Reflections on our troubled world – A message for Christians. By Peter Corney May 6th
As I nightly watch the news of our troubled world – at present the Pandemic, but of course the violence of places like the Middle East continues and the persecution of particular people groups like the Myanmar Rohingya or the Uyghurs in China continues as if there were no pandemic – questions flood my mind: “God where are you in all this chaos and pain? Why don’t you act to judge and save and protect the innocent? And Lord, if you are acting, why is it hidden from us?”
Yes! I am aware of God working through individuals through His ‘common grace’ and the many often unseen acts of care by individuals and neighbours and the heroic work of medical staff and volunteer agencies. Reading the moving writing of Trent Dalton in the weekly Australian Magazine as he records the acts of simple kindness by ordinary Aussie neighbours as they reach out to one another in this ‘lock down’ phase of the pandemic is heart-warming.
Nevertheless in the midst of the bigger picture the questions persist. But I have found some helpful perspective in returning to the writing and theology of a thoughtful Christian who found himself in a chaotic and violent time in the crisis of the 1940’s and the war in Europe.
Recently I have been re-reading some of the war time sermons of Helmut Thielicke, the German pastor and scholar who continued to preach and pastor his people through the nightly bombing and chaos of WW2 Germany in which his own home and Church were destroyed. A contemporary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he was part of the German resistance to Hitler and the Nazi ideology, and in 1941 he was forbidden to speak or travel. He was also dismissed from his university teaching position and forbidden to publish books or articles. He was finally given permission to deliver one evening lecture per week in the Stuttgart Cathedral Church. He decided to speak on Luther’s Smaller Catechism, and through that vehicle he sought to prepare people for what he believed were the terrible things they would experience. He drew crowds of 3,000 people weekly as the air raids intensified, eventually the Cathedral was destroyed and they moved to other churches and halls, as one by one they were destroyed by the allied bombing. But the people kept coming. It is an inspiring story of faith and courage. He says “What we were doing was teaching theology in the face of death. There the only thing that was of any hope at all was the Gospel itself. Everything else simply dissolved into thin air. We were living only upon the substance of our faith. And these desperate hours also helped us to find that substance.”[i]
As he struggled with the same questions I mentioned above, in the midst of the crisis of those times, he preached that God’s role in world history can only be understood from the end, not from within the midst of it. “Not until the world’s last hour strikes, that hour of the Second Advent, when faith will see what it has believed, and unbelief will be compelled to see what it has not believed – only that last hour of the world will make known the meaning of history.” He went on to emphasise that till then life must be lived by faith not sight; faith in three things: (1) faith in God’s goodness, (2) faith in God’s presence with us, (3) faith in the knowledge that God has acted in Christ and his death and resurrection to save and reconcile us to himself, and one day to restore and renew the whole world. [ii]
Between our now and the future renewal of all things, we live as God’s people with the tension of being members of two kingdoms – the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world. There will be times when great numbers of people will embrace the Gospel and even particular nations will embrace the values of God’s Kingdom in their societies. And there will be times like ours when they are rejected. But, whatever our times, our primary task remains the same – to go on proclaiming the Gospel of the Cross, and to live out its values in our individual lives and Christian communities. For whenever anyone embraces the Gospel of the cross, they are secure within, safe in the grace of God, whether in prosperity or poverty, peace or chaos, moral decay or an existential crisis of meaning and purpose in their society.
Thielicke also makes the very insightful point that the Christian faith is always twofold: (1) Faith in what God has done in Christ and (2) Faith that is contrary to appearances, especially when particular historical and cultural appearances oppose the Gospel and appear to overpower it.
Our challenge in these times is not to live in despair, negativity or denial, but hope – hope of the future God is bringing in, and a confidence in the message we have to share, the Gospel and its power to change and renew people’s lives now.
[i] From the forward by H. Thielicke to a selection of the lectures. Page10, “Man in God’s World.” First published in 1958 in German and then in 1968 in English by James Clarke.
[ii] Helmut Thielicke Page 15 “Christ the meaning of life” Pub. James Clarke 1965. See also “The Prayer that Spans the World,” Sermons on the Lord’s Prayer from the WW2 period of nightly bombing in Germany. First published In German in 1958 and then in English in 1967 by James Clarke
*These thoughts can also be found in the conclusion of Peter Corneys recent study discussion guide “The Gospel and The centrality of the Cross”. Available by order from Peter at <firstname.lastname@example.org>