffer was martyred on April 9, 1945 –hung in the Flossenburg concentration camp just two weeks before that camp was liberated by the U.S. soldiers from the 90th and 97th Infantry divisions. He was 39 years old.
The underground seminary at Finkenwalde was a kind of experiment. In a time when German ministerial training was dominated by the universities-based, Bonhoeffer shaped the underground seminary into a kind of Protestant monastery. Seminary students lived together, they shared meals with each other, they had regular communal worship.
He wrote Life Together as a manual for that community but it has become a classic of 20th century devotion and theology. Between now and Easter, I am inviting you to read it so that we can have a conversation about our life together here at Plymouth Church.
This past weekend, we launched our Lenten journey with the familiar story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. That is a story about identity –who is Jesus, really? And what will be the character of the community he creates?
Matthew’s Gospel explores those questions by telling a pretty strange story.
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
I will be the first to admit it: this is a pretty strange story, even by the standards of the Bible. Jesus goes without anything to eat for a very long time, is magically whisked from one location to the other in the blink of an eye and has an actual, face-to-face conversation with the actual devil. It is just weird. If you find that you cannot take it literally, well, welcome to the club. But we should try to take it seriously. When we do that, this strange story starts speaking to us in surprising ways.
It helps to have a little context: where does this strange story fall within the wider story of Matthew’s Gospel? Well, just before the temptation, Matthew devotes a lot of space to the question of Jesus identity. Matthew opens with a genealogy—telling us who Jesus is by telling us who his people are—and we get the story of his baptism, where the Holy Spirit descends and the voice of God speaks and we hear one answer to the question of who Jesus is: “This is my Son, the beloved; with whom I am well pleased.”
And what comes right after that? The story of Jesus’ temptation. And to me, that suggests this story has something do with the question of Jesus’ identity. Having heard the Spirit say that he is God’s beloved Son, Jesus takes some time and some space to struggle with all of that. What does it mean to be beloved and chosen by God? What exactly does God intend for him to do? Who is he, really? Out in the wilderness, before his work can begin, Jesus must wrestle with the question of his own identity. And his struggle sheds light on our struggle to understand what kind of community God calls us to be.
Jesus does not wrestle with these questions alone. At the end of 40 days, the devil drops by for a visit. And did you notice the very first words out of the devil’s mouth? If you are the Son of God. Give the devil his due: He knows exactly what is going on here. He has come to hit Jesus where it hurts –to poke and to probe at this still-sensitive question: Who are you? Who are you really?” So each temptation explores the issue of identity. Each temptation forces Jesus to face the question of who he is and what God intends for him to do. When we keep that in mind, this strange story starts making sense.
So: the first temptation -turning a stone into bread. Seems like a logical thing to do, and after 40 days of fasting, Jesus must be famished. But this is not about bread. It cuts far deeper than that. As God’s Beloved, as the Chosen One, will Jesus use his power to meet his own needs? He does not always have to focus on the hungry and the poor and the outcast and the sick. He could use his favored status to seek a little personal gain –just a small meal when he is really hungry. Turning a stone into bread -hardly a federal offense.
But Jesus is not interested. Quoting from the Book of Deuteronomy, he replies to the devil, “It is written, One does not live by bread alone.” Jesus knows that he has been chosen by God, not for his own sake, but for the sake of the world. He will not exploit his special status in order to meet his own needs. Some things matter more than bread.
The second temptation: throw yourself down. The devil takes Jesus to the top of the temple in Jerusalem, the highest point for miles around. And this time it is Satan who breaks out some Scripture, quoting a couple of verses from Psalm 91 about God’s angels protecting God’s people from harm. Reading between the lines here, it sounds like the devil wants Jesus to throw himself off the top of the Temple so that angels will have to intervene, swooping down dramatically to save God’s Chosen One from certain death.
This temptation may be the hardest one to understand. But remember: this is about Jesus’ identity. What kind of a Savior will he be? Who is he really? Well, if he does what the devil wants him to do, he will be spectacular and he will be famous–rescued by angels, in broad daylight, in downtown Jerusalem, for all the world to see. In an instant, everyone would know that Jesus is the real deal, the certifiable Son of God. Then everyone would want to follow him. It is a marketing ploy, a shortcut to success and, when you think about it, it is kind of brilliant.
But Jesus is not interested. This time he answers the devil by quoting from the Book of Deuteronomy: “It is said, Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Maybe by now Jesus has started to see the path that God calls him to walk, the work that God calls him to do. He already has some sense of where all of this is leading. And there will be no shortcuts, no quick fixes, no easy success. Betrayed, denied, abandoned and alone, Jesus will go to the cross –because that is who he is and that is what God intends for him to do. Really.
The third temptation: the kingdoms of the earth. In an instant, Jesus sees all the nations of the known world –the vast empire of Rome, spread before his feet “All this will be yours,” the devil whispers. “All you have to do is worship me.” The final temptation is subtle. The devil knows that Jesus probably has little interest in the trappings of power: riding around in limousines, making big speeches to adoring crowds. But as God’s Beloved, as the Chosen One, Jesus might be tempted to seize power for the sake of doing good. Just imagine: same old empire, but with Jesus as Caesar; the power of Rome harnessed for the purpose of God.
But Jesus is not interested. Once more he draws on the Book of Deuteronomy: “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.” Jesus knows that nobody ever beats Caesar at his own game. You cannot use the crude implements of the empire to bring about the reign of God. You can serve God or you can seek power, but it is awfully hard to do both.
So: three strikes and the devil is out. The wilderness has done its work. But for now, at least, the way forward is clear. Jesus knows who he is. Jesus knows what God intends for him to do. He is ready to walk the path laid out before him.
And we are invited to follow.
It is daunting to measure the distance between the communities that we are (flawed, fallible, broken) and the community God calls us to be. And it is tempting (I use that word deliberately) to complain about the ways our community falls short.
But here is where Bonhoeffer can be helpful: According to him, when I complain about my church, I am telling on myself.
In the first chapter of the book, he puts forward a seemingly simple idea: Christian community is a gift. It is something given to us by a gracious God, not something we produce out of our own effort. You cannot manufacture Christian community; you can only receive it.
So when it does not work out—when Christian community goes off the rails, when it is marred or broken or bad—it probably was not the genuine article to begin with. It was some kind of illusion, a product of our hands.
But then Bonhoeffer gets kind of personal. He says that pastors, specifically, should not complain about their congregation. If I ever feel like going down that road—if I want to vent and grouse and grumble about my church—I should probably stop and check myself.
I should carefully consider the possibility that I am the problem here.
Maybe I don’t want the good gift of Christian community. Maybe I have been getting in the way of that.
Maybe I have been busy trying to turn Plymouth Church into something else, something I can shape to suit my own desires. And then, when y’all do not cooperate, I start to complain. You are not doing what I want you to do.
When I complain I am telling on myself.
Other people are not the problem. I am.
Thank God for the moments when I can see that.
[i] I never read this story without thinking of Henri Nouwen’s wonderful little book In The Name of Jesus: Reflection on Christian Leadership. (New York, NY: Crossorad, 1989). Much more of my thought than I even realize is indebted to Nouwen’s thoughts about this passage.
[ii] So I like Fred Craddock’s suggestion—which immediately makes sense to any preacher—that the devil is tempting Jesus to coerce belief by performing some sort of magic trick. Luke. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. James L. Mays, Ed. (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1990), pp.54-57.