Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

"In the Middle of the Village"

Text: Luke 24:44-52

Acts 10:34-43

 How many of you are familiar with the name Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Bonhoeffer had been actively involved in resistance against Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist Party from the time of Hitler’s rise to power in the early 1930’s. In 1935, Bonhoeffer was appointed to organize a seminary school for Protestant resisters to the Nazi’s.

This resistance movement was known as the “Confessing Church,” and stood squarely against Hitler’s belief that the state was the highest authority, even subjugating God to the national political will. As this ideology and Hitler’s regime gained momentum, Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church came under increasing pressure to conform to the Nazi nationalist ideal. In April, 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested for sedition [much as Jesus was some nineteen centuries earlier], imprisoned first in Berlin, then at the Buchenwald concentration camp, and finally in Schoenberg Prison where he was hanged in April, 1945. His death penalty was based on discovery of documents linking Bonhoeffer to a failed conspiracy to assassinate the Fuhrer. Whether Bonhoeffer was party to this conspiracy has never been fully established.

            Although Bonhoeffer was executed, not for his Christian faith but for his political activities against the Nazi’s, there can be no question that his work to undermine Hitler’s regime grew out of his Christian commitment, and his devotion to God as sovereign over every nation, every state, every political leader, party and movement. When Bonhoeffer prayed “hallowed be Thy name,” he meant it. For Bonhoeffer, prayer, faith, writing, action, all these belonged together. In a letter from prison written in 1944 to a friend named Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer claimed that he sometimes preferred to be with those whom he called “religion-less people” because they didn’t seem to write God out of the script as quickly as those who called themselves “religious.” In a portion of that letter, he lamented that “Religious people speak of God when human knowledge….. has come to an end or when human resources fail…. I should like to speak of God not on the boundaries but at the centers….. The church stands, not at the boundaries where human powers give out, but in the middle of the village.” “In the middle of the village.” That’s the title of this morning’s message, inspired by active faith like that of Dietrich Bonhoef fer, and by the so-called “Great Commission” of Jesus which calls for active engagement of faith.

            When Jesus spoke to His disciples forty days after His resurrection, He instructed or commissioned them to be His witnesses “to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Jesus did not instruct his followers to withdraw from daily life and business, keeping their religious faith to themselves, perhaps segregating themselves in some quiet place in the desert where they could safely enjoy telling stories to each other about their great teacher; out on the edges of life. Nor did Jesus heap congratulations upon His followers for being so clever that they had signed on with the Jesus team. Instead, Jesus told them: “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed……” Then Jesus goes on, “You are witnesses of these things.” You are my witnesses, “beginning from Jerusalem”--“in the middle of the village,” to all nations; to every village.

            The historical evidence and Biblical tradition make it quite clear that Jesus’ disciples – both men and women – carried His gospel forth, and became leaders of Christian communities throughout much of the then-known world. For this, we can be grateful as few of us are descendants of Palestinian villagers, and our Gentile ancestors certainly would not have heard the good news of Christ had it not been for the missionary zeal of those first followers in Jerusalem.

            We must keep in mind that when Jesus sent His followers into the villages, then on to the highways and byways of antiquity, they were not great church leaders. These first witnesses had not been formally and theologically educated at some accredited seminary school. They had not been set aside by the structures of an institutional church to lead assembled worshipers. They didn’t have “Reverend,” or “Pastor,” or “Doctor” preceding their names. They were just folks, villagers, fishermen, carpenters, tax collectors. They were family people, and did the work to which they had been apprenticed as youngsters, just as Jesus was apprenticed as a young boy in the carpenter shop of His earthly father Joseph. Unremarkable in every way. Yet they were sent, not because they were learned, not because they were articulate, not because they were inspiring, not because they were fire-breathing evangelists. They were sent because they had heard and seen. They were witnesses. And because they were witnesses, they needed to be in the middle of their villages, bringing the gospel not at the boundaries, but in and to the very center of life.

            This Great Commission by Jesus was not just for the first generation or two of disciples. That commission remains in force for all generations of Christian witnesses – those who have come before us, those who will come after, and today, we ourselves. So Jesus’ final instruction presses the question: where is our village? Is it in the classroom where we learn or teach? Is it in the factory where we labor and produce? Is it in the office where we sit in meetings, talk on the phone, write memos, compose e-mails? Is it in the hospital where we work alongside other staff to restore the health of the sick? Is it in the kitchen where we prepare meals for others? Is it in the retail setting where we conduct consumer trade? Is it in the senior community center where we enjoy well-deserved retirement? Is it in homes where we repair plumbing, run cable lines, install furnaces, troubleshoot computers? Is it in our homes where we care for spouse and children? What then is the village where the testimony of our words, our behavior, our moral and ethical values have a profound impact at the center of people’s lives?

            It is interesting that Luke so composes his gospel that just prior to this episode of the Great Commission and Jesus’ ascension into heaven, there’s a story of two disciples heading for the hills in a manner of speaking. Rather than remaining in the middle of the village, they fled from Jerusalem to the safety of Emmaus at the boundaries of Jerusalem. As the episode unfolds, Jesus meets them on the road, first unrecognized, then revealed to them at table in the breaking of the bread. Upon their recognition of Jesus, these two disciples returned from the boundaries to the middle of Jerusalem where “the eleven and their companions gathered together.” The impact of recognizing Jesus for who He truly is – the One who suffered and rose from the dead on the third day – transformed them from observers to witnesses; moved them and their testimony from the boundaries to the center.The Sacrament this morning is to do the same for us: transforming us from observers to witnesses; moving us from the boundaries to the center.

            Yes, all of us have a village; a center. Most of us have more than one. It is to those villages we are sent by Christ’s Great Commission. And it is in those villages that many will find God – crucified, risen, bringing forgiveness of sins through the person and power of Jesus Christ. You are the witnesses. Go then to middle of your village. Go, and tell.