ROMANS 8: 18-23, 35-39
One of the most rewarding aspects of teaching RE and philosophy was educating children about the Holocaust – the dark period in recent European history in which some ten million people (more than half of them Jewish) were systematically eliminated.
It was what my students gained during these lessons, rather than the grim subject matter, that made it such a rewarding experience for me and for them. They were regularly torn between horror and anger, but what invariably triumphed was an uplifting sense of the goodness and courage and endurance of which ordinary people are capable under the most terrible circumstances.
The point is that we focused not so much on the processes and statistics of genocide – that would indeed have been horrific – but rather on the quiet heroism of so many people caught up in the horror. Anne Frank, Oskar Schindler, Maximilian Kolbe… all these stories filled my students with awe and admiration.
But the most powerful resource, and the one that always affected them most deeply, was “The Hiding Place” – a movie based on the autobiography of Corrie ten Boom. It offered little of what would normally appeal to teenagers in a movie – it’s a rather dated production with few action sequences, little explicit violence and no special effects. But the story and the leading characters gripped everyone regardless of academic ability or disciplinary record.
As the story opens, Corrie is working alongside her father and her sister Betsie in the family business – a watch and clock repair shop in the Dutch city of Haarlem.
When the Nazis invade the Netherlands and start rounding up the Jews for deportation, the family’s Christian faith leads them to work with the Resistance, using their home and their many contacts around the city to smuggle Jewish fugitives out of danger.
Of course the Ten Booms know from the outset that it will only be a matter of time before they are caught, and that in all likelihood they will die at the hands of the Nazis. And indeed they are quickly betrayed, and those who survive the raid on their home are taken off to concentration camps. By the end, every member of the family apart from Corrie herself has paid the ultimate price.
But the amazing thing about this story is that even young people come away from it challenged and uplifted. Because while it does have harrowing moments, it’s a story not of defeat but of victory; not of despair but of dynamic, life-transforming hope even when things seem hopeless. And the key to the film, the recurring message that comes through time and time again, is the passage from Romans that we have heard read to us this morning.
These exact verses are part of the Bible reading to which the family is listening at the time of their arrest. As a squad of soldiers pulls up outside their home, the camera cuts to the family gathered around the dining table with their heads bowed. The elderly father, Caspar ten Boom, begins to read aloud: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”
He continues, all unaware of what is happening out in the street, and it is just as the front door is smashed in that he reads the famous words of comfort from later in the chapter: “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Corrie and her sister Betsie need to keep this magnificent thought with them as we see them in Ravensbruck concentration camp: intimidated, frozen, starved, beaten, and in Betsie’s case worked to death from exhaustion and illness. But the miracle is that the more they suffer, the more in Christ they are convinced that there must be a higher purpose and a good end to their suffering. And their hope rubs off onto others, expanding the borders of the Kingdom of Heaven, as coincidence after apparent coincidence reinforces the evidence that God is at work even in the hellish confines of a Nazi concentration camp.
There are at least three levels on which these awesome words in Romans were given meaning in the story of the Ten Boom family:
· Firstly, it was this knowledge of the unconquerable love of God in Christ Jesus that challenged them to risk their lives for others, and should likewise challenge each one of us to show his love to others in our homes and workplaces.
· Secondly, they took to heart the luminous promise that opened the reading this morning: that our sufferings in this present existence are not worth comparing with the glory that we can look forward to. This confidence endured through all that they suffered, and gave them a sense of peace and a purposeful attitude that transformed the experience of those around them.
· And thirdly, this self-same acceptance of suffering and loss as an inevitable part of our present existence enabled Corrie to look back on her ordeal without bitterness. Over the rest of her long life she travelled the world, visiting over 60 countries, preaching a message of hope, trust, and (incredibly) forgiveness.
As we kneel together at the altar rail on this “Sea” Sunday, focusing our minds on Christ’s body broken for us, and his blood spilled for us, it’s fitting to hope that may we be given the strength to endure the storms and billows of life in this suffering world. But may we, like the Ten Boom family, also be inspired to help others and freely forgive as God has forgiven us.
And finally, if anyone finds these words an encouragement, then God grant that we may tell others. Our stories of the power of the living Jesus to change lives have extraordinary power to draw people towards a saving faith of their own. It was Betsie’s dying words that inspired Corrie to take up her ministry of peace and reconciliation after the War: “We must tell people what we have learned here. We must tell them that there is no pit so deep that He is not deeper still.” And the final whisper: “They will listen to us…because we were here."