Writing from prison in 1944 the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said:
Freedom is found only in action, not in escaping into thought.
We must dare to quit anxious faltering and enter the storm of events, carried by our faith and by God's good commandments alone.
Then, rejoicing, true freedom will welcome our spirit in its embrace.
‘Freedom is found only in action.’ Few of us will find ourselves in an actual prison cell, but it's easy to become prisoners of what is comfy and familiar as we take refuge from ‘the storm of events’ going on outside.
The BBC's John Simpson has said something very similar in a book based on his experiences as a foreign affairs correspondent. 'What if the point of living isn't to be placid and happy and untroubled by the world, but to be deeply, painfully sensitive to it, to see its cruelty and savagery for what they are and accept it all as readily as we accept its beauty; to be touched by it, moved by it, hurt by it even, but not be indifferent to it.'
A minister who went out onto the streets during last summer's rioting found that people put down the things they had looted, or apologised for trying to smash things up when they saw her collar. Her experience, witnessing people looting her local shopping centre, bears out something which one of last year's Nobel Peace Prize winners said to explain why she had got involved in campaigning for justice in her homeland of Liberia: 'One day the world's problems met us at our doorstep.' Freedom is found in action, entering the storm of events, carried by our faith, rather than cowering behind locked doors.
In our reading from John’s Gospel Jesus reaches the point where the talking has to stop and he has to put his life on the line. It is the time for action.
The new interest in his mission shown by Gentiles seems to be the catalyst for Jesus’ thinking about this. Perhaps he realises that he is going to have to step outside his own comfort zone. If he’s going to lead a worldwide transformation of human existence, teaching and working miracles among a predominantly Jewish audience isn’t going to cut the mustard. Now he must do something which will really catch the attention of the whole world, and of course we’re not talking about a gimmick here, jumping off the pinnacle of the Temple or conquering a country or two, we’re talking about something that will bring about a genuine and enduring change.
‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified’,and this involves self surrender, self-giving. ‘In very truth I tell you,’ Jesus says, ‘Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains that and nothing more; but if it dies, it bears a rich harvest.’
What that means for us is that - as churches and individuals - we have to expect to change, to commit, to make ourselves vulnerable, to give something up, if we want to follow Jesus, and grow, and make our contribution to his mission. ‘Whoever loves himself - or herself - is lost, but whoever hates himself - or herself - in this world will be kept safe for eternal life.’ Serving Jesus means following his example, and whoever serves Jesus will be honoured by God for ever. Freedom is found in action, entering the storm of events, carried by our faith.
Of course, making this kind of commitment asks a great deal of us. Our passage from John’s Gospel is John’s version of Jesus’ temptation in the Garden of Gethsemane. Sensing the ordeal which lies ahead of him Jesus says, ‘Now my soul is in turmoil, and what am I to say? “Father, save me from this hour?” No, it was for this that I came to this hour.’
And then God affirms what Jesus has long suspected, that the only way he is going to draw the whole world to himself is by being ‘lifted up from the earth’. Jesus could be talking about his ascension here, but John’s Gospel doesn’t include the ascension story because - for John - the way that Jesus ascends to the Father and is glorified is not by rising through the clouds from a mountaintop but by being lifted up on a cross.
Lent, then, is a good time to remind ourselves of the need for radical action. Freedom is found in following Jesus, and that means freedom is to be found in action, entering the storm of events, carried by our faith.
We have reflected previously this Lent on the fact that many members of our congregation are already committed to action in Jesus’ name, to entering the storm of events in an effort to make the world a better place. But maybe some of us are still faltering, still trying to find the right thing to do. Or maybe we feel the time has come to follow Jesus in a different direction or in a new way.
Christians Against Poverty is looking for four volunteers from our church to act as mentors to people struggling with debt problems. The way they work is by matching their customers to someone who they can easily identify with - so a young mum struggling with debt would be mentored by another young mum, a middle aged man would be mentored by another middle aged man, and so on. That means building up a pool of diverse volunteers in Wakefield whom they could draw on as required.
The mentor, or befriender, offers emotional support when the going gets tough - usually over the phone but occasionally face-to-face. They might invite the person they’re supporting to come with them to Messy Church or to a ladies’ pamper evening or a men’s sports’ quiz laid on by Christians Against Poverty for a group of similar customers. It’s not about being ‘on call’ or sorting out people’s problems. It’s just about being there at the end of the phone when living on a strict budget, perhaps for the first time, is proving hard for the customer to bear. There are lots of debt advice schemes, but this is the only one which offers customers a mentor to walk with them - metaphorically speaking - on the journey back from a nightmare to normal life.
If you think you might be interested, or if you think you could help with the occasional social events for the customers, or meet regularly in a small group to pray for the project and its customers, please see me afterwards because - to get the scheme launched in Wakefield - all we need is seven churches, with four mentors from each church who would each befriend about two customers per year.
As a church we have also got to continue stepping outside our comfort zone. I know we’ve already started doing this by removing the pews and remodelling our worship space. But now we’ve got to go further, because true freedom can only be found in action, entering the storm of events, carried by our faith. So we need to go on exploring what it means to follow Jesus, and act for him, in Sandal today - and that’s what Ruth Smith has come to help us do. We’re going to have another meeting with her in May and if you would like to be part of that meeting please see me or Judy Rylance to find out more.
Remember, the world’s problems are waiting to meet us at our doorstep. The point of being Church isn't to be placid and happy and untroubled by the world, but to be deeply, even painfully engaged with it; to to be touched by it, moved by it, hurt by it even, but never to be indifferent to it. That is what Jesus shows us.