Ray Anglesea has just reminded us on Twitter that today marks the 70th anniversary of the death at the hands of the Nazis of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As Ray says, “Writings very relevant today”.
Last summer, when I was invited to contribute to a series of evening services at Jesmond URC on “prominent preachers”, I chose to speak about Bonhoeffer – as follows.
Some of us still remember the screaming headline in the Observer over the full page article declaring “Our image of God must go”. The young radical bishop of Woolwich was seemingly doing his bit to make sure that the sixties were going to be as exciting for people of a religious inclination as anything that Mary Quant, the Stones and the Beatles were preparing for the rest of the population.
I’m guessing that Honest to God, published in 1963 when I was in the 6th form, will have been for many people in the English-speaking world their first introduction to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. John Robinson in that book drew heavily on his writings: Bonhoeffer and Tillich are pretty well neck and neck when it comes to the number of entries in the index, well ahead of both God and the Church. Note that even little paperbacks had a decent index in the back in those days. Bonhoeffer’s Letters & Papers from prison had first been published in English ten years previously and had gone through a couple of reprintings – but I see from my own copy that there were at least two more in the months following Honest to God. Bonhoeffer had now become a man to be reckoned with.
And as things turned out, this was no passing fashion, although John Robinson’s emphasis on his last fragmentary writings was to be criticised as not doing justice to the breadth and depth of the thinking of one of the C20 century’s most significant theologians. If people speak now of a Bonhoeffer industry, I don’t think this is necessarily in a disparaging way: it seems that there is always more to learn and discover about the man that is potentially enriching for the Church today. My own training, formation as they say nowadays, coincided with the beginning of this burgeoning interest. I remember clearly hearing a talk given by his friend, Ebehard Bethge, recipient of those prison letters, who had just produced what is still recognised as the definitive biography of Bonhoeffer – and indeed it was largely his efforts that ensured that Bonhoeffer’s writings became known, both in Germany and internationally, in a much more rounded way.
Tonight I know I am given the particular task of reflecting on Bonhoeffer as a preacher. But however we approach the man, we are bound to be affected not just by his words but by his life – for, as they say today, he walked the walk. When at the end of the century ten 20th century Christian martyrs were commemorated by statues erected over the west door of Westminster Abbey, Bonhoeffer was among their number – indeed, it would have been impossible for him to be excluded. And the whole question of how the Christian lives under an unjust regime, and then how and when resistance may be justified, is one that runs behind much of Bonhoeffer’s work, including his preaching.
And while I realise I may be telling a well known story unnecessarily, I think that for completeness I should in this introductory session give just a brief account of Bonhoeffer’s life. Then in a few moments we will turn to the real business of the evening as we consider Bonhoeffer in the pulpit.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in 1906 in Breslau, into a family of eight children. They moved to Berlin in 1912 when the father became head of the university psychiatric clinic. The mother was a pastor’s daughter who took responsibility for the children’s religious education. Rather than taking them to church or Sunday School she taught them at home, and prepared them herself for confirmation in the state Lutheran church.
Bonhoeffer’s experiences in wartime Berlin may have opened the eyes of this child from a very privileged background to the lot of ordinary people, but there’s no doubt that family values, which included an intellectual and cultural sense of responsibility for public affairs as well as care for anyone in need was behind his early willingness to become a leader in his generation. Such family values were seen in the decision of his eldest brothers to join the infantry (and one of them died of his wounds), but were also later seen in the wider family support of church resistance under Hitler, and even eventually support for the conspiracy against him.
Bonhoeffer chose against the grain to study theology while other brothers studied sciences and law. He gained his doctorate at the tender age of 21 through a thesis on the Church as community – Sancto Communio. By 1930 he was qualified to teach theology at Berlin. Up to this time it seems that he had been an intellectual studying theology, but as he was challenged by a friend to learn more about Luther and more about the Bible he became a deeply convinced believer. He set himself on a path to ordination which took in parish experience in Berlin and then in the German-speaking congregation in Barcelona, and which finished with a year’s studies at Union Theological Seminary, New York.
Back in Germany, he had made contact with Karl Barth, the great Protestant theologian of the century, and had been ordained a Lutheran pastor, before the German church struggle began in earnest. Hitler wanted to control the Protestant Church, and many elements in the church were more than happy to go along with his plans, inventing an Aryan Christ, and seeking to remove ethnic Jews from positions of leadership. As these so-called “German Christians” gained the upper hand, Bonhoeffer received a call to be pastor of the two German-speaking congregations in London – the only time that he had prolonged first hand experience of ministry in a local church. Even then, he seems to have spent much of his time on the phone to Germany, as Karl Barth and others issued the Barmen Declaration exposing the fundamental errors of the German Christians, and as the Confessing Church that was crucially opposed to all that was happening under the Nazis came into being.
In 1935 Bonhoeffer was called back to Germany to help the Confessing Church train its pastors – first at Finkenwalde on the Baltic, and later, as their work was outlawed, in more clandestine ways further east, where small rural parishes valued students ministering among them. Eventually the students were arrested or drafted into the army, and Bonhoeffer was forbidden to lecture or publish. He accepted a one year teaching post in the USA, as a means of avoiding the draft, but returned after only a matter of weeks, convinced that his vocation lay with his own people. Before long he was part of the ever changing furtive plans to either arrest or finally to assassinate Hitler – all this while writing a book (never completed) on ethics.
More than a year before the final unfolding of that plot when the bomb planted by von Stauffenberg failed to kill the Fuhrer, Bonhoeffer had been arrested. During his 18 months in prison he maintained a strict discipline of exercise and prayer, reading and writing widely – and the volume “Letters and Papers from Prison” comes from that time of course. It’s said that one of Hitler’s last acts as he retreated to the Berlin bunker was to order the execution of all those linked with the conspiracy, and that included Bonhoeffer. He was sent to the extrmination camp at Flossenburg where a sham trial found him guilty; and on April 9th 1945 he was hanged, cremated and buried in a mass grave.
At a stopping point on the journey there, Bonhoeffer conducted a Sunday service for his fellow prisoners. One of them, an Englishman, was later to recall that as it ended two evil looking men entered the room and commanded “Prisoner Bonhoeffer, come with us”. He immediately understood the significance of their words. “This is the end” he said, “but for me, the beginning of life”.
Bonhoeffer the Preacher
The most common quote from Bonhoeffer’s preaching is from a sermon he gave in Berlin, probably in 1932, when he began by insisting to the congregation that one cannot understand and preach the gospel concretely enough. “A real evangelical sermon” he claims “must be like holding a pretty red apple in front of a child or a glass of cool water in front of a thirsty person and then asking: Do you want it?” Implicit in that illustration is the thought that the preacher’s own experience and technique contribute to the rosiness of the fruit and the coolness of the water, however much there is a givenness to the gospel that allows every listener to accept or reject the message – to take it or leave it.
Bonhoeffer was probably not one of the great preachers of the C20, but the significance of his life and his writings made me want to find out more about this particular voice from the pulpit. The last 20 years have seen the publication of a 16 volume English translation of his complete writings, and four volumes of these include something like 70 sermons. From these, a one volume collection has been separately published – and these are the sermons I’m drawing from this evening.
Although he preached throughout his adult life, there were only two brief spells when he was preaching Sunday by Sunday: the first in 1928, when he served as assistant minister to the German congregation in Barcelona, and then his 18 months in London from 1933 to 35. During his years in Berlin he had opportunities to preach as a student chaplain, and at the invitation of colleagues in their churches; and then at the illegal Finkenwalde seminary he certainly lectured on preaching and on occasions took the pulpit, but obviously the nature of the community demanded that students were given their turn. And of course many of the sermons he delivered over the years have not survived – and it’s mainly thanks to keen listeners that we have even the small number that have.
The first and I suppose obvious thing to say about Bonhoeffer is that he preaches as a theologian. The quote I’ve just shared with you introduces quite a lengthy sermon (most in this book are no longer than I would preach) on Lazarus and the rich man, in which he accuses his age of having spiritualised the gospel – “that is we have lightened it up, changed it”. Typically, he goes back to the sermon on the mount, though since he is preaching from Luke he chooses his version of the beatitudes: Blessed are you, you poor… Blessed are you who are hungry here below, for you will be filled. But then, alongside his “Blessed are you Lazaruses of all the ages, for you will be consoled in the bosom of Abraham” he gives us the other side of the picture, the rich man who also died and was buried. “Woe to you who dress in purple and live happily in luxury, for you will suffer eternal thirst.”
For Bonhoeffer it is clear that this is not a story simply intended to teach that the rich should help the poor – and nor is the main thing what a person’s attitude is towards their poverty or their wealth. Remember he is preaching in Berlin, probably in an up-market church. But I have to say that the argument is dense and not easy to follow point by point. We move around rapidly from the spiritualising tendencies of the age to those who are repelled by the inclusiveness of the message: “What does a gospel that was brought to the weaklings, the common people, the poor and the sick have to do with us? … It undermines our pride, our race, our strength.” And we are confronted at the end with two questions (Bonhoeffer senses that the preacher needs to challenge the individual out there): Who is Lazarus? and Who is the rich man? The story doesn’t answer the second question, but we know the answer of course. And we’re reminded that “another story gives us the answer, the story of the rich young man who was very devout and very righteous, but was sad when he was told to leave his possessions and went away…”
How, I wonder, did people go away home that day? I’ve said that Bonhoeffer preaches as a theologian. Even when he does not know a congregation well, we sense he is connecting with them by putting the message in context – that’s surely part of the theologian’s task. I admit I also hear his preaching as one more accustomed to lecturing, and bringing quite extensive and intricate arguments to bear, without much in the way of illustration to lighten the listener’s task. But he was not always preaching to intellectual middle class congregations. His responsibilities in his post-ordination year had included preparing forty boys for confirmation in a working class parish in Berlin. (Incidentally, one of these boys turned up at a Bonhoeffer conference in East Germany 50 years later, having seen it announced in a paper.) Bonhoeffer had won the trust of these young men by spending time with them and taking them on hikes in the countryside; and at their confirmation they were wearing suits made from the bolt of cloth that he had bought, to save their unemployed parents the expense.
He’s preaching to them from an action-packed passage: Genesis 32, Jacob wrestling by night at the Brook Jabbok. He starts with a visual image that is going to resonate with them: “It seems to me as if I saw a crowd of young hikers before me, who after a long hike have arrived at a great locked gate and ask to be let in.”And these lads seeking entry into the church are compared with wandering Jacob seeking to return to the promised land – who soon finds his way there barred. “Only the holy and righteousness cross over the border of this land… One cannot just casually enter into the promised land. Likewise one cannot just casually become a member of the Christian Church – that is, by going to confirmation.” But the warnings give way to hope and promise as Jacob continues on his journey, albeit limping from the encounter. “So you should know that in all our lives all of us must again and again go into the night and through the night to the day. It is not eternally day for any mortal… don’t be deceived about that. But no one should ever take away from you the belief that God has prepared for you too a day and a sun and a dawning, and that God brings to us this sun that is called Christ…”
Preaching as a theologian, there are times then when Bonhoeffer is also preaching as a pastor, as one who knows and cares for and has the privilege of sharing in community with the people seated at the foot of the pulpit. This is particularly so for the sermons preserved from his years in London, where he began his ministry by speaking about the emotions involved in changes of ministry: “How near the pastor comes to his congregation… at least to the part of the congregation that is alive! How much he knows about their hardships and difficulties that no one else will ever know; how much he carries, silently and humbly with his congregation, and brings it before God in prayer, as the faithful shepherd of his flock.” But he knows people are asking, “Will things feel the same with this new person?”
It strikes me that this was quite a brave approach, particularly for times that were more reserved than ours, and when probably a little more of a defensive barrier would have seemed quite in order. But he is preaching from the 2 Corinthians text, “So we are ambassadors for Christ”. “That means” he says “that we do not work under our own authority. We do not send ourselves on mission…. And all our words serve but to keep our eyes on one goal and to point toward it: toward Christ, toward the Lord, toward the Word of God which is beyond all our words…” He goes on, “This is what makes a sermon something unique in all the world, so completely different from any other kind of speech. When a preacher opens the Bible and interprets the word of God, a mystery takes place, a miracle: the grace of God, who comes down from heaven into our midst and speaks to us, knocks on our door, asks questions, warns us, puts pressure on us, alarms us; threatens us, and makes us joyful again and free and sure.”
But the pastor and the theologian has his feet firmly on the ground. His text from the apostle Paul goes on to say “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God”, and as he reaches his conclusion Bonhoeffer rather surprisingly says “we are unreconciled persons”. Here’s the paradox, he’s standing in the pulpit where allegedly the Holy Spirit comes down from the eternal throne into our hearts, but he finds himself having to say (and to a congregation he hardly knows yet) “we are persons who are not reconciled, which is why we are so worried, self-centred, unfriendly, distrustful.” “We are unreconciled persons – that is our secret, which only Christ knows.”
As it turned out, his London churches in common with most of the German congregations in this country threw in their lot with the Confessing Church. But for the rest of his life Bonhoeffer was to know the pain of church division as Germany descended into the darkness. Earlier in 1933, as cathedrals were first hung with swastika flags, Bonhoeffer had preached on the story of Gideon, whom he contrasts with Siegfried, already being idolised in Nazi propaganda. After Gideon’s victory the people ask him to be their lord and ruler: “but Gideon has not forgotten his own history, nor the history of his people … The Lord will rule over you, and you shall have no other Lord.”
This is the affirmation that lies behind all Bonhoeffer’s preaching, even though he seems only rarely to make direct reference to the political events of the day. However, as Isabel Best who has edited these sermons has written, “What God expects of Christians at any particular moment is to be found less in set rules than directly in the current moment itself and God’s judgment upon it as revealed in Scripture.” So as a preacher, Bonhoeffer was always encouraging his hearers, and thus encouraging the whole church, to proclaim the will of God as clearly as possible, and in ways relevant to what was happening in people’s lives. Although the quotes I’ve shared with you will have revealed that these are very much sermons from another age, and in a very different tradition from the more conversational preaching style that we are accustomed to in England, it’s clear that Bonhoeffer was not the stereotypical preacher putting himself six feet above contradiction. Keith Clements the Bonhoeffer scholar has pointed out that he did not shake a moralising finger at his congregation, but regularly used the word “we”, including himself on the same level as his hearers in terms of standing under God’s judgment.
Whether through his preaching or his writing or the uncompromising pattern of his life, Bonhoeffer may still encourage us – not simply as a voice from the past, but as one that turns us to the future, which is God’s future. I’ll conclude with some more words of Isabel Best’s (for she must have spent longer with these sermons than I have). “While he mourned along with his family and friends the past good that had been lost, he believed fervently in the future. He believed the church could change and take up new tasks in a future after World War II, when all the world would strive to make and keep peace. Bonhoeffer believed that when Xns grow up and become able to face a changed society with all its evil as well as good, when we go out to meet that world “come of age” God is with us and in fact goes ahead of us.”