August 13, 2017
The Ninth Sunday after Trinity
As we sit here today, aware of the war of words that North Korea and their allies and our own country and our allies make toward one another, and then reading today’s Gospel reading, I thought of someone from the past who experienced far worse than we have up to this (21st. century) day and hence I will use this as a basis for today’s sermon.
Before he was killed by the Nazis 72 years ago, Dietrich Bonhoeffer struggled with a question that still challenges us today. It was thus, he said to a fellow prisoner, “This is the end — for me the beginning of life.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said these words to a fellow prisoner on April 9, 1945, before Gestapo guards took him away. Then this Lutheran pastor, theologian and leader of the Confessing Church was executed in a Nazi concentration camp at Flossenberg, Germany — paying the ultimate price for his role in the Abwehr plot against Hitler. He was only 39 years old.
Seventy-two years later, as we live out the threats of a new war, we remember this kind and courageous Christian because his witness for Jesus Christ remains a brilliant light for all who seek to be faithful disciples. From the beginning, Christians have studied the lives of those who have died for their faith, whose example provides courage and hope for faithful living, especially in times of duress. Dietrich Bonhoeffer lives in that great company of Christian martyrs; by recalling his life, we gain fresh strength in our efforts to be faithful witnesses for Jesus Christ.
One question mattered more than any other for Bonhoeffer and it pressed upon him throughout his life right to the end. Who is Jesus Christ? It was as if he stood with the apostle Peter hearing Jesus ask him personally, “Who do you say that I am?” How one answers that question was decisive for Bonhoeffer. Today, it remains as decisive for us in a postmodern, post-Christian, post-Constantinian world as it was for Bonhoeffer in the totalitarian world of Nazi Germany.
When he was addressing the question, the church in Germany was confronted with the rise of Nazism and the deliberate, systematic annihilation of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, mentally disabled people and nearly anyone else who did not fit into the Aryan future. Some feel that the Church as a whole failed that demanding test of faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. One might think it too harsh to describe the witness of the Church as a failure of faith when there was such a bold witness in the Confessing Church as it was called.
But, that is to forget how shockingly small was the Confessing Church compared to the vast majority of Christians in congregations that ignored the destruction of Jews, tolerated idolatrous allegiance to Hitler and accepted false teachings regarding Jesus and the Christian faith.
Years later, we must never allow ourselves to forget that the majority of German Christians followed elected leaders and followed their church leaders who supported them and followed the path dictated by the policies of Adolph Hitler and the German government. They were followers, followers, followers, much like those in some countries today.
It was a much smaller group who refused to follow and who called themselves the Confessing Church, led by those who resisted the cultural tide. These included Karl Barth, Hans Asmussen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Roman Catholic priest Bernhard Lichtenberg and others, who sought to remain faithful to Jesus Christ even under severe persecution and who were signatories to the Barmen Declaration of 1934. The first article of the declaration takes up the matter of who Jesus Christ is: “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.”
Honoring the courageous witness of Bonhoeffer and his fellow resisters can never be done at the expense of denying the vast failure of the Church to stand decisively against a culture of death and destruction. The German church, of which the majority of Christians were members, not only failed to take a stand; both pastors and members actively allowed the Christian tradition to be used by the Nazi government for corrupt purposes that directly contradicted the gospel and violated their own creeds and confessions.
Bonhoeffer believed that he must stand with his country in its present suffering if he were to participate in the future rebuilding. It was his passionate conviction that God is the One who left His exalted status to suffer for us in the flesh. This is the pattern Christians are to follow.
Which brings us back to Bonhoeffer’s crucial point, Jesus Christ. How does one discern what is pleasing to God and honors Jesus Christ?
Seeking to provide consolation to his dear friend and former student, Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer wrote from his prison cell, “All that we may rightly expect from God, and ask him for, is to be found in Jesus Christ. The God of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with what God, as we imagine him, could do and ought to do. If we are to learn what God promises, and what he fulfills, we must persevere in quiet meditation on the life, sayings, deeds, suffering and death of Jesus. It is certain that we may always live close to God and in the light of his presence, and that such living is an entirely new life for us; that nothing is impossible for us, because all things are possible with God.” (Letters and Papers from Prison)
Ordinary people wondering how on earth to be faithful Christians have this rather simple prescription: Focus on Jesus. Listen to His teachings, examine His life, notice His relationships, hear His questions and follow His invitation to be His disciple.
For Bonhoeffer, it was a personal encounter with Jesus Christ that was necessary to discover a lived faith and not merely abstract belief in God. The more common notion of belief did not and could not compel persons to risk everything for the sake of the call of God. What resulted instead was a form of religion that had no connection to the transforming power of Jesus Christ. It is precisely the experience of casting oneself upon the living Christ that makes authentic discipleship possible. He wrote from prison, “Encounter with Jesus Christ [is what matters]. Faith is participation in this being of Jesus (incarnation, cross, resurrection). Our relation to God is not a ‘religious’ relationship to the highest, most powerful and best Being imaginable — that is not authentic transcendence — but our relation to God is a new life, existing for others, through participation in the being of Jesus.” (Letters and Papers).
Setting one’s mind and heart on following Jesus might strike some as being too simplistic, especially in light of Bonhoeffer’s intellectual abilities and involvement in complex political matters. Yet, according to Bonhoeffer, it was precisely this straightforward allegiance to Jesus Christ and full dependence on Him that was missing in the church.
In place of a decisive commitment to pattern one’s life after Jesus, the Church had offered vague religious principles or dogmatic statements that could be easily recited without requiring any personal allegiance to their truthfulness. When there is nothing personal at stake in what one believes, belief is easily abandoned or corrupted when threats against it arise.
This is exactly what Bonhoeffer believed would happen whenever the Church has no personal stake in its profession of Jesus Christ. Ideas about Jesus are not the same as personal allegiance to Jesus. The difference is crucial for those who seek to be faithful disciples.
In his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer wrote, “Christianity without the living Jesus Christ, remains necessarily a Christianity without discipleship and a Christianity without discipleship is always a Christianity without Jesus Christ .... And a Christianity of that kind is nothing more or less than the end of discipleship. In such a religion, there is trust in God, but no following of Christ.” (The Cost of Discipleship)
Still, is any of this possible for the ordinary Christian — the butcher, baker and candlestick maker, the homemaker and businessman, the plumber and politician, let alone the pastor — or is it only the tale of a courageous hero admired at a distance understanding that no one can emulate him?
Years after writing on the Sermon on the Mount, Bonhoeffer himself reflected on this question. While in prison for his participation with fellow Christians and co-conspirators in a plot to assassinate Hitler, he wrote about the need for a truly human faith capable of living in this world. “I thought I could acquire faith by trying to live a holy life or something like it. I suppose I wrote the Cost of Discipleship as the end of that path. Today I can see the dangers of that book, though I still stand by it. I discovered later, and I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith.”
He went on to describe what this actually means for the ordinary Christian. “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 I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings but those of God in the world — watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith; that is metanoia; and that is how one becomes a man and a Christian.” (Letters and Papers from Prison)
When Jesus asked Peter, who do you say that I am? (Matthew 16:15), both of them knew that everything was at stake in his answer. Centuries later, in civilized Germany, Bonhoeffer also knew what was at stake in the answer.
“The new situation must be created, in which it is possible to believe in Jesus as God incarnate; that is the impossible situation in which everything is staked solely on the word of Jesus. Peter had to leave the ship to risk his life on the sea, in order to learn both his own weakness and the almighty power of the Lord. If Peter had not taken the risk, he would never have learned the meaning of faith. Before he can believe, the utterly impossible situation on the seas must be displayed. The road to faith passes through obedience to the call of Jesus. Unless a definite step is demanded, the call vanishes into thin air, and if men imagine they can follow Jesus without taking this step, they are deluding themselves like fanatics.” (The Cost of Discipleship)
This brings to mind my sermon from a couple of weeks ago and speaking of St. Peter attempting to walk on the water. When St. Peter asked Jesus to bid him to come out onto the water’s - and Jesus so did - St. Peter stepped out onto the water’s and started walking. What, however, made St. Peter start to sink? It’s quite easy actually; he took his eyes off of Christ. He took into account the waves beneath him, the weather forecast, the CNN commentators, the latest edition of the newspaper and various other forms of information, and because of these things, he allowed his faith to falter because of what he viewed as the reality that he could see. However, the real reality is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is in and amongst all of this. The problem is, as with all things in life, He is a giving God. By that I mean, we all have free will. And even though Jesus is in and amongst all of what’s going on the world today – He is still allowing us that free will. He is waiting for us to put our eyes back on Him.
When we put our eyes on Christ - and keep our eyes on Him - it is then that we can walk on the waters. It is then that we can say to the mountain to uproot itself from where it is and be thrown into the ocean as Jesus told us we could do.
From the very beginning, faith in Jesus Christ has been distorted, corrupted and abandoned by many. Yet, wherever that faith has been maintained and grounded in following Jesus, a remnant of the Church has stood against the powers of death and reminded the world of the suffering love of God for all, by standing with outcasts, persecuted and those who suffer.
That the Church in our time might do the same is why we remember Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It’s why we remember him, 72 years after his death, and give thanks for the faithful witness of the confessing Church of his time.
Let us pray.
For the protection and strengthening of the Church wherever she is persecuted. We pray to the Lord. (R. Lord hear our prayer.)
For an end to terrorism in the world, and for the blessings of lasting harmony and peace. We pray to the Lord.
For travelers by land, by sea, and by air; that they will be kept safe and arrive at their destinations in peace. We pray to the Lord.
For all those who serve our country in the Armed Forces; that God will bless them and keep them out of harm’s way. We pray to the Lord.
That our government and those governments surrounding North Korea will find a peaceful resolve to the provocations between North Korea and our own country. We pray to the Lord.
That those who suffer will experience the redemptive meaning of suffering through friendship with Jesus Christ. We pray to the Lord.
For the grace this week to live by faith at every moment. We pray to the Lord.
For the needs of those here present and that of anyone that is dear to us that their personal needs and prayers will be answered. We pray to the Lord.
Loving Father, when those who are afflicted call out, You hear and save them from the distress. Please be close to us in our need. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.
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