Commemorating Kaj Munk

A sermon preached on January 5, 1994

by Sarah Heinrich

On this date fifty-one years ago, a body was found in a ditch alongside a road. This was no business man, no victim of robbers who trudged along from one city to the next. This was Kaj Munk, a playwright and faithful parish pastor in Denmark—shot in the head by the Nazis who were occupying his country. His killers honored Munk’s outspoken resistance to the Nazi occupation by their ruthless but futile determination to silence him. For Munk had never ceased to summon his people to act from their faith whether in support of the Norwegian church, the beleaguered Scandinavian Jews, or for their own freedom. The people heard his message. Despite the danger from the Nazis who had killed Munk, four thousand Danes came to his funeral. They commemorated him with a lively courage and faith like his own, both then and throughout the war.

Our day of commemoration for Munk comes in the midst of this great gathering of thoughtful Christians who are asking a question that is, on the one hand, surely profound and, on the other, absurd: "Who is Jesus?" Don’t we know? Shouldn’t we know? Why and about what are we truly asking?

Kaj Munk believed that he knew the identity of Jesus. In fact, he staked his very life on it. Perhaps he has something to say to us. Munk laid out the three points that determined his life’s plan in a stern letter to the national church in Denmark. These defining points were: the Christian faith, his Danish outlook, and his ordination vow.

While some, especially in this group, may appreciate Munk’s Danish outlook, it is his commitment to his Christian faith and ordination vows that speak most clearly to most of us. Munk’s faith and his vow overlapped in his understanding of Jesus. Who Jesus is was the pivotal reality of Kaj Munk’s life and death. At a critical point amid growing tensions between the Danes and the Germans, Munk declared: "It is better that Denmark’s relations with Germany should deteriorate than its relations with the Lord Jesus."

Who is Jesus? What are these "relations?" What is it about Jesus that calls a Christian—even to die? We can catch a glimpse of Munk’s belief in his sermons.

Munk declares to us as he once did to his own congregation: "God comes to us and says: ‘You may call me Jesus.’ Jesus shows us the heart of God, God’s goodness and holiness. So great is that heart, so deep, so high God’s love, that God came as the Good shepherd, to save everyone from the wolves." All this sounds familiar, safe, gentle. Why would anyone be shot in the head for this kind of theology?

He was, you know, shot for his theology. Kaj Munk was dangerous because he believed that "who Jesus is" has everything to do with how his people are to follow.

Good shepherds protect the sheep from the wolves. Munk insisted: "Jesus’ fight against the wolves continues through the church which will allow itself to be torn to pieces rather than let robber or wolf gain entrance to the fold."

In 1941, in his 27th year at a church in Vederso, Pastor Munk preached on the Good Samaritan. In his sermon he acknow-ledged: "There are some who say it is humanity that lies fallen in the ditch while Jesus the, Good Samaritan, stoops to save us in our wretched helplessness. This interpretation is not wrong; it is comforting, but it is only half the story. We are not only helpless—as Christians we are also called to be the Good Samaritan. Christ-ians follow Jesus by loving their neighbors as themselves. This is the truth that the Good Samaritan tale puts before us; it calls its hearers to face up to the needs of a flesh and blood neighbor."

"To have a flesh and blood neighbor," says Munk, "puts you in an either/or position. Either you may be a help to your neighbor or a burden." Either you protect the sheep or you are one of the wolves. Munk insisted on, and showed unflinching honesty about, what is helpful. To discern what is truly needed by your neighbor, a child of God and to tell the truth about what hurts the people of God and what injustice is being done them is to help your neighbor in Jesus’ name. To name the wolves so that the flock can protect itself better helps the neighbor in Jesus’ name. The wolves must be resisted for the sheep’s sake, and for their own sakes. Munk says: "It was not the task of the Good Samaritan to look up the robbers afterwards and compliment them for work well done. The goodness of God as we see it in Jesus is meek and long-suffering, but never compromises with evil."

And so, those called to be Good Samaritans, dare not walk by the needy neighbor, colluding with those who would name him or her unworthy of help. Kaj Munk himself was such a helper. Utterly convinced that the ordination vow is a charge to proclaim that God has come among us and "We can call him Jesus," Munk called for mercy for the Jews, striking workers, hungry in city and on farms, and for confused children in an unstable world. He named all kinds of wolves: capitalism, materialism, power lust, the national church, Nazi oppressors. And as the good Samaritan, he himself ended up in a roadside ditch.

In his body we see his faith in "who Jesus is." He died trusting that our Lord is also the Good Samaritan who cares for and will restore every wounded one.

We are not, of course, Kaj Munk. Most of us do not have a Danish outlook. But our Christian faith still insists on tough love of real neighbors in a real world. And the ordination vow still calls for bold proclamation of who Jesus is. In 1941 Denmark, Munk recognized that: "The pulpit has become such a place of responsibility that we tremble when we walk up its step." Fifty-one years later we tremble still to name the evil and to show mercy in our time. Many lie along the road; the robbers on the road are no fewer. Many pass by silently? Who are we? To ask "who is Jesus" is one way to ask, who are we? Therefore, we pray with Kaj Munk, trusting as did he, in the one who will restore. Let us pray:

O Holy Spirit, wipe the tears away from my eyes so that I can see the Savior, see Him so clearly that I can speak of Him to my people in these fateful times. Do your great work in our hearts in this degraded age so that Jesus may be a light to us. Then nothing can subdue us and our eyes are blessed. With the spring of joy bubbling from the heart, each one in the church and those among our people who have eyes with which to see, shall learn of the calm and noble Jesus, where to say no and where to say yes, and how we are to live our lives and do our work so that it may help our neighbor and our country. Amen

Sarah Heinrich is Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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