March 3, 2011
"It is not the religious act that makes a Christian, but it is participation in the suffering of Christ in the life of the world." (Bonhoeffer)
I'm frequently amazed by the results of opinion polls which seem to litter the news and talk shows on the media. In some of these surveys, the respondent categories are divided by religious affiliation. Have you ever wondered what is required to check the category box marked "Christian" for these polls? I'm sure that many of these respondents believe that occasional church attendance is adequate to be named as a Christian by our cultural standards. But it would be more productive for our spiritual lives (and the society in which we live) if GOD's standards were used to determine the label "Christian".
The adjective "Christian" implies that the individual has chosen to live in a manner which reflects the life example of Christ Jesus who called people to leave their "culturally normal" lifestyle and to follow his example. And what was the living example of Jesus? Sure, he attended synagogue services, and participated in the Jewish feasts and rituals...but he also spent his life in COMPASSIONATE service to those who were poor, sick, lost and socially out-cast. It's true that not every person to whom Jesus ministered was poor or an out-cast. However, they all had deep personal and spiritual needs from which they suffered greatly. In fact, when followers of John the Baptist came to Jesus and asked "Who he was?", Jesus defined himself by the nature of his compassionate care for the poor and sick.
..."John the Baptist summoned two of his disciples and sent them to ask"...(if Jesus was the promised Messiah for Israel) and when they came to Jesus..."he had just then cured many people of diseases...and Jesus answered them, Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them." (Luke 7:18-22 NSRV)
Jesus did not define himself as as a "religious superhero" sent by God to Israel. Rather, his spiritual role was understood by his ministry to those suffering and in great need. Christ, the Messiah from God, stooped and bent down to get into the midst of the suffering poor... to be WITH THEM and to bless them with healing and comfort.. His action toward them was a loving expression of his "com-passion"...with them in their suffering.
The quotation from Bonhoeffer which started this reflection was written in the early 1940s in a Germany marching deeply into war. The Nazi war machine was creating unbelievable levels of suffering and destruction while German protestants and catholics were quietly ignoring the chaos around them. It was a time when men like Dietrich Bonhoeffer cried out to their fellow German Christians that church attendance or a nominal "label of Christian" was inadequate to be a follower of the compassionate Christ.
It's very easy for us to look back on that dark time in Christian Europe's history, when the witness of Christ was severely dimmed by human fear and the effort focused on self-interest and self-preservation. However, even today I believe that it would be valid for we American Christians to hear and respond to Bonhoeffer's cry to awaken to the FULL MINISTRY of Christ in this current world. Our worship of Christ Jesus is INADEQUATE if we do not CO-PARTICIPATE WITH CHRIST in ministry to fellow suffering humans in our nation and in the world. How can we Christians quietly ignore the political and social forces which fail to alleviate the causes of so much poverty, pain and human suffering? In future years our generation of Christians may be judged to be as "spiritually weak" as that earlier generation of German Christians.
How will our Christian life be described? Will we be able to respond to those who ask about our faith by letting them witness our "co-ministry" with Christ to the poor, suffering and lost around us?...or will they see our witness to be a "shadow ministry" without involvement (com-passion) in the relief of human suffering?
There's no doubt where Christ can be found in our world...it may be in our churches but you can stake your eternal life on the fact that Christ is still found in ministry to the poor, sick, homeless and out-casts! Where will you be found?
"It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but it is PARTICIPATION in the suffering of Christ in the life of this world." (from Bonhoeffer's chapter (p.656) in Ethik, ed Heinz Todt, 1940.)