Tag Archives: Discipleship

Easter in times of conflict

Easter Oration delivered at Melbourne Grammar School by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on Wednesday in Holy Week 2023

406 days ago, Russia invaded Ukraine, setting off a war in the heart of Europe that has embroiled the entire world. Last Sunday, I walked alongside Ukrainian Christians at the Palm Sunday Rally for Refugees. There is a large Ukrainian community here in Melbourne, and I joined Bishop Mykola Bychok of the Ukrainian Catholic Church and other faith leaders in leading the rally through the streets of the CBD. ‘The war in Ukraine has led to 8 million people being made refugees’, Bishop Mykola told the thousands of people attending the Palm Sunday Rally. ‘Four million are refugees in our own country, Ukraine. Another four have fled to places as far away as Australia, Canada and South America’. More people than live in our state have been made homeless and fled the war. 

Earlier, I had asked another Ukrainian priest what it is that we can do here in Australia now that the war in his homeland is in its second year. ‘Pray for an end to the war’, Fr Andrej told me: ‘work for peace in the world, and tell the truth about the war in Ukraine’. These three actions—prayer and worship, working and advocating, and truth telling—are central to our lives as followers of Jesus, and will sustain us in times of conflict such as these.


During Holy Week and Easter, we follow Jesus on the journey to the cross in real time. Day by day we follow more closely to the place of his suffering that is our salvation. For Christians, the cross is not the end of our journeys. Rather it stands at the beginning of our walk with Christ. One of my heroes of the faith, the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, put it this way: ‘The cross is not the terrible end of a happy, pious life. Instead, it stands at the beginning of our community with Jesus Christ’. For those of you who do not yet know about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, let me give a brief introduction. A charismatic academic theologian and pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was well known for his direct, persuasive writings about what it meant for ordinary people to follow Jesus. Actively opposed to the rise of Fascism in Germany from its earliest days, he was one of the leaders of a group of over 7,000 pastors who, in 1934, broke away from the German Protestant church in protest of Nazi anti-Semitic laws that required all state employees, including pastors, to be ‘Aryan’. Bonhoeffer worked to train pastors for this illegal church, and worked to create communities of people who would understand what it means to follow Christ in times of conflict.

Because of his resistance, Bonhoeffer lost his lectureship, his freedom to broadcast, publish or speak in public. Over the coming years, he was sent out of the country for his own safety multiple times. And yet he chose to return and join his family in actively resisting Nazism. His brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi recruited him into a group of double agents, The Canaris Group, led by none other than the head of the German military intelligence, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris. Bonhoeffer committed to truth telling by smuggling evidence of Hitler’s war crimes out to Allied countries, while his brother-in- Hans was personally involved in a number of attempts to assassinate Hitler. The Canaris Group helped smuggle Jews to safety from Germany and occupied territories. 

It was sending money to support Jewish refugees they had helped reach Switzerland, that led to the whole Canaris Group being arrested in 1943. Bonhoeffer was imprisoned. First in Tegel Prison, then in a cell under the Gestapo headquarters in Berlin, and later in Buchenwald concentration camp. In 1944, he was tried late at night, without witnesses, before a drumhead court-martial hastily set up in a laundry in Flossenbürg concentration camp. The documents about the failed ‘20 July Plot’ to kill Hitler had been found. In the final weeks of the war, Hitler personally demanded the liquidation of the entire Canaris Group. On 9 April 1944, three weeks before Germany’s total surrender, Admiral Canaris, his deputy General Oster and Bonhoeffer were humiliated, stripped and hanged on a butchers’ hook. Some witnesses say Bonhoeffer’s death took six hours. His brother-in-law Hans died the same day, in Sachsenhausen Camp. This year, their anniversary of death falls on Easter Day.


‘The cross stands at the beginning of our community with Jesus Christ’, Bonhoeffer tells and adds: ‘the cross is laid on each Christian’. ‘In each case’, Bonhoeffer says, ‘it is the one cross’—the cross of Christ, on which he suffered and died on Good Friday, and over which he triumphed at Easter. When we witness to Christ through our words and actions, we bring Christ to the world, carry an inestimable gift to others. We witness to the One who carries our cross by carrying one another’s burdens. By telling the truth of the suffering and injustices others face, by advocating and fighting on their behalf, and by praying for and with them.

Telling the truth is one of the most powerful things a Christian can do. Last Sunday, faith and political leaders from across our state, Muslims, Christians, Jews, people from all walks of life, came together in calling on our government to give refugees a fair go. Holding nations accountable for their actions by speaking out, making the state responsible for what it does, is what Christians are called to do in times of conflict. Telling the truth, time after time, even against hope, even when we are wearied by the effort, will ultimately win out. Prophetic truth telling is what brought down Apartheid in South Africa and, here in Australia, led to the release the refugees on Nauru and the Park Hotel in Carlton, and to the opening of a visa track for refugees on temporary protection visas. Telling the truth about the sins of the past brought reconciliation in South Africa and, I hope, will be what also will lead to greater justice for First Nations people here in Australia.

Working for peace in the world, likewise, is an essential part of Christian discipleship. Commenting on Christian living under the repressive Nazi regime, Bonhoeffer said: ‘Where the world despises other members of the Christian family, Christians will love and serve them. If the world does violence to them, Christians will help them and provide them relief’. The outpouring of practical support by the nations neighbouring Ukraine, the unheard-of support of the world-wide community, is one way of showing forth the values of Christian living in times of conflict. If the ‘world’ feels too big for you, your local community and government is tangible and knowable. Supporting community organisations working with refugees, or even attending rallies like last Sunday’s are good ways in which each of one of us can show practical support. (Xavier College had a group at the March. I’d be delighted to welcome a group from Melbourne Grammar next year). 

Working for peace in the world means writing to our political representatives; advocating for swifter, more generous action in settling those displaced from war zones. You may never receive an answer back from your MP, but where many express the same concern, MPs do take note. In this way, we work regardless of the many people who seek to make faith irrelevant in modern society, and regardless of the many people, perhaps even a majority, who slumber when others suffer. This is what heroes of our faith like Bonhoeffer did in the 1930s and 1940s, and it is what we are called to do as we face the same challenges today.

All these actions—telling the truth and working for peace—are underpinned by prayer. Prayer is what unites us with Christ and resources our resolve. Prayer reflects the inward reality of faith to our world. By our prayer and worship this Holy Week and Easter we, too, can help others gain glimpses of this eternal reality. If you are already committed to being part of a worshipping community, do join its Easter celebrations. If not, then please join one or, of course, come to your Cathedral this Easter. 

It is by our own actions that we can shine some of the light of the resurrection in our world. When we live as disciples in this world—by our prayer, by working for peace and by telling the truth to power—Jesus himself will help us bear our burdens of faith-filled living and sacrificial action in this world. In the same way that Jesus’ disciples witness to his deeds of liberating power, so Jesus himself will witness to us in the time of our trial and suffering. 

This is what celebrating Holy Week and Easter, what faithful following of Jesus in times of conflict means: to stand by Christ in his suffering in the trust that, by doing so, we will also share his victory. Stand with him in the darkness of Good Friday in the trust that, by doing so, we will shed the brilliance of his resurrection light into the dark places of our world.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer assures us that our Easter celebration becomes real when we witness to Christ in this world. Because Jesus will bear witness for us in the world to come: ‘Those who have held onto Jesus in this life will find that Jesus will hold onto them in eternity’, Bonhoeffer assures us. ‘Easter reveals to us the entire glory and power of God. Just as God raised Jesus in inexpressible power, so too will he lead his people from death to life. This is where we look in hope today’.

I wish you all a blessed Holy Week and a happy Easter.

Andreas Loewe and Katherine Firth have published Journeying with Bonhoeffer: Six Steps on the Way of Discipleship, on which the biographical summary is based.

Image attribution: Dietrich Bonhoeffer with children preparing for confirmation (Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R0211-316 / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Summer in winter: the light of the Baptist’s witness

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist 2014, in the presence of members of the Victorian Sub-Priory of the Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem:

Cross of Glory

Welcome, all Wonders in one sight!
Eternity shut in a span.
Summer to winter, day in night,
Heaven in earth, and God in man.
Great little One! Whose all-embracing birth
Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth.

Words the Baroque poet Richard Crawshaw (1613-49) put into the mouths of the shepherds of Bethlehem, gathered to watch their flocks by night, surprised by an angel in the dead of night. The birth of the child of Bethlehem brought the warm light of summer to the chilly Judean hills, made the sun of midday illumine the midnight sky. The birth of Jesus brought ‘heaven in earth, and God in man’, ‘lifts earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth’, Crawshaw’s very literary shepherds sing.

For us in the Southern hempishere, of course, the seasons are reversed, and so what holds true for the Bethlehem celebration of the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord, holds true here for the nativity of his messenger, St John the Baptist. Because the celebration of the Birth of John the Baptist takes place exactly half a year before Christmas, it is in the midst of our winter, that the message of the herald of good tidings brings light in darkness, brings a ray of summer to winter. Three days after the shortest day of the year, on 24 June, we celebrate the birth of the ‘forerunner’, the messenger who came to ‘prepare the way before him’, who told people of Judah and Jerusalem that the ‘Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple’ (Malachi 3.1).

He was the one who baptised Jesus in the Jordan, who witnessed the Holy Spirit descend on him, the one who first testified that Jesus was the Son of God. The one who knew Jesus to be ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1.29), and pointed him out to his own disciples who promptly left him and began to follow Jesus instead (John 1.36). Having accomplished this mission of preparing others for the arrival of Jesus, John was arrested for his outspoken critique of the life and morals of King Herod, and finds himself in prison. And it is there, in the dungeons of King Herod, that he is beset with doubts that led John to question his erstwhile mission: was the One whom he pointed out really the promised ‘Lord whom you seek’, or had John’s prophesy and his setting apart in baptism of his kinsman Jesus been in error (Malachi 3.1).

And so the messenger sent by God to prepare the way for God’s final envoy, himself sends messengers from prison to Jesus, to ask Jesus: ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ (Luke 7.19). And for his witness, Jesus points to the works he has accomplished, telling John’s disciples that God’s kingdom had indeed come close: ‘the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them’ (Luke 7.22). The signs of the kingdom, of which Jesus had himself spoken when he first proclaimed God’s word in the synagogue of his hometown Nazareth (Luke 4.16-21), are there for all to see, ‘and blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me’ (Luke 7.23).

The signs of God’s kingdom, Jesus tells those who asked whether they had to continue watching and waiting, are reflected in lives that have been changed by grace and mercy. Lives that have been made whole by God’s power. It was the promotion of the same signs—healing those living with disease, tending the dying and bringing relief to the poor—that in the eleventh century led crusader knights to establish a hospital in the heart of the Holy City of Jerusalem, close to the place of the resurrection. There, a stone’s throw from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where that new life in all its fulness was so powerfully proclaimed on the first Easter Morning, a Christian hospital was established with a community that bore the name of the one who first asked Christ about those signs of the kingdom: the Hospital of St John the Baptist. Staffed by brothers infirmarians and chaplains, at its height the hospital served up to 2,000 patients. And because these were dangerous times for the Christian community in a foreign land, the community was supported by a group of military brothers who were entrusted with the care of escorting pilgrims to and from the port of Jaffa. As a sign of their allegiance to Christ and the cause of promoting signs of his kingdom, these military knights wore black surcoats with white crosses over their armour, the symbolic mantle still worn by the some members of the Venerable Order of St John of Jerusalem today.

Today, the Order that bears the name of St John the Baptist is a world-wide charity with an estimated 300,000 volunteers, many of whom are engaged in the work of tending the sick, and healing the blind. Through the work of the St John’s Ambulance Brigade they offer emergency support to those in need, and through the work of the St John’s Eye Hospital in Jerusalem, they provide much needed ophthalmic care and other urgent medical care in the city where the order was first founded some 900 years ago. In particular through its work in the Holy Land, the Order succeeds in—literally—bringing light to people living with the darkness of blindness and retinal disease, providing more than 40,000 patients a year on its East Jerusalem site, and many more through its outpatients’ clinics in Gaza, Hebron and Anabta—areas of continued conflict—and its mobile clinics that serve the entire West Bank. As in the days when it was first established, when the hospital of St John provided kosher kitchens to serve its non-Christian patients, today also the order serves the people of the Holy Land regardless of their faith or, indeed, their ability to pay for their operations. The signs of the kingdom, which convinced the imprisoned John the Baptist that the Messiah, the Christ, was truly among them, continue to flourish through the often selfless giving of members of the Order that is named for him.

At the end of today’s Gospel reading, Jesus affirms the importance of John, as he questions the crowds who had overheard his conversation with John’s messengers about the kingdom of God. ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?’, Jesus asks those who had made their journey to the Jordan to see John baptise: ‘A reed shaken by the wind, a royal person, a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet’ (Luke 7.27). John was the prophet foretold in countless prophecies of old. He was the one who would prepare God’s way before him by his insistent preaching: urging people to turn from their selfish ways to God, to be attentive to God’s word; especially the Word of God made flesh, Jesus Christ. People who literally turned their lives around and emerged from John’s baptism of water washed from all that had burdened them, refreshed in their own relationship with God. Indeed, there was no one greater born of women among the people of Israel than John the Baptist, God’s messenger to the generation that would witness the coming of the Messiah (Luke 7.28). Yet even this greatest of all Jewish prophets is counted less than the ‘least in the kingdom of God’, Jesus remarks (Luke 7.28).

We need to turn to our second reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, in order to make fully sense of Jesus’ assertion that the least in God’s family—the newest Christian, the weakest Christian—is greater than the greatest of all prophets. In our reading, we meet the Apostle Paul on a missionary journey to Corinth, where he encounters some of those who had also made the journey to the Jordan to hear John, and received his baptism. Because they had not yet received the gift of the Holy Spirit, Paul explained that ‘John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus’ (Acts 19.4). John was the one who ‘purified the descendants of Levi’, just as the prophecy we heard as our first reading foretold, preparing a people for the coming of the Lord, Paul suggests (Malachi 3.3). John’s baptism was a sign of contrition to prepare for the coming of God. A God who became human so that we might become more like him; a God whose lowly birth in a humble stable foreshadowed the self-giving love he would show forth on the cross, dying so that all might have life. And the life that God shared with those who believe in the Son he sent to die is far greater than any sign of human contrition, Paul tells, and therefore the least in the kingdom of God, the least who accepts that life, is greater than the messenger of that kingdom (Luke 7.28).

Today, you and I are invited to become the messengers of that life-changing news, become people who enter into the footsteps of that first forerunner ourselves. We are invited to become people who share the good news of a God who loved the human race so much that he gave himself, as the vulnerable child of the manger, as the man of sorrows on the cross, to bring life and light to all the world.

If you already are a Christian, God calls us to look out for Jesus in this world, and to become people who—like the members of the Order of St John—find that it is in loving and serving one another that we can serve the Christ in our midst. And if you are still pondering whether faith in Jesus Christ is right and good for you, it is my prayer for you that you may find a forerunner with whom you can explore the Good News, someone to whom you can turn for your own baptism, and begin your journey of faith.

As we celebrate again the miracle of Christmas in winter, the birth of the forerunner who prepared others for the coming among them of the God whose birth ‘lifts earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth’, I invite you give thanks for the life of John the Baptist. And I pray that by following in his footsteps, we too may come to find the ‘great little One! Whose all-embracing birth/ Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth’, Jesus, ‘the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1.29). Amen.