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Ministry in enemy-occupied territory

This sermon was preached at the 2016 Commencement Service of Nashotah House Theological Seminary, May 26.

Dear People of God, Rt. Rev. bishops, elders in the faith, deans, faculty and staff, families of the church, and most especially graduates: may the Lord be with you; and, in his mercy and through his grace, may he bless our words.

Wycliffe College, Toronto, where I work, just had its own graduation. The speaker pointed out that most talks on such occasions focus on the graduates: what they (in this case, you) have done; where they (or you) are going; what they (or you) will be doing. But we should be focusing on God, he said: what God has done, where God is going, what God will do. This afternoon, let me try to put these two sides together: you and God. I will begin with a challenging, though perhaps seemingly grim, observation, which is this:

Just as the Israelites of the Old Testament suffered, so we have come to our moment of suffering and humiliation.

This is a quotation from a great Christian I will tell you about in a moment. For now, I want to insist only that this observation on our identity and our relationship to the Bible — we are with Israel in the midst of a tumultuous time — is actually the source of great hope for our ministries. But it also focuses our ministries in some very special ways.

Before I turn to the source of this observation, let me mention someone you do all know, C.S. Lewis, in a famous text from his work Mere Christianity. Here is what he says:

Christianity agrees with Dualism that this universe is at war. But it does not think this is a war between independent powers. It thinks it is a civil war, a rebellion, and that we are living in a part of the universe occupied by the rebel. Enemy-occupied territory — that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage. When you go to church you are really listening-in to the secret wireless from our friends: that is why the enemy is so anxious to prevent us from going. (Mere Christianity [1952; repr. Harper Collins, 2001], pp. 45-46.)

Lewis’s characterization of the relationship of Church and world is plausible; I would even say it is compelling. Certainly, our cultural location is one of enemy-held territory. Don’t imagine it is anything more benign. I could easily launch into a familiar jeremiad now: doctor-assisted suicide (including of depressed teenagers), anti-religious and anti-Christian prejudices, historicist nihilism, sexual destruction, denigration of the formative needs for children and youth, and disdain for wisdom. And that’s only Canada!

The difference today from Lewis is perhaps that this enemy-held territory often seems to include the Church herself! Maybe that has always been the case. Peter, the Rock, after all, turned out to be a betrayer himself, at least for a time. Shall we be better than Peter?

We too can be the Church, even the true Church, but the Church as betrayer, as weeper, as redeemed, as passionate and self-giving all at once. With Peter, at the end of the Gospel of John, we too can be taken where we don’t want to go. And so we are: enemies who are dragged into being friends. That includes you!

But back to C.S. Lewis. He wrote his lines about being the Church in enemy-occupied territory during the most frightening days of World War II. He was looking across the Channel, and thinking of Europe. So, let us follow his gaze and go straight into the midst of enemy territory itself, where Lewis had not himself been: Vichy France, governed and supported by collaborationist Frenchmen, kowtowing to the German occupiers. Six hundred thousand French citizens died in WWII, including about 75,000 deported Jews, almost all rounded up by fellow Frenchmen.

Let us go to southeastern France, to a large and still not very developed windswept plateau, long the haunt of persecuted Protestants, to the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. Le Chambon was a small village that in the 1940s saved Jews. How many is unclear: perhaps hundreds or even thousands.

Philip Hallie’s Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There (Harper Collins, 1979), made the village famous in the English-speaking world. The issue for Hallie lay in the subtitle. How did something good, astounding, beautiful, even redemptive, “happen” in enemy-occupied territory?

Hallie’s book is mostly a retelling of the story: At the center of it was the Reformed pastor Andre Trocmé, his wife, Magda, his colleague Edouard Theis, teachers, villagers, friends, relatives.

Jews were brought to Le Chambon through formal and informal networks. Most were children; some were adults. They were sheltered by the villagers in families, as students at school, and when the Gestapo or authorities came, they were hidden in barns, in the woods, or in attics.

Trocmé himself was arrested at various times, and while interred wrote letters and sermons to his congregation. Although he was released and returned to work, he had family members who were killed for their acts of sheltering Jews. Shortly before his death in 1971, Trocmé was recognized (as well as his wife and later the village as a whole) by Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, as a “Righteous,” a Tzadik, among the Gentiles.

How did goodness happen in enemy-occupied territory, where even many Christians and their churches shook hands with the Devil? Until recently, most of the interest in Trocmé has been focused on his pacifism. After his experience in World War I, and after a personal spiritual struggle, Trocmé became committed to nonviolence, and was active in the small French movement associated with pacifism in the late 1920s and ’30s. Since the Reformed church in France did not allow its pastors to be pacifists, Trocmé had difficulty finding congregations who would hire him, and he worked in small, unappealing, and poorer churches. That is how he ended up in the middle of nowhere in Le Chambon.

As the extent of Le Chambon’s work in rescuing Jews became known, Trocmé’s political theology began to draw scholarly scrutiny. My wife, Annette, became interested in Trocmé through reading Hallie’s book, which she and I have used in the classroom. But Annette wanted to get behind the story itself, to the Christian life of Trocmé and his community, something Hallie and, frankly, most other scholars have not been interested in.

Annette gathered archival material and, while on a sabbatical not long ago, looked at material in Geneva and met with Edouard Theis’s daughter. We also visited Le Chambon itself, a place not that different from the past. And we went to church on Sunday — the same church that, 80 years ago, listened to Trocmé’s sermons and saved Jews. What we discovered was a congregation typical of today’s European rural Christianity: aging, fumbling, dying. It was early December, and it was too cold to heat the church, so the service was held in a large classroom in the primary school across the alley. The numbers were few, the members elderly, the hymns poorly sung.

For this congregation, the word typical is important. One thing that Annette has delved into in detail is Trocmé’s actual life as a minister — such as you will be. Not the astounding acts he led the villagers in, but the normal stuff of Trocmé’s day-to-day ministry.

We have manuscripts detailing his Bible studies with the congregation and his many sermons. We have his carefully constructed adult study courses and his parish newsletters. Trocmé deals with familiar things, of course, like tithing, and suppers, and the like. But most of his parochial writing and teaching is deeply serious, engaging substantive topics of Scripture, the nature of the Church, theology, the Creeds, church history. And, of course, he visited his members ceaselessly.

What one sees in all of this is a minister who is devoted, consistent, profound in steadfastness and Christian focus. It is amazing and moving to read his manuscripts: handwritten sermons and class outlines, worked over, reflected upon, elaborated and corrected, based on his own local reading and pondering. No Internet, no word processors. Just prayerful labor, night and day.

Annette likes to talk about the “ordinary grace” of the Church’s life in this case. Trocmé was bright, but was not an intellectual academic. Despite his pacifism, his main interest was simply in presenting to his people the Scriptures and the gospel, and his sermons are rarely overtly political. He was profoundly driven by a sense that God was real, and had really given himself to humankind in Christ Jesus, as revealed in the Scriptures; and this reality lay behind everything, including of course the world itself, in all of its mess, evil, and suffering. The reality of God in Christ in the world, furthermore, was so fundamental that the only human response that made any sense was one of humble receipt and following.

What Trocmé felt himself called to do was to be steadfast in presenting this truth to his people, and to live it before the face of all.

What is it like to be a Christian in an occupied land? In 1940, after France capitulated to Germany, and the occupation began, Trocmé and his colleague Theis preached a sermon, later published, known as “The eapons of the Spirit.” It begins with the phrase I quoted at the opening of my remarks: “Just as the Israelites of the Old Testament suffered, so we have come to our moment of suffering and humiliation.”

Believe it or not, this phrase was anything but grim; it was a call to action. After speaking forthrightly about the sins of the French people and the sins of French Christians that lay behind the catastrophe of the moment, and that merited God’s judgment, Trocmé and Theis then spent the bulk of the sermon on the great but.

“But,” they insist, “we must guard against some forms of humility that would be disobedience to God.” They list three such forms of disobedient self-humbling, which I encourage you to note.

First, let us be on our guard against confusing humility with hopelessness, and from believing and spreading the word that all is lost. It is not true that all is lost. Gospel truth is not lost, and it will be proclaimed loud and clear in our church from this pulpit.

This is 1940. Do you hear that hope?

“Second, we must guard against humbling ourselves not for our own sins, but the sins of others.” Trocmé and Theis point out how easily “humility” can turn into blaming others, and quietly justifying oneself. False humility is always a form of judging others, as I know too well!

“Only God can judge each of us,” they insist. And that means that our own judgment can only go so far as ourselves. Keep that focus!

Third, they say: In our shame, “let us not lose our faith and our convictions based on the Gospel.” Fervor must endure.

I have thought about these three warnings: against hopelessness; against blaming others; against abandonment of the gospel. There is nothing remarkable in proclaiming them; but there is something deeply important about remembering them in our era just for their “ordinariness.” Trocmé and his colleagues and people took them seriously. Most Christians forgot them.

You, and all of us, are engaged in a ministry under occupation. America is occupied; Africa is occupied; the world is occupied. But we have witnesses to the redemptive fruitfulness of ministry in such a situation, and its ordinary forms can encourage us.

So I give you a charge — which is customary for commencement speeches — in three parts. It applies to all of you, whether you will be doing parish ministry, teaching, serving the poor and needy, planting churches, writing, or, God willing, doing simple evangelism to the unbelieving.

Your first charge is to remember that the occupation itself is really a fraud. The Devil is a lie, not a power. God is in fact now the owner of all things, including our culture, including our church. Hence, the Church cannot be false in itself, although it can sin horrendously. The Church is Israel: “not my people” becoming “my people” in the power and promises of God (Hos. 1:9, 2:23; Rom. 9:25-26). I am more convinced of this than I was 13 years ago, when everything exploded in the Anglican Communion. Israel: at times focused, at times dispersed; sometimes entranced, sometimes suicidal; fervent, disobedient, and blasphemous. Israel, the Church, exists by the continuous promises of God and by God’s deliberate ordering, including his justice and mercy. Call the Church to faith; do not throw her away.

Second, it is important to understand the reality of our situation, because we are never inventing, or constructing the Church anew, as if your congregations or dioceses or national structures — as if Israel — could be invented anew or constructed by the Israelites. The issue is not invention; it is always and ever “obedience.”

We tend to pursue our ministries on a continuum between activism and quietism, which orders most of our lives: do this; build that; organize, strategize. Clergy conferences are all about that, as are all the books and blogs of the world. And if that’s too much — as it surely is — we then give in to fatigue, withdraw, hide. Most clergy end up doing that.

But there is an alternative continuum to the activism/quietism spectrum. It is simply to do what God asks; to follow where God leads. And only that. No more, no less.

Trocmé’s pacifism can be taken as a kind of symbolic posture before the world: we do not strategize. Period. It is interesting that there are no statistics on those Le Chambon saved. Hence the uncertainty of the actual numbers. There were good practical reasons for that. But it goes beyond keeping records from the Gestapo.

Le Chambon embodies the opposite of today’s great “Church of the statistical fraud.” If you take in the stranger, that is because you are asked to; if you teach children about God and his laws, that is because you are so commanded. If you pray in church, it is because God is worthy of it. If you evangelize the unbelieving, it is out of love.

So, your second charge: Stop counting. Don’t even start. Just be obedient. The Church is God’s; be obedient.

For the third charge, let me simply say this: trust. We often use trust as a synonym for faith, but it isn’t really. Trust is a strange English word, originating from words meaning encouragement and the cheering of others. Then the word trust came to connote a kind of intimacy and sharing, and only last did it come to connote a certain reliance. In a way, the word trust combines all three of the theological virtues: faith, hope, and love together. Trust is bound up with the One who comes close, holds on to us, fills us with cheer.

Ministers who trust, as I charge you to do — who trust God, and trust God’s life in Christ, and trust God’s present power in Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension — such trusters are precisely those who can know that the Church is God’s, and who can be obedient: who can stop counting; who can just follow; who do not lose hope; who can “let goodness happen” amid the lies of the occupiers. Because only God is good, as Jesus says (Mark 10:18), goodness is therefore sovereign — utterly, sheerly, magnificently.

If this is the time of Israel’s suffering and humiliation, and we — you — are sheep sent out among the wolves (Matt. 10:16), and if the land of the Lord itself seems to be occupied, it is all because of this sovereign goodness. For, we read, the Lord has promised good to Israel (Num. 10:29).

That is what God has done; that is what we are living as we follow him; that is where our ministries are assuredly going. That is who you are, will be, and can rejoice in becoming.

The Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College, Toronto. His other posts are here

The featured image comes via Churchpop.com.


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