As I began to prepare this sermon, I noted that Good Friday coincided (within a day) of the anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s death.
The Nazis hung Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran priest and theologian, for his participation in an assassination plot seventy-five years ago yesterday, on April 9th, 1945. He was just 39 years old when he died, four weeks before the end of the war.
He had come from a privileged and wealthy family. He was musical, handsome, a good athlete and intelligent. He got his doctorate in theology, Summa Cum Laude, when he was 21. Significantly though, his approach to theology was academic. It was only with pastoral experience and observation that he came to internalize its truths.
As a young man he travelled to the United States where the faith of black people, despite systemic racism, impressed him. Their faith, in the face of oppression informed his opposition to Hitler.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, German Christian churches embraced Nazism as the Reich Church. They put Swastikas on altar frontals. And wrote a new creed to harmonize with Nazism. Bonhoeffer vehemently opposed these moves For this, the church hierarchy and the Nazis increasingly restricted … then targeted him.
Bonhoeffer could have sat out the war in the United States or England. He had teaching opportunities in both places. Friends tried to persuade him to take one of these positions. Instead he chose to return to Germany in 1939, to argue for what was right and to build up Christian opposition.
He felt that had to do everything he could to share the trials of the legitimate Confessing church and to help ensure its survival during the war.
He ran a secret seminary to instruct candidates for the priesthood. He personally funded the seminary from his own wealth. He understood that his privilege carried a burden of duty.
The core of his theology was the lived experience of the sermon on the mount in daily life. His instruction to the seminarians went beyond strictly academic approaches and included deep, personal prayer and repentance.
Bonhoeffer was arrested in 1943 after a failed attempt to assassinate Hitler in which he played a peripheral role. Evidence against him was mostly circumstantial, at least at first, but he was held, anyway. When he was in prison, he befriended other prisoners and guards and spoke to them about his faith and theirs.
He did not hate the guards for doing their work but reached out to them in compassion for their struggles.
Ultimately, the guards smuggled out his letters that were published posthumously. As these Letters from Prison illustrate, he grew in both joy and holiness as his life approached its bitter end.
His guards saw this and were attracted by his personification of God’s love.
Bonhoeffer’s life was cut short, with promises unfilled. But to those who might say “what a waste that he was killed when his life held so much promise”, he might have answered like Jesus as he approached Jerusalem knowing it would mean his death, “Faith in God and love of my fellow humans brought me here. This is where I am supposed to be.”
Bonhoeffer reflects Christ’s passion and reminds us that faithfulness to Jesus’ example may impose costs on all of us. Like Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane who said not my will but thine be done he continued to live faithfully when other powers wanted them to stop.
The gospel for Good Friday is long but several passages leapt out at me. One significant phrase occurs when Judas led the temple guard to capture Jesus. The evangelist writes, then Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward…To early Christians, this knowing was a profound theological statement that pointed to Jesus as the Messiah. The verb tense for the Greek participle for knowing, indicates the Jesus knew about his death all along, he didn’t just realize it when the guards showed up.
Knowing the secrets of people and knowing things beforehand… particularly at the last supper, when John’s gospel includes multiple references to Jesus’ knowing things beforehand - especially Judas’s betrayal and Peter’s denials…these insights into what could not normally be known, were considered to be a sign of Jesus’ Messiahship. (Note too, that even though Jesus knew these secrets of Judas and Peter he washed their feet because he loved them both.)
Jesus’ prophetic knowing of his own manner of death, is important to Christians. Early in the gospel, in his conversation with Nicodemus Jesus predicted his death when he said, Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up (John 3:14) The expression Son of Man is a term that Jesus sometimes used to refer to himself, while lifted up means “crucified”.
Later, when Philip brought some Greeks to meet him, Jesus said, “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds…My soul is troubled … shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!” Then a voice came from heaven said, “I have glorified it and will glorify it again.” The crowd … heard the voice. Jesus said, “This voice was for your benefit…And when I am lifted up …I will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:23-32)
Jesus knew what was to happen to him. It meant that he could have avoided it but he did not. He embraced it.
Like Jesus before him, Bonhoeffer had some idea of what would happen to him when he returned to Germany in 1939. But the jeopardy was a consequence of his faithfulness to Christ. In Bonhoeffer’s case it was not miraculous but a clear-eye appreciation that his duty involved risks.
Sometimes our faith will force hard decisions on us.
Another relevant section of the gospel occurs when…the high priest questioned Jesus about his teaching…Jesus answered, ‘I have spoken openly to the world;
Jesus spoke on hillsides, at the edge of lakes, beside healing pools, at water wells, on the roads and in town squares…as well as at in synagogues and the temple where they might have heard him. Jesus wanted the whole world to know his message of love. He preached wherever there were people who would listen to him. For him, the whole world and everyone in it were his congregation. Jesus came into the world, not just to a synagogue or the temple...not just to a church building.
When Bonhoeffer wrote and taught like Jesus before him it was not just for a Christian audience but for all of Germany.
Christ’s message and example, as well as the example of this latter-day prophet, is that we are to take God’s message to the whole world…we are to be a missionary church.
Later in today’s gospel the exchange between Jesus and Pilate, feels familiar to us today
Confronted with “fake news” about Jesus’ threat to the Roman state, Pilate had questioned Jesus about the charges. Jesus said For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.
Truth is NOT a single statement, in John’s gospel. It is the whole person of Jesus, his loving ways, and the gentle manner in which he confronts and corrects falsehoods.
When the Pharisees questioned Jesus about the source of his teaching Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, …. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32)
Jesus equated his teachings with truth. His teachings were about spreading the message of God’s love… and gently correcting those who were in error.
Jesus repeated a form of this message to his own disciples. During the last supper he told them, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6)
Jesus’ life personified the truth for Bonhoeffer. He tried to speak the truth as he knew it in his own situation and to live out Christ’s example in making the community in which he lived the place of prayer and in the way he turned daily to God in love.
The truth is in Jesus’ example that we are all to follow.
Here is a precis of the sermon so far. Jesus’ example informed Bonhoeffer’s life even when it cost him greatly and his example invites us to follow each in our own way.
Secondly, God knows what is inside of us and what will happen and invites us to know ourselves as loved children of God regardless of our past sins.
Third, God speaks to the whole world through Jesus… and tells us that we are to be a missionary church.
Fourth, the Truth that God speaks is the example of his Son and our mission is to follow that example in all we do in our daily lives.
The final message of the gospel is personal for each of us. Death comes to us all… rich and poor, priests and politicians, addicts and athletes, delivery people… and deacons, as it came for Bonhoeffer, and Christ before us.
As someone born shortly after Bonhoeffer’s death, I know that there are more years behind me than ahead. These days, I am aware, of how Covid-19 is cutting a swath through society. Infected or not, we all feel vulnerable.
Yet I know that Jesus shared this experience of death with us as he did with the whole world. He did not exempt himself from the worst imaginable suffering. He spoke his deepest sense of futility, betrayal and desolation when he said, My God, why have you forsaken me? In this moment he had poured himself out totally for us.
Jesus’ death on the cross was God at his loving best.
Some of us may have to face similar experiences whether it is in the form of physical pain, separation from family or friends, or a sense of isolation from God when we come to die. Yet Christ knows what will happen and his love is with us to the end. We are called to faithfulness in reflecting that love in our continuous practice. It prepared Jesus and Bonhoeffer for their deaths. It didn’t make their deaths easy, but it gave them a sense of calm for their transcendence.
Living our daily lives in grateful acknowledgement of God’s love and in love for others will be our most eloquent prayer and our faithful response to Jesus’ passion and death and our best preparation for it. And we like Bonhoeffer and all the saints before us can face death as a sharing in Christ’s time on earth.
Peace be with you.