October 30, 2011
Since we will have a visit next week from Martin Luther, I thought that we could celebrate Reformation Sunday by looking at the teaching of a more current theologian about returning to the Bible for our common life together and in the world. So this morning I would like to offer Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer as our guide for our quest for reforming the Church to bring it into conformance with God’s Word.
Says the Reverend Doctor Bonhoeffer: “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the God and Father of Jesus Christ and our God. We must once again become acquainted with the Holy Scripture, as the Reformers knew it, as our fathers knew it. We must not be afraid to spend the time and effort required. We must become familiar with the Scripture first of all for the sake of our salvation. Yet there are many other important reasons for us to make this requirement very urgent. How are we supposed, for example, to achieve certainty and confidence in our actions in our personal life and in the church, if we do not stand on solid scriptural ground? Not our own heart but God’s word decides our path. But who today still knows, for example, what is right about the necessity of scriptural proof?
“How often in laying the foundation of the most important decisions, do we hear untold arguments “from life” and from “experience,” but without scriptural proof – precisely where it would perhaps point in the exact opposite direction? It’s no wonder that those who try to bring scriptural proof into discredit are the ones who themselves do not seriously read, know, and research the Scripture. Yet those who do not want to learn how to work independently with the Scripture are not Protestant Christians.”
These words come from the book “Life Together,” the story of the foundations of life and learning at the seminary he lead to provide pastors for the Confessing Church. This was the church created in opposition to the Nationalized German Church, which was co-opted by the agenda of the National Socialists in Hitler’s Germany. This Confessing Church itself fell prey to division and fragmentation under political and social pressures. That was in part the reason why Dietrich Bonhoeffer became involved in political strategies to defeat Hitler and his party.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a complicated figure. He is a professed pacifist who joined a conspiracy to assassinate the leader of his government. His theology led him to stay in Germany even though it would have been easy to sit out the war in New York or London, but he used his government position as a double agent. His experience in New York, especially in the black Baptist Church in Harlem, shook his comfortable middle-class understanding of religion and put him in touch with how Christ is present in a physical and dynamic way among a people who depend on Jesus for hope and courage to face every day.
I lift up Bonhoeffer today, not to glorify his actions, but as an example of how Reformation is not just a one-time event dependent on the writing of treatises or the end of the Medieval period and fracturing of one church’s dominance. Reformation is on-going and called for often when we see it as stepping out of the immersion in the vision of our culture and back into the grounding of Scripture as our call to be God’s people in the world. In every age, our Scripture tells us, God’s people have lost their connection to their Creator, have begun to satisfy themselves with their own understanding of human relationships, business relationships and economic relationships. Time after time, God calls them to account through the prophets, reminding them of God’s great love and mercy, and that as God’s own, they are to live God’s mercy in the world – welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, supporting the widows. They are to love God totally and love God’s people as lavishly as they love their own families. The final revelation of what God’s love and God’s people look like in the world was in Jesus, God’s own self in our history.
Jesus lived side-by-side with the suffering, the sick, the over-taxed and under-privileged, raising them up, sharing their meals, calling them to live God’s law and restoring right relationship. He did not live with the powerful, or fight against injustice as it was delivered by the religious or political authorities of his time. He died at their hands, taking into death with him the power of evil to separate us from God and God’s love. In his resurrection, we live in the new world God has offered us. We are free to use the gift of God’s love to lift the lowly, to live in love ourselves, and to live God’s Word for us in our Scripture and in Jesus’ presence in our midst. Jesus is the power that lifts the burden of our sin and imperfection. Jesus is the power that drives engagement with others to set the world right, as he would have it. It is our work now, and he brings us the power to do it.
In every age, there have been reformers and prophets, calling God’s people back to their roots in that Word that reveals God’s love and purpose. Every year at this time we celebrate our call to attend to that Word in Scripture and in the person of Jesus to measure our life together as God’s people in the world in which we live. As people question the relevance of the Church in our age, and as we see the changes in the world as it engages our faith life, we are called once again to rest on this firm foundation for all we do and say, for how we see our own call to ministry in this place, and to mobilize to be that Word for each other and the world God loves.
After the closing of Finkenwald, and shortly before his arrest, as the seminary had gone underground and was meeting in homes, Bonhoeffer writes: “I must close the eyes of my mind if I want to see what God is showing me. God makes me blind when he wants to have me see his word (Ps 119:18)….It is a new prayer daily, when we open our eyes in the morning and when we close them at night, that God will give us enlightened eyes of the heart that stay open when the day tries to deceive our natural eyes and when the night deludes us into evil dreams – open, enlightened eyes that are always filled with the wonder of the law of God…When God opens our eyes for his word, we see into a world of miracles. What previously appeared dead to me is full of life, what was contradictory resolves itself in higher unity, and the hard demand becomes the graceful commandment. In the middle of human words I hear God’s eternal word; in past history I perceive the present God and his work for my salvation. Merciful words of comfort become a new demand of God; the unbearable burden becomes a gentle yoke. The great miracle in the law of God is the revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ. Through him the Word receives life, what is contradictory gains unity and what is obvious acquires unfathomable depth. Lord, open my eyes.”
Now may the peace which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.
Quotes for this sermon come from: Bonhoeffer, Dietrich,“I Want to Live These days with You: a Year of Daily Devotions”, translated by O.C. Dean, Jr. (Westminster John Knox Press, 2005).
Notes about Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) was a German Lutheran pastor, theologian and martyr. He was a participant in the German resistance movement against Nazism and a founding member of the Confessing Church. He was involved in plans by members of the Abwehr (the German Military Intelligence Office) to assassinate Adolf Hitler. This led to his arrest in April 1943 and execution by hanging in April 1945, 23 days before the Nazis’ surrender. His view of Christianity’s role in the secular world has become very influential.
Bonhoeffer was born to a wealthy family, his father a successful doctor, his mother the daughter of a countess. Intellectual prowess was highly prized, and his family was dismayed when Dietrich opted to study theology and prepare to become a Lutheran Pastor. He was brilliant in his studies, a gifted athlete and quite outgoing and social. Too young for ordination when his studies were complete, he served parishes in Spain and came to study in the US, worshipping in Harlem and learning about African-American Spirituality. He traveled extensively in the US and Mexico, becoming deeply influenced by the ecumenism and social justice of the North American churches. This would shape his theological thought in the future.
On his return to Germany, Bonhoeffer was one of the earliest critics of National Socialism and of the National Church’s acceptance of Hitler’s influence. In May 1934, The Confessing Church became a counter-movement to the Nazification of the German Protestant Church, producing the Barmen Declaration detailing its stand for the Bible and rejection of the distortions of NAZI influences on Christianity. After his license to teach in Berlin was revoked in 1937, he became the leader of an underground seminary at Finkenwald, which trained pastors for the Confessing Church movement. The seminary was closed and destroyed after a few years, although the training continued for a short time, moving from place to place supported by wealthy Christians who funded and housed its work.
Because of a rivalry between the SS and the Abwehr, Bonhoeffer, along with many others – including some of his family, were arrested in 1943. During his time in prison, details of his involvement with contacts outside of the country, his smuggling Jews and cash out of Germany, and several plots to assassinate Hitler were discovered. He was moved to a concentration camp and hanged just weeks before the US liberated the camp where he died.
Central to his theology is Christ, in whom God and the world are reconciled. Bonhoeffer’s God is a suffering God, whose manifestation is found in this-worldliness. He believed that the Incarnation of God in flesh made it unacceptable to speak of God and the world “in terms of two spheres” — an implicit attack upon Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms. Bonhoeffer stressed personal and collective piety and revived the idea of imitation of Christ. He argued that Christians should not retreat from the world but act within it. He believed that two elements were constitutive of faith: the implementation of justice and the acceptance of divine suffering. Bonhoeffer insisted that the church, like the Christians, “had to share in the sufferings of God at the hands of a godless world” if it were to be a true church of Christ.
Bonhoeffer’s life as a pastor and theologian of great intellect and spirituality who lived as he preached — and his martyrdom in opposition to Nazism — exerted great influence and inspiration for Christians across broad denominations and ideologies, including figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
In the face of Nazi atrocities, the full scale of which Bonhoeffer learned through the Abwehr, he concluded that “the ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live.” He did not justify his action but accepted that he was taking guilt upon himself. He wrote “when a man takes guilt upon himself in responsibility, he imputes his guilt to himself and no one else. He answers for it…Before other men he is justified by dire necessity; before himself he is acquitted by his conscience, but before God he hopes only for grace.”
Writings by Bonhoeffer include:
Communion of Saints; Act and Being; Discipleship (The Cost of Discipleship); Life Together, Prayerbook of the Bible; Ethics; Letters and Papers from Prison. His complete works are gathered and published in German, and are currently being published in English. There are several good biographies including a new one published in the last year.