By Annette Brownlee
Between the years of 1939 and 1943, the people of a remote mountain region in central France quietly hid between 1,000 and 5,000 refugees. Many were Jewish children. The town is Le Chambon. Students in my classes have read about it. The people of this isolated plateau were farmers and teachers. They ran boarding houses and cafés. Through a secret network of aid organizations, they hid refugees on their farms and in their barns, their schools and boarding houses; and through an underground railroad they led many through the region’s dense woods over the border into Switzerland.
These remarkable actions happened through their local Protestant church and the leadership of their pastor, Andre Trocmé, as well as his wife, Magda, and copastor Edouard Theis. This small, remote village church, with the help of an international network, was the kind of church we all dream ours could be. They saved lives, many lives, at the risk of their own, in the name of Jesus Christ. For that work the Yad Vashem of Israel conferred the title of “Righteous Among the Nations” — the highest Gentile honor in Israel — on the Trocmés, Theis, and, in time, over 40 others. In 1990, in a highly unusual act, the title of “Righteous Among the Nations” was conferred on the entire village of Le Chambon.
But that isn’t the story I want to tell about this French pastor and his congregation — at the beginning of this sermon in the first week of the school year, on a Wednesday known as Holy Cross Day, when we lift high Christ’s cross. Rather, it’s a story of how Trocmé carried out his ministry at the end of the war. After Germany had been defeated by the Allies, there were about 120 German soldiers being held as prisoners on the outskirts of Le Chambon. It was August 1944.
Pastor Trocmé said, “Because the prisoners were in my parish, I automatically became their chaplain” (see Pierre Boismorand, ed., Magda and André Trocmé: Resistance Figures, trans. Jo-Anne Elder [McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014], 143.) His focus (and that of his church) turned from protecting Jews and other refugees to protecting German prisoners of war. Many in the area, including Resistance fighters, wanted them executed. Trocmé would have none of it. He did what churches do: he led services for the German soldiers, he preached. He pastored and taught. He wrote a catechism of sorts, starting with the Ten Commandments and ending with justice, truth, and nonviolence. These are virtues, Trocmé told the German prisoners, “we can always practice because God has forgiven our sins through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (Boismorand, 145).
Each Sunday Trocmé delivered the same sermon to his two congregations. In the morning he preached his sermon in French in his parish church, and in the afternoon he preached it in German at the prison camp. Neither group was happy about it. The French accused him of being a spy for the Germans, and the Germans accused him of being a spy for the French. His response? “I was just trying to preach the Gospel.”
Trocmé refused to see either the French or Germans as unilaterally guilty or innocent. He refused to see either group solely through the lens of friend or foe, victim or victor — but rather through Christ’s eyes, all of them as Christ’s lost children. So to both he proclaimed the single gospel of Christ’s forgiveness. Perhaps he had in mind the middle of Acts 11. When some of the apostles heard about Peter’s experience in Joppa, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18).
How is difference to be addressed in Christ? In 1944 between the French and Germans, in Paul’s congregation in Corinth, and in this century between the many differences within congregations and denominations and among neighbors and nations which have so divided our world? How?
I speak of all this because this is the world into which God sent his Son. God so loved the world that he — what? We hear again this afternoon: “That he sent his Son.” Differences among peoples in this world that God so loved are assumed and embraced in Christ’s incarnation in our creaturely flesh. The question of how to address these differences is also created by Christ himself when he tells us, “As the Father sends me, so I send you.” Send where? Not into some like-minded bubble. We are sent to the nations, to strangers, to enemies, to immigrants, and migrants, to the gay and homophobic, to the police and young black men, conservative party and New Democratic Party — and on and on — into the whole stew of differences that so break us down or cause us to want to throw back up the dividing walls that Christ broke down.
It is the will and plan of God that we are sent. And more so—Jesus tells us we are to pray that we land in just this place. “The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few,” Jesus says. “Pray therefore to the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into his harvest.” Pray, Jesus tells us, that you land in just this difficult place.
This is Holy Cross Day, September 14—a day our Scripture readings and many churches place particular focus on the cross of Jesus Christ. The cross of Jesus Christ creates the single light in which we are to understand and participate in creaturely differences. The cross of Jesus Christ is the single shape of divine loving, embracing, suffering, and redeeming of the creaturely difference of his lost children. The death and resurrection of Jesus is the single power through which all peoples — near and far — are made one. That is what Paul reminds us of today as he responds to his own church struggling with differences. It is good news we need to hear again and again.
As you know, Paul begins the first of his two letters to the church in Corinth by naming the divisions he has heard about from a distance. Chloe’s people have reported to him that there are quarrels among the sisters and brothers there. Some say, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Identity politics was well and alive before our time. Paul will have none of it. He writes to them, “Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name” (1 Cor. 1:13–15). And listen to what Paul says next in response to these divisions. Listen to what he says is the vocation of the church. “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power” (1:17). So that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.
We are shaped by and stand in the midst of the world’s troubling and often violent complexities. They are both the glory and the sunk costs of being creatures. The vocation of the church which Christ sends is to live, preach, and witness in such a way that his cross is not emptied of its power. And how do we do that? First, by refusing to see such differences in the glare of the many false lights that illuminate them. We don’t reduce differences to a struggle for power. We don’t pretend they aren’t there. We don’t water down the Gospel. We do not rely on our cleverness and strategies to try to manage them.
Paul says the cross abolishes our foolishness. And yet, foolishly, we often see ourselves as somehow innocent, in the right, unlike others. In doing so, don’t we risk emptying the cross of its power — its power for us? Because people convinced of their own innocence cannot be reconciled. This is what Trocmé learned preaching to both the French and Germans. Only the repentant can. Only the repentant can partake of the power of forgiveness and new life through Christ’s cross.
So how do we participate in the ministry of Christ so that the cross is not emptied of its power? I think we do what Christ does through its power: we love across the differences in the places God sends his church. We love among and across the difference — not negating them or reducing them to a power struggle. We love across them and in them — poorly, imperfectly. We suffer them, we bear their burden, we give thanks for them. This is the power of the cross. For the cross of Jesus Christ is the shape of divine loving, embracing, suffering and — most of all — redeeming and transforming creaturely difference. There is no other.
For isn’t this what Christ himself did? And now that he is ascended, what he continues to do? — love across the largest difference of all, the largest division of all, the largest power struggle of all — God’s own creation, with all its creaturely distinctions, broken, disobedient, rebellious, lost? God who creates us, loves and longs for us. God looks at his creation and doesn’t see it as we do, as this group and that, as friend and foe, as liberal and conservative. God looks on all of us with our many divisions and only sees his children, whoever we are, lost, far away from him and each other; and so he sent us Jesus to give his life for all of us, to bring us all home, back to him, to make us one. He calls us all his sisters and brothers. We know this, don’t we? We wouldn’t be here if this single love, which has loved us across the chasm between ourselves and God, hadn’t claimed us.
And so God sends his church to all nations, to live and witness in such a way that the cross is not emptied of its power. And lives are changed. And because of this we come to Wycliffe. Here, hopefully, our eyes will be trained to see the world and ourselves through the single light of the cross. And our hearts and lives will continue to take on the concrete shape of God’s own embrace and suffering of our differences. It is an audacious thing we do, isn’t it? I hope we do so with seriousness and humility. And with hope and joy. For in God’s foolish wisdom he sends persons — people, you, me and all the other folks that cause this world terrible problems — as his witnesses. In his foolish wisdom, God sends persons like us to the ends of the earth, people who find it so hard to love those who are different. And yet God sends us to do just this. Doesn’t he have a better plan? This is his plan. And so in God’s foolish wisdom, he sends his church to all nations — to near and far, to friend and stranger — to live and witness and love, in such a way that the cross of Jesus Christ is not emptied of its power. Imagine.
The Rev. Annette Brownlee is chaplain, professor of pastoral theology, and director of field education at Wycliffe College, Toronto.
Reprinted with permission from Preaching Jesus Christ Today: Six Questions for Moving from Scripture to Sermon (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018).