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…with your splendid theological armor and your upright German figure, whould you not perhaps be almost a little ashamed as a man like Heinrich Vogel, who, wizened and worked up as he is, is just always there, waving his arms like a windmill and shouting “Confession! Confession!” in his own way–in power or in weakness, that doesn’t matter so much–actually giving his testimony?…Be glad that I do have you here in person, for I would let go at you urgently in a quite a different way, with the demand that you must now let go of all these intellectual flourishes and special considerations, however interesting they may be, and think of only one thing–that you are a German, that the house of your church is on fire, that you know enough and can say what you know well enough to help, and that you must return to your post by the next ship. Given the situation, shall we shall the ship next after?
Please take it (this letter) in the friendly spirit in which it is intended. If I were not so attached to you, I would not let you fly at you in this way.
With sincerer greetings,
Karl Barth answered Bonhoeffer on November 20, 1933, with a long, urgent, and yet humorous letter:
You can deduce from the very way in which I address you that I do not regard your departure for England as anything but a necessary personal interlude. Once you had this thing on your mind, you were quite right not to ask for my wise counsel first. I would have advised you against it absolutely, and probably by bringing up my heaviest artillery. And now, as you are mentioning the matter after the fact, I can honestly not tell you anything but ‘Hurry back to your post in Berlin!’…”
(Renate Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Brief Life, 27)
…was not easy, as he wrote eight days after his appointment in a detailed letter to Karl Barth–someone who is still famous and Bonhoeffer’s well-regared professor of theology:
“If one were going to discover quite definite reasons for such decisions after the event, one of the strongest, I believe, was that I simply did not any longer feel up to the questions and demands that came to me. I feel that, in some way I don’t understand, I find myself in radical opposition to all my friends; I became increasingly isolated with my views of things, even though I was and remain personally close to these people. All this has frightened me and shaken my confidence so that I began to fear that dogmatism might be leading me astray–since there seemed no particular reason why my own view in the in these matters should be any better, any more right, than the views of many really capable pastors whom I sincerely respect…”
(Renate Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Brief Life, 26-27)
In October 1933, Bonhoeffer accepted a pastoral appointment to a German congregation in London…
(Renate Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Brief Life, 26)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his lecture, “The Church and the Jewish Question” (1933)…
…also spoken about the possibility that the church, “not just bandage the victims under the wheel, but rather break the spokes of the wheel itself.”
Already the thought of political resistance rings out here, even if Bonhoeffer was still trying to act solely through his actions within the church.
At the same time, he attempted to obtain support from foreign countries through his ecumenical work.
(Renate Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Brief Life, 24).
During his lecture “The Church and the Jewish Question” three months later, some of the audience left the hall irritated. Bonhoeffer had pointed out the obligation of the church “to question the state repeatdly whether its actions could be justified, i.e., as actions in which law and order are created, not lawlessness and disorder”
(Renate Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Brief Life, 24).
This lecture laid the foundation for Bonhoeffer’s actions in the years that followed.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was, as far as I know, the first to be censored by the Nazis…
In 1933, the year Adolf Hitler seized power, there were decisive changes in Bonhoeffer’s life. He firmly supported the church’s opposition to the new regime. In the period immediately following January 31, 1933, Bonhoeffer spoke on a radio broadcast that was cut off, in which he commented that a leader who would make himself the idol of his followers would be a misleader (Renate Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Brief Life, 24).
SERMON: Dietrich Bonhoeffer–Martyr/Witness for Christ Jan. 16, 2005
PRAYER: O God, whose grace is free yet deeply costly, speak to us now through the reading of your word and through the life and witness of one who lived your word, even unto death–your servant/martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Thus may we be encouraged by his witness and strengthened by his courage to face the cost of discipleship in our own lives; through Christ, the “Man for Others”. Amen.
OT LESSON: Isaiah 53:1-6 NT LESSON: John 15:9-17
David Quattlebaum is currently teaching a church school course in the Fellowship Hall on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Last week and again this week the class has been watching a powerful documentary of his life by Martin Doblmeier. The film is a remarkable testimony to a remarkable life. This morning I want to share with the whole congregation the story of the life and witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Few theologians have had more influence on the church today, and few have demonstrated a greater depth of commitment to the “costly grace” at the heart of the gospel than Dietrich Bonhoeffer–martyr/witness for Jesus Christ.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born on February 4, 1906 into a very cultured and learned home. His father, Karl, was a noted doctor who would soon become Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Berlin. Bonhoeffer grew up in a close-knit family that valued the intellect as well as the arts. Bonhoeffer played the piano well and took great delight in fine music.
The center of the religious life of his family was his mother, Paula, who led family prayers and Bible reading, although the family was not very active in church. From his father, Dietrich inherited a strong realism and a hatred of “the empty phrase.” From both sides of the family he inherited a fierce independence of mind and a willingness to take risks on behalf of what he believed.
Much to the surprise of his family, at 16 Bonhoeffer decided to enter the ministry. His older brothers sought to talk him out of it. They could see no future for him in something as dull and provincial as the Protestant Church in Germany. Bonhoeffer replied, with the confidence and naivete of youth, “If the church is feeble, then I shall reform it.” In time, he did.
In 1924, at the age of 18, Bonhoeffer entered the University of Berlin to study for a degree in theology. Three years later at the age of 21 he submitted his dissertation on the “Communion of Saints.” Karl Barth, the leading theologian of the century, called it a “theological miracle.”
After receiving his degree, Bonhoeffer came to the U.S. for a year of graduate study at Union Seminary in New York. While at Union, Bonhoeffer became aware of the racial struggle in the U.S. and for six months attended a black Baptist Church in Harlem. There he learned to love the spirituals and later taught them to his students in Germany.
The following year, 1931, Bonhoeffer returned to Germany to take up his career as a professor of theology. But the 1930s were tumultuous times in Germany. The career of another young man was also on the rise, Adolph Hitler. Bonhoeffer recognized sooner than most the terrible treat posed by the Nazi party’s rise to power, but even he seriously underestimated it.
In January of 1933, Adolph Hitler was appointed Reich Chancellor. The next month the Nazi’s burned the Reichstag, the parliament building in Berlin and blamed it on the communists. A series of “emergency laws” for homeland security were passed. Within a month all democratic rights and freedoms were destroyed with astonishing ease and virtually no resistance. Jews were no longer allowed to serve in civil government. Their businesses were boycotted. Soon even the German Church was in the hand of the Nazis.
Ones like Barth and Bonhoeffer, who saw clearly the idolatry of making the church an instrument of government, voiced their opposition and in 1934 at the Synod of Barmen formed the “Confessing Church,” to stand against the German Church in the hand of the Nazis.
At this point in his life Bonhoeffer thought of himself as a pacifist. But soon he would be forced to reassess his pacifism. As the extent of Nazi power and their evil ends became clear, Bonhoeffer found himself increasingly drawn into opposition to the regime. Under the direction of the Confessing Church, in 1935 he formed an underground seminary where he developed a community of faith who shared a rich Life Together, which became the English title of the book he published a few years later. In it Bonhoeffer wrote, “Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this…. We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ.”
In August of 1937 the Gestapo closed the seminary and imprisoned 27 former students. It was at this time that Bonhoeffer published his still widely read book The Cost of Discipleship. The book was a powerful attach on what he called “cheap grace.”
“Cheap grace,” he said, “is the deadly enemy of the Church. We are fighting today for costly grace… Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
Bonhoeffer went on to say, prophetically, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die… Suffering is the badge of true discipleship.”
As Hitler gained more and more power, and as the Nazi atrocities became more vicious, Bonhoeffer moved from theological resistance to a more active, political resistance. For it he was removed from his teaching position and forbidden to lecture in Berlin.
In 1939 friends in the U.S. persuaded him to return to Union Seminary, where he would be safe and could develop his outstanding theological gifts. With his warm personality, his winsome charm, his brilliant mind, he soon became the center of attention at Union.
But Bonhoeffer was restless. In his dairy he wrote one day after chapel, “I do not understand why I am here… The short prayer in which we thought of our German brothers almost overwhelmed me… If things become more uncertain, I shall not stay in America… I shall have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share in the struggles of this time with my people.”
Upon his return to Berlin, he was at first denied the right to speak anywhere in the Reich and his movements were carefully restricted. But eventually, through the help of some friends in the resistance movement, he was able to secure a position with the Germany Military Intelligence service.
The more Bonhoeffer learned of the Nazi atrocities, the greater became his opposition, until the former pacifist became convinced that the himself must share in a plot to assassinate Hitler. In explaining his change of position he wrote, “It is not only my task to look after the victims of madmen who drive a motor car in a crowded street, but to do all in my power to stop their diving at all.” Thus Bonhoeffer joined the plot of the German Military Intelligence to assassinate Adolph Hitler.
On April 4, 1943, presumably on charges of evading the draft, Bonhoeffer was arrested at his parent’s home and take to the Tegel Prison in Berlin. There he was held for six months without a warrant for his arrest. He spent a total of 18 months in the Tegel prison. Conditions were harsh, especially at first. The prisoners were constantly harassed by the guards. The food was meager and almost inedible. The blankets smelled so bad they couldn’t be used even against the bitter cold.
But as harsh as the conditions were, those 18 months in prison have been called “spiritually the richest and intellectually the most fertile period in Bonhoeffer’s life.” There in his cell the theologian became a mystic; the pastor became a martyr, and the teacher produced in his Letters and Papers from Prison one of the great contemporary classics of Christian literature.” (M. Muggeridge)
On April 14, 1943 Bonhoeffer wrote the first of his famous “letters and papers from prison.” It was to his parents.
My Dear Parents,
I do want you to be quite sure that I am all right. To my surprise, the discomforts you usually associate with prison life such as its physical hardships don’t seem to trouble me at all. I can even make a good breakfast each morning of dry bread… I can still hear the hymns we sang this morning. ‘Praise ye the Lord, the almighty, King of creation. Shelters thee under his wings, yea, so gently sustaineth.’ How true it is! And may it ever be so.
Spring is on its way now with a vengeance. In the prison court yard there is a thrush which sings a beautiful little song every morning, and now has started in the evening, too. One is grateful for little things, that also is a gain. Goodbye for now.”
Bonhoeffer’s cheerful disposition and sense of gratitude in even the worst situations were remembered fondly by his friends and impressed even his jailers. In one of his early letters Bonhoeffer wrote:
“I believe that God both can and will bring good out of evil. For that purpose God needs ones who make the best of everything. I believe God will give us all the power we need to resist in all times of distress. But God never gives it in advance, lest we should rely upon ourselves and not on him alone.”
In February of 1945, Bonhoeffer was moved to the Buchenwald concentration camp. When the plot to assassinate Hitler failed and the conspiracy was exposed, it was clear that the end had come for Bonhoeffer and his fellow conspirators. In his last letter to his dear friend and former student, Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer wrote:
“Please don’t ever get anxious or worried about me, but don’t forget to pray for me. I am sure you don’t. I am so sure of God’s guiding hand that I hope I shall always be kept in that certainty. You must never doubt that I am traveling with gratitude and cheerfulness along the road where I am being led. My past life is brimful of God’s goodness and my sins are covered by the forgiving love of Christ crucified.”
In April Bonhoeffer was taken to the Flossenburg camp for execution. Payne Best, a British officer, and one of the survivors of Buchenwald, says of him,
“Bonhoeffer was different…his soul really shone in the dark desperation of prison. He always seemed to spread an atmosphere of happiness and joy over the least incident and profound gratitude for the mere fact that he was alive. He was one of the very few persons I have ever met for whom God was real and always near.”
On April 1, 1945, the sound of Allied artillery could be heard in the distance. The prisoners knew it would only be a matter of weeks before their camp was liberated. The end was at hand.
On Sunday, April 8, Bonhoeffer was asked to lead a worship service in the prison. His texts were “with his stripes we are healed,” the words we read this morning from Isaiah 53, and “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, by his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” Afterward they sang Martin Luther’s great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
Payne Best writes, “Bonhoeffer had hardly finished the last prayer when two men in civilian clothes came in and said, ‘Prisoner Bonhoeffer, come with us.’ Those words ‘come with us’ had only one meaning for all prisoners–the gallows.” Best says, “We bade him goodbye. He drew me aside and said, ‘This is the end..for me it is the beginning of life.'”
That evening Dietrich Bonhoeffer was tried and condemned for treason. The prison doctor at Flossenburg describes what followed. “Through the half-open door, I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor, praying fervently to his God. I was deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain God heard his prayer. At the place of execution he again said a short prayer, and them climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued in a few seconds. In almost 50 years that I have worked as a doctor, I have hardly seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”
A month later Germany fell. The madness of the Third Reich was over. In the chaos after the war Bonhoeffer’s family was unable to discover what had happened to him. They knew nothing of the events of his death until on the evening of July 27th, they heard a memorial service from London which began with these words, “We have gathered here in the presence of God to make thankful remembrance for the life and work of His servant Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who gave his life in obedience to God’s holy Word.”
So for the life and witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer…and for all the saints and martyrs across the years who have paid the full “cost of discipleship”, we give thanks and praise to God. Amen.
Dr. Allen C. McSween, Jr.
Fourth Presbyterian Church
Greenville, SC 29601