A Covert, Undercover Christian is an Oxymoron
To hide the light is to be in darkness
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“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.”
— The Barmen Declaration
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 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.”
The lectionary epistle for the coming Fourth Sunday of Lent is from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, in which the apostle echoes like Christ preaching on the mount:
“For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light, for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, "Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you."
The luminescence of light is its essential quality without which it becomes 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 through faith alone.
But faith alone does not make me a Christian.
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