By Rev. Tiffany A. Nagel Monroe
In Memphis, TN, on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. Remembered for a myriad of contributions to society, Dr. King left an indelible mark on our nation; a legacy and ministry that continues now fifty years later. Dr. King spoke eloquently and boldly on subject matters that were not always welcome nor comfortable. He challenged the listener to consider alternative perspectives, raise their consciousness, and see the greater calling that is on each of us. He challenged our nation to address issues that we are still confronting today.
As we recognize the 50th anniversary of his death, we consider his many words and speeches that have inspired us and nudged us forward. We must also consider the ways in which he led us to speak and live truth through the strengths and weaknesses of our faith. During seminary one of my required readings was the book Bonhoeffer and King: Speaking Truth to Power. As a fan of the great theological mind of Dietrich Bonhoeffer as well as the legacy of Dr. King, I was intrigued by a book that paired them both together. I was further curious as to how their efforts would inspire Christians in the modern era well after their deaths.
Both Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Dr. Martin Luther King were compelled by an ethic of love. Both men of faith were profoundly impacted by the Sermon on the Mount and preached prophetically about the message Christ was calling us to, one of love and humility and grace. Both theologians shared what author J. Deotis Roberts refers to as “an understanding of sinful social structures.” In the book Bearing the Cross, David J. Garrow quotes King as having said “when I took up the cross, I recognized its meaning…the cross is something that you bear, and ultimately that you die on.” King urged us to hold in tension the broken and evil structures of the world, with our call to love and grace. He called us to speak truth in love, to act and do so with as much peace in our veins as we could but to be stoic, in opposition to evil, and to trust in a Creator that values the ethic of love.
Bonhoeffer would write in his work the Cost of Discipleship about cheap and costly grace. For Bonhoeffer, cheap grace is when we are willing to readily take the grace offered to us from the cross and yet we allow this grace to do very little in the transformation of our inward and outward lives. Costly grace is when we recognize that grace is free but what we are called to next is the taking up of our crosses. For Bonhoeffer, grace gives us freedom from sin, but that freedom is not only for ourselves. We are free from sin so that we can be free for others. Both Bonhoeffer and King showed us what freedom for others looks like.
We are now into the season of Eastertide. There is not just one day that we celebrate and recognize there is an empty tomb, but there are 50 days from Easter Sunday until Pentecost. In the early church, Eastertide wasn’t a time reserved only for an extended celebration of resurrection, but rather a time to continue the formation of our faith. Eastertide is a season that calls us to become stronger disciples, ones who have not only received cheap grace for ourselves but are now carrying our crosses, embracing costly grace, freely sharing that grace with others. We are called to embrace the grace we have received and to allow it to infiltrate every fiber of our lives and our beings. Costly grace isn’t about doing what it easy or even what will earn us applause. Costly grace is doing what is right in the face of opposition, even if it costs us something. What is grace if it has not changed us? If we do not recognize God’s power in the resurrection, the empty tomb, the breaking of chains, the forgiveness of sins, the power over death, the unmerited grace, and let it change who we are and how we live in the world, then what is Easter but just another Sunday?
King and Bonhoeffer remind me that though much has changed in the fifty years since Dr. King’s death, there is much more work to be done. Christ reminds me that though much transformation has happened in the world since the resurrection, there is still much work yet to be done. William M. James wrote the classic hymn Easter People, Raise Your Voices. As I sang the words this past week, they brought to mind the social and gospel work of many trailblazers like Dr. King and Bonhoeffer who call us not to remain silent in times of division. “Easter people, raise your voices, sounds of Heaven in earth should ring. Christ has brought us heaven’s choices; Heavenly music, let it ring. Alleluia! Alleluia! Easter people, let us sing.”
Easter people, raise your voices. Easter people, let go of the chains that Christ has broken. Easter people, see your neighbor. Easter people, speak truth and oppose evil. Easter people, love with abandon, forgive without strings attached, and serve others with humility. Easter people, pick up your mats and be well. Easter people, flourish within the community of faith. Free from the weight of our sins, let us run this race with perseverance but not only so that we may meet the finish line, but so that all of our brothers and sisters arrive there with us. Easter people, live the resurrection in all you do. He is risen indeed. Is he alive in you?