Fifth Sunday of Easter
While admiring a tree in full bloom, Joseph Parker, a Congregational minister in Victorian England, noticed that under the wide-spreading branches there was a huge limb of the tree withering away. He realized that “the same sun that created the blossom was causing the tree branch to wither.”
To the living tree whose roots were struck into the earth the sun was giving life, but to the branch cut away, having nothing but itself to live upon, the sun was pouring down arrows of destruction. The great sun, so hospitably full of light, kind, friendly, was feeding, like a mother-nurse, the living tree, and was killing with pitiless fire the sundered branch.
“As is the double effect of light,” Parker says, “so is the double effect of truth” (Apostolic Life, vol. 1, p. 167).
Parker burns away any sentimentality in what is at stake in “abiding,” and in what “removal” and “pruning” entail. The purpose, after all, is fruit-bearing, which in John’s Gospel is described in Jesus’ response to the Gentiles’ request to see him: ‘Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (12:24).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew deeply this double effect. Drawing from Jeremiah 45, he said that the brutal realities of his day made it clear that “the world lies under the wrath and grace of God.” In May, 1944 he wrote a homily that was smuggled out of his prison cell and read at the baptism of his godson (“Thoughts on the Day of the Baptism of Dietrich Wilhelm Rudiger Bethge” in Letters and Papers from Prison).
Today you will be baptized a Christian. All those great ancient words of Christian proclamation will be spoken over you… We are once again being driven right back to the beginnings of our understanding. Reconciliation and redemption, regeneration and the Holy Spirit, love of enemies, cross and resurrection, life in Christ and Christian discipleship – all these things are so difficult and so remote that we hardly venture any more to speak of them.
To read this remarkable homily is to be pierced with how achingly applicable it is to the brutalities of our day, to what is being burned away, and to what is being pruned in order to bear more fruit.
Our church, which has been fighting in these years only for its self-preservation, as though that were an end in itself, is incapable of taking the word of reconciliation and redemption to [humankind] and the world.
And yet, Bonhoeffer’s deep friendship with the parents of his godson leads him to say:
The piety of your home will not be noisy or loquacious, but it will teach you to say your prayers, to fear and love God above everything, and to do the will of Jesus Christ.
Bonhoeffer chillingly confesses that “what we have built up is being destroyed overnight,” that the life they have known “will belong to a vanished world,” that “if we can save our souls unscathed out of the wreckage of our material possessions, let us be satisfied with that.” Things will never be the same again.
By the time you have grown up, the church’s form will have changed greatly. We are not yet out of the melting-pot, and any attempt to help the church prematurely to a new expansion of its organization will merely delay its conversion and purification.
Yet even from the belly of the beast, Bonhoeffer could write to his godson that “he [Bonhoeffer] looks forward to your future with great confidence and cheerful hope.”
To be deeply rooted in the soil of the past makes life harder, but it also makes it richer and more vigorous. There are in human life certain fundamental truths to which [people] will always return sooner or later. So there is no need to hurry; we have to be able to wait.
At the same time Bonhoeffer wrote his homily, an interracial intentional Christian community named Koinonia Farm was taking root in southwest Georgia. Founder Clarence Jordan saw this experiment in Christian living as a demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God.
For Jordan, abiding in Christ meant obeying the Lordship of Jesus over custom, mammon, and law, even if living under this Lordship brought severe consequences. In fact, Andrew Young admitted that many leaders of the Civil Rights Movement were afraid to go to Koinonia. It was so controversial that Young himself never visited there during those years.
One of the intrepid followers of Jesus who grew up at Koinonia was Greg Wittkamper, the subject of the recently published The Class of ’65 (authored by Jim Auchmutey, longtime reporter and editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution). From the beginning Wittkamper and the other youth from Koinonia were treated as outcasts among their school peers.
At the beginning of Greg’s senior year, the fall of 1964, Americus High School was desegregated. On the tense first day of school, Greg arrived in the same vehicle with the four African-American teenagers as a show of solidarity. As one might imagine, things turned vicious, for Greg as well as his black classmates. Somehow Wittkamper endured his senior year, graduating in 1965. He left Americus for good and moved to West Virginia where he lives today.
The story of The Class of ’65 begins in 2006 when Greg received an invitation to his 40th high school reunion, the first contact he ever had with his alma mater. A handful of his classmates had tracked him down, sent the invitation, along with some heartfelt letters asking for his forgiveness.
One classmate wrote:
Greg, you have shared the sufferings of Christ as few have. ‘He was despised and rejected of men.’ ….I have not personally witnessed that kind of courage before or since. I don’t know how you endured, but what an example of godliness with humility you have been to me. I will never again say…’how could all those Christian people in Poland and Germany have stood by and allowed [the Holocaust] to happen?’ I can’t say now, ‘Well that didn’t happen in my time,’ or ‘I wasn’t a part of something terrible,’ or ‘I never lynched anybody,’ or ‘I wasn’t in Germany.’ No, but I was present with you over a long period of time, and I never once did one thing to comfort you or to reach out to you. It was cruelty.
There were other letters, and Wittkamper wept when he read them. He did in fact go to his 40th high school reunion. The book details the measure of reconciliation and healing that has taken place since then, along with some profound wrestlings with what our lives look like in retrospect, which is, of course, the perspective through which we most deeply understand “abiding” and “removing” and “pruning.”
According to one news report. Wittkamper is bemused with the all the attention The Class of ’65 has brought him after all these years. He shrugs and says, “Besides showing up, I don’t feel I did that much.”
I’d like to venture one not-so-minor correction: “all” Wittkamper did, and “all” Koinonia community did, was to abide in Christ. Fifty years later, even as the fires of racial division still scorch our towns and cities, their abiding continues to bear fruit. To the glory of God.