logo of the German Kirchentag

Sermon for the closing worship of the
32nd German Protestant Kirchentag in Bremen, Sunday 24 May 2009

Prof Dr. Daniele Garrone
Waldensian and Methodist Protestant Church, Rome

Bible text: 1 Peter 3: 9-17

`Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called - that you might inherit a blessing. For
  • it is those who desire life
  • and desire to see good days,
  • let them keep their tongues from evil
  • and their lips from speaking deceit;
  • let them turn away from evil and do good;
  • let them seek peace and pursue it.
  • For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
  • and his ears are open to their prayer:
  • But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.
Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God's will, than to suffer for doing evil.

At the beginning of this Kirchentag we were posed a question which is still with us now as it closes: "Mortal where are you?" The welcome to the Kirchentag added: "This means you and only you." We didn't understand this as a question the church was asking the world as a warning or complaint. From the outset we've heard this question from God as: "Christian, where are you'?" Or even more pointedly "Protestant Christian, where are you?" I heard "little Waldensian Christian, where are you?"
  • So you, where are you?"
At the end of this Kirchentag, here and now, the Bible text poses us a similar question and asks us to give account for the hope that is in us. A Kirchentag of accountability that calls heaven and earth into question? - God wants to bless us even through this.
  • "Christian, where are you?"
We live in a plural and democratic Europe, thank God! Sixty years of the basic law in Germany, 63 years of the Italian constitution. We are integrated into our society and accepted by it, unlike those Peter was writing for. We are not subjected to hostility and certainly not to organised persecution. We can worship here publicly, even on this "Burgerweide" (literal translation "citizen's meadow') - this is a real gift!

Our hopeless cries do not rise up to heaven (v.l2). We do not suffer for the sake of justice (v.l7). We could hardly even claim that anybody casts aspersions on our good way of life (v.16). At any rate, not here. Elsewhere things are different and not only for Christians...
  • What form of accountability is asked of us?
  • How do we enter into debate with our fellow human beings?
Christianity is no longer the formative or even the over-ruling culture of Europe, if indeed it ever was. We are - even in the state churches - reduced to a minority. We are not so much oppressed, rather no notice is taken of us. Of course there are critical voices, who dispute the Christian heritage of Europe. We should listen to them because they may be a channel through whom God is calling us to repentance. If Christians - for instance in the debate about the European constitution - proudly talk about the role of Christians in European civilisation - about the Christian roots of Europe - then we should not forget how much violence, intolerance and blood the absolute claims of Christians have given rise to.

When churches talk about human rights and freedom it sometimes sounds as if these human rights and freedoms were discovered by the churches. We must look at the facts: human rights had to overcome resistance based on Christian arguments. Church positions sometimes have the effect of seeming to want to trump a politically mature world, trying to show the world that has come of age that it would not be able to live without "God" as guardian. In terms of apologetics, we quite like to argue that there are still the "ultimate questions" - death, guilt, and, today, the beginning and end of biological life. These will still remain the "hunting grounds" of the churches.

Can the One who blesses us, calls us to freedom and gives us hope really be reduced to being a mere guardian of others? No, Peter's demand to always be ready to give an account to everyone goes in a very different direction. And that is our call, even as a relatively small minority (and let's not exaggerate that either!), not to live in a kind of languishing victim mentality. Perhaps this situation will actually mean that the message of hope can come to the fore.

The critical questions which are posed to us as Christians, may also be a source of blessing and healing self-questioning. It isn't enough when, unasked, we simply trumpet something or other in order to gloss over the weakness of our position. At the Kirchentag I have learnt that trumpeting is good when a piece of music comes out, but not when a gratuitous piece of advice comes out! Our Christian voice should never be reduced to mere moralistic teaching - just think of that magic word "values"?

I fear ethics has become the area that we hope will attract people's interest, because we do not have enough hope to expect such interest in the Gospel. Protestants tend to prefer to do social ethics, Evangelicals to concentrate on sexual ethics and Catholics to be engaged in both areas. All of us are open to the temptation to use ethics as a way to gloss over our own lack of giving account of the hope that is in us. Peter, however, warns us loud and clear, "Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you".

Even between Christians ourselves, in the area of ecumenism, hope is not the first thing we notice. Our frustration is often more in evidence than the courage to dare to do something, we sense more realism than trust, more politics and resignation than vision.
  • "Christians, where are you?"
Here we are…and we can take Peter's warnings as signposts, as solace and encouragement to take new steps of hope in our situation of being both integrated and put to the test. In the first place these new steps must be led by Peter's words: "Do not repay evil for evil - on the contrary, repay with a blessing."

Whoever lives from blessing, from chewing the cud of the good Word that God has spoken, can only repeat that word and blessing. Whoever lives from the good works that God has done has no other task than to dare to do that which God's action makes possible. Don't you in German say "to offer a blessing", to "hand out" or "share" a blessing? Perhaps we Christians should do nothing more than those things related to the words "offer" and "share". And we should do this, Peter warns us, with gentleness and reverence, or according to other translations, in a friendly and respectful way. Here we have a beautiful way to resist the Zeitgeist which seems to be dominated by the "revenge of God", by fundamentalist speeches, by obsession with truth and identity delusions.

In such a situation it is not enough to be a little bit less arrogant, to be a little less of a know-all, less condescending and old-fashioned. It is not just a question of style, it's about the issue itself It's about the will to seek a dialogue which takes the point of view and criticisms of others seriously. This is not a result of relativism or a pick and mix approach to life as is so often claimed, nor is it a result of indifference. On the contrary, it is based on the awareness that only God is holy. Gentleness is the way "to keep God holy in our hearts", the only way to bear witness to God's ways, without us thinking that these are our ways or trying to sell our ways as God's ways. Gentleness and reverence, friendliness and respect are the signposts along the way that God is calling us onto, without wanting to direct us.

Only in this way can we have a clear conscience. A conscience based not on the hubris of the know-all or I'm always right. A good conscience is not the false security of taking one's own actions as right. A good conscience is the gentle serenity to able to act and speak in a way that is based on what has been promised and given to us - by God. A good conscience lives from hope and trust, not from ownership and fear.

It seems to me to be the most beautiful and most important embodiment of the Christian message in the world, in every situation to only say that which is promised to us. To only offer that which has been offered to us - and that was offered to all and for ever. Blessing shines forth from those who live blessing.

"Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you!" (V. 15). We are called to an apologetic of hope and our only defence is hope itself. We are to defend hope - and not how reasonable or essential Christianity is. Hope - and not teaching or faith in morality. Hope as the first word of our Christian profile when others ask us to offer an account. Yes, - hope which we can neither prove nor undermine. If hope is at the centre, then the core of our message is no longer what it currently is, what we already have, already understand, what we can substantiate and defend. But rather, quite simply - God himself, who comes and renews and creates until all in the end is completed.

Hope turns our gaze from ourselves and gives us a grace-filled direction beyond ourselves. The hope that is our driving force, in us and amongst us, is not a character trait or a spiritual quality. It comes to us from outside, it grips us. It is a surprise and a discovery in spite of ourselves and the world. It really is as Luther taught us: The only things that are sure and true and those things that take us beyond ourselves. If this is so - and even I as a Reformed Waldensian in the Calvin anniversary year can say that it is so - then we can close this 60th birthday of the Kirchentag full of hope.

AMEN
Provisional translation from the German

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