Tag Archives: Teaching History

“Standing on the Shoulders of Giants”

As it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.  For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. Php 1:20-21

You’ve all heard from many of your teachers concerning the Giants of the Faith.  How do you compare as a follower of Jesus Christ to those greats of the past? How do you want to live your life?  Are you living according to your intended purpose? These are questions we all must ask ourselves. The Giant we will talk about today is Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  He asked himself these types of questions often in order to make sure he was on the right path and I challenge you all as you listen to my message this morning to challenge yourselves concerning these questions.  

Bonhoeffer was likely one of the smartest, most devoted theologians of the twentieth century.  His desire to follow the high calling of Christ Jesus at such a young age and throughout his life is that of legend.  The call of Christ can be expressed and followed very simply and I believe this is something we all struggle with at times.  We tend to over complicate the high calling of Christ. This man decided to live a simple life despite his brilliance and ability to make things complicated.  He committed his whole life to Christ! He never muddied the waters with his own agenda. You know we talk a lot about the the requirements to be in the faith and to follow Christ, however Bonhoeffer did it quite “simply.”  You all may know that Bonhoeffer’s life ended in martyrdom. We studied Jim Elliot several weeks ago led by Mrs. Cressman and you get a picture of the true cost of this high calling. For some reason we choose the martyrs! Sorry about that!  

For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.  Mat_7:14  

So at this point in my message your probably thinking, well…you are saying that it is a simple calling, however this verse doesn’t make it sound very easy and the lives of Jim Elliot and now Dietrich Bonhoeffer ended in martyrdom, so how is that easy or simple?   Your teachers and I talk about how hard life really is and how you should do hard things because those result in greater reward (most of the time) and preparation for life, however how can we live simply and also be willing to do what is hard at the same time? So let’s dive into the life of Bonhoeffer and I want you all to consider what I mean by the fact that he lived “simply.”  

So who exactly was Bonhoeffer?  Let’s dive in and find out!

“When Christ calls a man he bids him to come and die.”  

If you wish to witness to someone regarding the Christian faith, this will likely NOT be your tagline, let’s be honest.  I don’t think we need to put that on the back of a Christian t-shirt! Eric Metaxes says, regarding this line from Bonhoeffer, “that he was a man of truth in word and deed, a man who would live out what he had written.”  In our pursuit of truth, goodness and beauty, we probably don’t think any of this sounds like it meets any of those three criteria, on the contrary its rather off-putting. I’ve never read anyone that uses terms as blunt and to the point as Bonhoeffer, but I’ll tell you one thing… his writing tends to get my attention similarly to those “red” letters in scripture!

Bonhoeffer was born in 1906 and was by all means a genius.  His father was a psychiatrist, one of the most famous in all of Europe and the BEST in all of Germany.  His brother split atoms with Einstein as a physicist. Another one of his brothers was the legal head of Lufthansa.  Bonhoeffer was the youngest amongst eight brothers and sisters so there was a lot of pressure on him with all of these factors at play.  It was also a perfect recipe to make a great thinker in Bonhoeffer. He was taught at a young age to use precision in what he said…to be a man of few words but when he spoke to say it right, make his point, and support it with solid evidence.  Both his mother’s side and his father’s side of the family were full of theologians and great thinkers, so this had become a family tradition. The family loved great literature, art, and sports. The death of Bonhoeffer’s oldest brother on the Eastern Front during the Great War seemed to launch Bonhoeffer into rapid maturity at the young age of 12.  He was always thinking about the big questions of life like “Who is God” and “What of eternity,” which led him to decide, at such a young age, that he was meant to be a theologian. His desire and goal was to reform the church given the chiding from his siblings regarding his desire to enter the ministry. He was resolute and supposedly said, when his siblings asked why he would want to enter such a flawed church, “well then, I shall reform it!”  Bonhoeffer entered the university at the age of 17 and finished his doctoral studies by the young age of 21. His dissertation on “What is the Church” was brilliant and is still taught to this day. Even great theologians like Karl Barth took note of it and called it “a theological miracle.”

Given all of Bonhoeffer’s success he did not aim to limit himself to just academia.  His ambition was to be an ordained pastor in the Lutheran church. His desire was not just to think about God in an academic setting but also in a church setting as well.  Bonhoeffer believed that one must be able to translate their theological views even for the laymen in the pew, even to the point of saying that those ideas were pointless if you could not teach and train them to the layman.  His goal was to take his faith to the real people and to show them what that faith in action should look like…his focus was discipleship, which was also the title of his first book published in 1937.

Since the Lutheran church would not allow you to become an ordained pastor until age 25, one of the many flaws he wanted to reform in the church, he decided he would spend a year abroad at an American Seminary and he landed at Union Seminary in New York.  Bonhoeffer felt he really didn’t learn much at Union, however it really did motivate him in his studies and encouraged him to seek to run harder after what he felt was definitely his calling. Bonhoeffer was quoted as saying, regarding Union, “there is no theology here,” and some say he actually meant in the States as a whole.  Actually Bonhoeffer felt that he learned the most at an African American church in Harlem of which he quickly became a member. He learned how important praise and worship should be in the church. He loved the singing and the enthusiasm from its church members and especially how they seemed to live out their faith outside of the church as well.  He journaled that he was astonished at how the church even praised and worshiped during the sermon as well. This contagious faith invigorated Bonhoeffer and upon his return to German in 1931 he began attending church more regularly. Bonhoeffer also learned a tremendous amount from the African Americans regarding all of the injustices they faced in the American South and he quickly saw a parallel between their account and the account of the Jews in Germany.  

Bonhoeffer always believed that it was the role of the church to get involved in politics and the role that Hitler had stepped into had forced their hand.  He was one of the first, if not the first, to speak out against the fuhrer movement, better known as the power of man under Hitler.  He fervently spoke out against Hitler in a radio speech just a few days after the election of Hitler.  Unfortunately, for some time, Bonhoeffer’s cries fell on deaf ears because the people wanted an iconic, powerful leader and Hitler was definitely the fulfillment of what they wanted at that time, even the church.  Bonhoeffer’s concern was that this was creating an idol out of Hitler as fuhrer and that is exactly what was happening.  Due to all of these concerns Bonhoeffer’s goal was simply to pray and preach the Gospel.  Bonhoeffer was more concerned about the lack of action in the church and again he set out to reform it, so he started an illegal seminary in 1935.  His goal was to teach men to be “real” disciples of Jesus Christ. Once this was shut down by the Nazis he was forced to make a very difficult decision and one that would change his life forever.

With the escalation of the war ramping up, it was inevitable that he would be forced to fight or decide to stand up for his christian convictions and not fight a war he didn’t believe in.  He was determined not to fight and a group of his American friends asked him to come back to the states to prevent having to fight in the war. Bonhoeffer made a quick decision to take them up on their offer, however he quickly regretted the decision. His conviction to run back into the fray was ever-present and it was obvious that the Lord needed to prepare him for this encounter.  Bonhoeffer toiled over this decision. He was actually ready to head back to German upon initially boarding the ship to NY. After only 26 days he was on a ship heading back to Germany after spending every waking day and minute searching the scriptures and praying for his people. When he suddenly appears to all his friends back in Germany they were shocked. He was supposed to be at Union Seminary for three years.  Upon his return Bonhoeffer would help by joining the conspiracy against Hitler by joining the Abwehr, which was the German Intelligence, and plot an end to Hitler as a double agent.  He knew that to sit on the sidelines while the innocent people were being murdered made him complicit in the acts themselves, so he decided to act.  Bonhoeffer believed that we must protect the innocent even if it means being involved in the killing of those who had ill will toward the innocent. Bonhoeffer equated this act to the biblical account of David’s killing of Goliath.  David never repented of the act and most never thought anything of it, but that he was simply being courageous under the high calling of the Lord.

Bonhoeffer believed the church was now responsible for taking action and calling out the government for their actions, but even the so called Christians in Germany were waving the banner of National Socialism, which Bonhoeffer had very little patience with.  He believed it was the duty of the church to oppose the State with action! What had always been a lonely road for Bonhoeffer, now became an even lonelier road still…

Bonhoeffer decided to follow God’s call despite those who called themselves God’s people, but lived contrary to his calling.  At times following God means living out your christian ideals and convictions regardless of what even most so called “religious” folks would call beneath them.  Bonhoeffer new that religiosity was not the type of faith that God wanted (look at the call of Rahab the prostitute, for example). The type of faith God required was what he had taken note of from the African Americans in Harlem.  It was a sold out, all out, living your faith out loud kind of lifestyle that Christianity should entail and he as committed to doing just that even if it meant suffering and even dying for what he believed in.

In his day, Bonhoeffer was thought of as a crazy radical, but isn’t that why we are speaking of him still today?  Christ calls us to follow him and yes that means to “take up the cross,” but this isn’t a challenge to our intellect or subconscious.  The problem here resides when we thwart his call, make excuses, justify for the sake of tolerance, or quit because we don’t want to offend!  This calling is simple and it may lead to you being forced to do some very hard things, but that is why people will still talk of your faith 50, 100, and a thousand years from now because you decide to stand against and oppose a culture that is heading contrary to God’s call.  Our desire is a simple call to faith in Christ, which means you must lose your life in order to save it. Additionally, think of the many lives of others that you will directly impact and spend an eternity with in the kingdom of God along with Dietrich Bonhoeffer due to living a sold out kind of faith that Christ calls us to.

For Bonhoeffer it was a simple faith, not a complicated convoluted one but a simple one.  Christ calls us to come and die, in Bonhoeffer words, but what he means is to die to self which means simply to “love the lord with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength.”  

Where are you in your walk with Christ?  How committed to his call are you? How have you complicated things? Do you worry instead of pray and give things to God? Do you consider what other people will think more than you consider what is right or holy in God’s eyes? Do you wonder about who  you are, your traits and your personality more than who God is calling you to become? Finally, Do you realize that his call is really the only calling that matters. That is how Bonhoeffer lived his life and I pray you all will do the same.