It was the year 1985. I was 15 and attending my first ‘Kirchentag’, literally ‘Church Day’, in Düsseldorf, Germany. The Kirchentag is a massive biannual event that lasts 5 days. More than 100,000 Christians of all ages, most of them Protestants, descend upon a certain city or region. There are worship services, concerts, Bible studies and discussion forums everywhere you go, among other things. Because events happen all over the place, participants of the Kirchentag move purposely from one event to another using public transportation, usually outfitted with backpacks, Birkenstocks or other comfortable shoes, a program book and map in hand.
Back in 1985, I was overwhelmed by the number of Christians coming together, the large crowds, overwhelmed by the whole experience. But I remember that it was a lot of fun. I mean, what an experience: to be one among so many Christians, proclaiming their faith through their ubiquitous presence and praise. We sang hymns everywhere, even on busses and streetcars. It felt great, it felt comfortable; there’s safety in numbers.
On the evening of the third day or so, I was exhausted from all the running around. My feet hurt, even though I was wearing Birkenstocks. I had pounded the pavement for an entire day, I had squeezed myself into buses filled to the brim, I had patiently stood in line after line. By the end of the day, the adrenalin that had kept me going and going and going started to fade.
My friend, with whom I had been walking around all day, and I headed to the central train station, to catch a train back to our sleeping quarters. Now I just have to say a word about German central train stations in the 80s – or better, about the area surrounding such train stations. Back then, those areas tended to be pretty seedy, with red light establishments, certain movie theaters that would allow people over 18 only, gambling halls, and dingy pubs and bars. And that’s what it was like in Düsseldorf.
I felt pretty uncomfortable walking through there, and the fact that it was getting dark only made me feel more uncomfortable. I felt totally out of place. This was such a different environment from the places with the happy, singing crowds at the Kirchentag! The safe, comfortable bubble had burst, and life felt all too real all of a sudden. I wanted to get out of there as soon as possible.
And then my friend said, “I am thirsty.”
Now you ought to know something else about Germany: there are no public water fountains as we have them here. And Germans are not too fond of just drinking tab water, anyway. If you are thirsty, you go to a pub or bar and maybe order a soft drink.
Before I could say a word, my friend pulled me toward one of those dingy looking bars. And, another disclaimer: even minors back then could enter such an establishment in Germany (albeit not order any alcoholic beverages). As we were approaching that bar, I stiffened. “You can’t be serious!” But he said, “O yes, I am, I am tired, and need to sit down, and I need something to drink. We’re going in there!”
Alright then! Together with my friend, I entered the pub, cheeks flushed in embarrassment, eyes on the ground. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat while sipping my soda pop unenthusiastically. My friend took his time drinking his Coke. And so I had time to look around – and saw the other patrons, so unlike us, sitting by themselves, enveloped in cigarette smoke, nursing their schnapps or beer. I felt so uncomfortable, so out of place – I just wanted to get out of there. Finally, finally my friend finished his soda. Okay, let’s pay and get out of here!
But there was a slight complication. As we went up to the bartender to pay our tab, he pointed to one of the patrons. “That gentleman over there in the corner already took care of that.” I looked over and saw a middle-aged man who seemed to spend a lot of time in this establishment – red, puffy face, a little unkempt, glazed eyes, slumped over his beverage.
I panicked: what now? What’s that all about? But as I was still trying to figure out what to do, my friend had already walked over to the guy in the corner. So I followed him. My friend did what one is supposed to do in such a situation: he thanked the man for his generosity. And I mumbled ‘thank you’ as well.
Can we go now? But then the man looked up and saw me straight in the eye.
“You are some of those Christians, aren’t you?”
Oh, shucks, our outfits must have given us away. And I thought, oh no, where is this going?
But then the man said something that, as you probably can tell, has had an impact on me ever since. “I have faith in you. If you won’t change anything – who will?”
If you won’t change anything – who will?
I have to say, I felt caught. That night in that seedy neighborhood, and not in one of the places where I was surrounded by hundreds of fellow Christians, I felt how God’s Holy Spirit gave me a mighty push – toward the reality of a life as a follower of Christ. How unsettling to realize that there was a clear vision in those glazed eyes that night, and that I was part of that vision. How unsettling to realize that, even though I may have felt absolutely out of place that night, God calls me into places that I feel uncomfortable in: into the dark, seedy, messy and broken places of the world.
And I have to say: the burden of this man’s vision, this man’s hope, which represents the hope of many who are lost and hurting in this world, has weighed heavily on me. No, I am not the savior of the world, nor are you. However, together we are the body of Christ in this world today.
We are some of those Christians, aren’t we? We bear Christ’s name. We are his heirs. But our heritage is twofold: yes, we are heirs of the kingdom of heaven. But with this inheritance also comes a responsibility. We have the responsibility to represent the one who gave us our name as faithfully as we can. You are the light of the world, you are the salt of the earth, says Jesus. No ifs and buts. No excuses.
Jesus drives this message home in today’s gospel. We hear that large crowds were following Jesus. And I can imagine that this must have been great: to bask in the glory and the great deeds of Jesus, to be surrounded by so many like-minded folks, to experience the safety and comfort in numbers.
But Jesus rains on their party with rather sobering words: following me is not all fun and games. Following me is not only about feeling safe and comfortable in a group of like-minded people. Following me is not only about savoring that foretaste of the kingdom that is yet to come.
Following me is also about going to the places I go: the dark, seedy, messy and broken places of the world. The places nobody really likes to go. Ultimately, my way is to the cross, and you are called to carry your cross as well.
There is a cost to discipleship, and the cost may be steep: the cost may be relationships, and the things you are invested in, like money, possessions, popularity, pride, and influence. The cost of being my disciple is to get rid of all the things that you’re full of. You think you are up to it?
Back in 1985, in that dingy bar, I heard that question loud and clear. Jesus wasn’t talking directly to me that night, but through the mouth of a rather unlikely angel, an unlikely messenger of God. ‘You are some of those Christians, aren’t you?’
And whenever I hear that question in my mind, I am not only reminded of the daunting part: to go to the places where Jesus went, and to be, in my very limited ways, Christ’s presence in a world that often happens to be dark, seedy, messy and broken. To be light and salt, like it or not.
But this question also reminds me that I, that we have been given the gift of the name of Christ. Christ is my brother, our brother. I am God’s child – and so are you – an heir of the kingdom of heaven, where all will be reconciled, all will be showered with the grace and love of God, and all that is broken will be restored.
YOU are some of those Christians – aren’t YOU?
Picture by Alexandre Gordeau on unsplash.com
This post is also available in: German