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Dietrich Bonhoeffer Centenary Service - Sermon at St Matthaus Church, Berlin

Sunday 5th February 2006

The English translation of a German sermon delivered by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, at a service to mark the centenary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's birth. The service was held at St Matthaus Church in Berlin.

I begin with two extracts from letters by Bonhoeffer, the first from a letter of 1933 to Bishop Bell of Chichester. He wrote, in English,

My Lord Bishop,

Thank you very much for your most kind Christmas greetings. It means very much to me indeed to know that you are sharing all time the sorrows and the troubles which the last year has brought to our church in Germany. So we do not stand alone, and whatever may occur to one member of the Church universal, we know that all the members suffer with it. This is a great comfort for all of us; and if God will turn back to our church sometime now or later, then we may be certain, that, if one member be honoured, all members shall rejoice with it.

And then, in a letter to Eberhard Bethge written in July 1944, Dietrich Bonhoeffer recalls a conversation many years earlier with the French pastor, Jean Lasserre.

'He said he would like to become a saint (and I think it's quite likely that he did become one). At the time I was very impressed, but I disagreed with him, and said, in effect, that I should like to learn to have faith.'

And, he continued,

'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' (Letters and Papers from Prison, 1971 ed., p.369).

Both texts speak of involvement, the involvement of believers with each other and their involvement with the world. The second is the kind of remark that has made Bonhoeffer the hero of a certain kind of 'modernising' Christianity (specially, I must confess, in the English-speaking world): involvement in the world takes precedence over the search for holiness. But this is to misunderstand Bonhoeffer fundamentally. He is not replacing one model of good or heroic behaviour with another. As that letter to Bethge makes clear, he is asking us to forget models and images, the attempt to 'make something of oneself'. We are not to aim at effective, modern involvement in the place of prayer and praise or sacrifice. For Bonhoeffer, involvement in the world is not undertaking a bold programme of service or reform; it is simply doing what has to be done, in awareness of God - more specially in awareness of God's presence with us in the form of Jesus in his agony in Gethsemane. We are to live out the obligations of our daily life conscious of how all around us is the presence of the suffering Christ. God has promised and chosen to be with us in our most serious need. And, as Bonhoeffer spells out in a well-know poem written in prison, we go to him in his suffering and need. We stay awake with him. That is faith: neither hectic, self-justifying action nor private piety, but abiding in Gethsemane.

So, to become a human being and a Christian, to use Bonhoeffer's words in the same letter, is not to separate ourselves and work to become holy in a space that is defined and protected by religious convention; nor is it to seek for perfection by ordinary social or political activism. It is to be present with Christ in the world. It is to be there in God's name and God's presence in both confusion and order alike, standing with Christ, standing in that place in the world where God has chosen to be. And this is not a place of power or influence; it changes the world not by force but by patient endurance, by making room for the truth of God's alarming compassion to be there in the midst of everything.

So if we ask about the nature of the true Church, where we shall see the authentic life of Christ's Body - or if we ask about the unity of the Church, how we come together to recognise each other as disciples - Bonhoeffer's answer would have to be in the form of a further question. Does this or that person, this or that Christian community, stand where Christ is? Are they struggling to be in the place where God has chosen to be? And he would further tell us that to be in this place is to be in a place where there are no defensive walls; it must be a place where all who have faith in Jesus can stand together, and stand with all those in whose presence and in whose company Christ suffers, making room together for God's mercy to be seen.
That is how Bonhoeffer had already come to the paradox of saying - as he did in 1936 - that unity between Christians could not be the only thing that mattered - if all it meant was good will towards everyone who claimed the name of a believer or everyone who satisfied some limited definition of human decency and fluency in religious talk. His denunciation of the German Christians was the denunciation of a group that had cut itself off from the place where Christ stands by accepting the racial exclusivism of the state. Whatever might be the spiritual state of any individual - which is always unknown to anyone else - a decision to opt for the German Christian body and to decide against the Confessing Church could only be understood, Bonhoeffer argued, as a decision against salvation itself - against faith, against the place chosen by God. This frighteningly direct and uncompromising statement, so deeply controversial in 1936, was not a call to a church of 'pure' believers, separated from the sinful and compromised majority. It was the refusal to give a moment's legitimacy to a self-styled 'church' that had built the principle of separation and rejection into its very being by accepting the racial laws. Bonhoeffer's call in 1936 was not to separatism, to a church of the morally pure, but to its opposite, to a theology and practice in the Church that upheld the need for the right kind of catholic unity.

'There is no pure proclamation of the Gospel independent of the whole church', he wrote in the same lecture of 1936 (The Way to Freedom, 1966, p.94). And the letter he wrote to Bishop Bell reinforces this conviction that the Christian must stand with other Christians in their struggles and their failures. To live in the Body of Christ is to live with the anguish and even the guilt of others as well as the joy and thanksgiving. But this is precisely why there can be no compromise with a church that refuses involvement both with other Christians and with the reality of a suffering world.

Typically, Bonhoeffer does not give us any quick answers about the problems of unity today or the problems of moral discernment that cause such agony to our various churches. He will not tell us whether keeping the discerning conversation of the whole Church alive is more important than responding positively to those who see themselves as shut out from the Church's full life. Nor should we expect such an abstract answer from any source, Bonhoeffer or elsewhere. He will always tell us simply to look for Jesus in Gethsemane and stay there. Time and again in his life, his own decisions were shaped by the call to be there with those in agony and risk - the decision to return to Germany from the United States, the decision for the Confessing Church and the seminary at Finkenwalde, the decision to work with those resisting Hitler - all these are decisions for 'living completely in the world', not seeking the some sort of fashionable political heroism, but sharing the uncertainty of others, their calling to places and actions that could attract criticism and doubt, and yet seemed to be where Christ was to be found. All in the name of 'watching with Christ.'

Our gospel today describes the apostles watching with the transfigured Christ. They watch with the Christ who takes his stand with the history of his own Jewish people, with Moses and Elijah, with all the story of covenant, rebellion and mercy. They are the same apostles who will soon be watching - or failing to watch - in Gethsemane.

They will have to learn, as we all have to learn, that the glory of God in the world is to be seen where God takes his stand in the midst of our worst darkness. They will have to learn, as we all have to learn, that faith is not a separate activity, cultivated in some private 'reservation' of church life, but simple fidelity to where God is. If we hear this word of challenge from Bonhoeffer, we may yet discover that our endless disputes and negotiations over our Christian and confessional identities can be shot through with something else, more terrible and more hopeful: the knowledge of God's fidelity to us in Jesus.

'This is my Son, my Beloved'; so, 'Stand up; do not be afraid.'

© Rowan Williams 2006

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