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Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Lessons for Lent

Message of Hon. David Kilgour to

1st Baptist Church

Elgin at Laurier

April 4, 2001


Next week (April 9th) will be the 56th anniversary of the execution of the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, aged 39, in Flossenburg, Germany.  It strikes me that Bonhoeffer's life and faith have something very important to say today about both Lent and Easter.

Permit me therefore to draw heavily on a book of Bonhoeffer's writings selected by Robert Coles in the Modern Spiritual Masters Series.

First, a little history about what much of the Christian world considers to be one of the 20th century's best-known and most universally-admired martyrs.  Bonhoeffer was born in 1906 to a respected German family.  He completed his work for a doctoral degree in theology and in 1931 became a lecturer in religion at Berlin University and was also ordained as a Lutheran minister.

In 1933, only two days after Hitler was made chancellor, Bonhoeffer, then only 27, broadcast on radio a warning about totalitarianism, but was cut off the air as he spoke.  Later the same year, in company with Pastor Martin Niemoller, he warned Germany's church ministers about the dangers of Nazi rule.  A year later, he helped to organize the Confessing Church, which was a critical response to Hitler that called on Germans to stand first with Christ.

By 1936, he was no longer permitted to teach at Berlin University and a year later his Confessing Church seminary was closed by the Gestapo.  He published his Cost of Discipleship the same year and was soon in contact with political opponents of the regime.

As the war loomed, he went to London to share his anxieties about Germany with British church ministers.  He went on to the U.S., but left safety there within weeks to return to Germany much to the dismay of American friends.  In fact, he was able to do more travel in Europe until 1943 despite the was, when he became engaged to Maria von Wedemeyer.  Three months later, he was arrested and put in various prisons, including Buchenwald concentration camp, before he was executed as a "traitor" just days before Hitler committed suicide.

Bonhoeffer had become Kierkegard's "Knight of Faith", ready to stand for Jesus when virtually all other Germans, including most theologians of all faiths, were shouting "Heil Hitler" to the Devil.  As we saw, unlike so many other victims and other martyrs of the Third Reich, Bonhoeffer could easily have stayed abroad as thousands of other Germans did.

From all indications, Dietrich was an immensely likeable person, full of compassion and moral vigour.  When his Confessing Church broke with other churches, he fully expected that the "cost" of their effort could include death if necessary in pursuit of a committed Christian life.  The reason he returned to Germany from America just before World War II began was related to this conviction.  If he were to have any believability with Germans after Hitler's defeat, he was convinced he must be part of the struggle that must precede the end of Germany's gangster period.

The key to Bonhoeffer's gifts to us Christians today, as Coles notes, was "his decision to live as if the Lord were a neighbour and friend, a constant source of courage and inspiration, a presence amid travail and joy alike, a reminder of love's obligation and affirmations of death's decisive meaning (how we die as a measure of how we have lived, of who we are)."

Bonhoeffer's most famous book, The Cost of Discipleship, was published in 1937.  In it, he attacked directly the so-called German Christians who put loyalty to the Reich ahead of obedience to the cross.  What he termed "costly grace" was what compels a person to submit to the cross of Christ and follow him.  It is grace because our Saviour said: "My yoke is easy and my burden is light."

The message of Bonhoeffer most relevant to Lent and Easter here emerge in his book "…the Son of man must suffer many things, and be respected by the elders, and the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again…" (Mark 8:31)  Rejection and terrible pain were placed on Jesus by necessity even though, as we know, the concept of a suffering Messiah was unacceptable to our church even in its earliest days.  For Bonhoeffer, this suffering also applied to Jesus serious disciples in the past and present as well.  God deems some worthy of martyrdom, but for Bonhoeffer no-one is permitted to suffer more than he/she can bear.

Bonhoeffer says the call of Christ puts Christians in the middle of the arena constantly pitted against the devil.  Believers encounter new temptations daily and must suffer for Jesus' sake.  Only the constant support of the One who bore the sins of all sustains us to persist.  Suffering for Bonhoeffer was the badge of a true discipleship, but bearing one's cross, as with Christ, is the only way to overcome suffering.  Suffering must be endured by all Christians in order that it too will pass away.

Characteristically, Bonhoeffer felt the Confessing Church had given in to its Nazi oppressors too quickly.  After 1937, he wrote letters of encouragement to members of his disbanded church.  "…We knew that a life with Jesus Christ and his church is worth staking everything on", he wrote in one letter.   In a secret address in 1939 to believers, he asked, "How do you intend to die one day?  Do we believe in the power of death and sin, or do we believe in the power of Jesus Christ?  Of the two there can only be one."

His major work on ethics was published only posthumously.  On love, for example, he wrote that without it everything falls apart, but "in this love everything is united and everything is pleasing to God."

The final letters Bonhoeffer wrote from prison are equally eloquent.  To his parents at the end of 1943 he wrote: "…the horrors of war are now coming home to us with such force as will no doubt, if we survive, provide us with the necessary basis for making it possible to reconstruct the life of the nation, both spiritually and materially, on Christian principles."  To his fiancée, Maria: "No evil can befall us:  whatever men may do to us, they cannot but serve the God who is secretly revealed as love and rules the world and our lives…"  To a dear friend: "One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman, a righteous man or an unrighteous one; a sick man or a healthy one.  By this worldliness mean living unreservedly in life's duties, problems, successes and fairness, experiences and perplexities.  In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arena of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world-watching with Christ in Gethsemane."

His last letter to his mother five months before his death: "thank you for all the love that has come to me in my cell from you during the past year, it has made every day easier for me…My wish for you and Father and Maria and for all of us is that the New year may bring us at least an occasional glimmer of light and that we may once more have the joy of living together.  May God keep you both well."

I hope you'll all agree that Dietrich Bonhoeffer's message to Christians everywhere is a unique one, especially during the season of Lent.  What is your cross and mine?

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