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The Legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer
A meditation for Palm Sunday and Holy Week

A fire broke out backstage in a crowded theatre and an actor in costume came out from stage left to warn the audience of what was happening. For some reason everyone thought this warning was part of the play. The actor's frantic gestures and earnest comments about the fire were most entertaining. When the actor saw that the audience was not taking him seriously, he became frantic. But the people thought that he was being all the more funny and they roared with laughter. They loved this new show! "So," wrote a theologian," our world will come to an end, amid general applause and laughter, everyone thinking, right up to the very last, that it was all a tremendous joke."

When Jesus drew near to Jerusalem during the Passover season so many years ago, he too had a warning to deliver. He knew that civilization itself was in a state of emergency. He also knew that people were not taking him seriously. As he looked out across that ancient city from the hills of Bethany, he wept: "Would that even today you knew the way that leads to peace. But now it is hid from your eyes. For the days shall come when your enemies will cast a circle around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and dash you to the ground, you and your children within you."

"Would that even today you knew the way that leads to peace."

Jesus sounded that warning, and though the events of subsequent years would prove him correct concerning Jerusalem, people did not take him seriously. Yes, they admired his facility with words. They were enthralled by his eloquent stories and parables. He actually made God seem almost real. That's why they welcomed his with palm leaves waving and shouts of "Hosannas!" ringing in the air. But Jesus believed that the fate of the world was hanging in the balance; that it really mattered whether you took the word of the Lord seriously. And he expressed himself so well: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind."

When Jesus first began saying such things, the people were inspired. They were enthralled by his charisma. They welcomed him into the city as a conquering hero. It was such good theater. But people were more interested in the entertainment than the truth. After all, it requires very little of us to sit back in our seats and enjoy the show. But to see, to feel, to touch, to taste the truth of the gospel and to act upon it, that requires something more.

In coming to Jerusalem, Jesus wanted to show that religion was not just a matter of rhetoric; the question of God lies at the very center of human existence. And as the final days of his life unfolded, one by one, the people of Jerusalem came to the realization that Jesus was all too serious for their liking.

When they first heard about him, the rich thought that Jesus was really quite charming.

After all, he spoke with majesty about the lilies of the field. "Do not be anxious about the morrow, what you should eat and what you should wear, but look at the lilies of the field, they neither toil nor spin," he said. Sure, these words were comforting to the rich, for the rich don't have to toil or spin an any case. And they aren't anxious about things like food and clothing; for they have all of the things the heart could possibly desire and more. For the rich it's comforting to think that the poor might be satisfied with the suit of clothing that God has provided, or that the homeless might actually choose to live without shelter, like the lilies of the field, for then no one needs to be bothered by the sight of the homeless and the naked poor.

So the rich were well pleased by his talk about the lilies. They were pleased only until they saw how serious Jesus was. And they heard his words to the rich young man, "Go, sell what you have and give it to the poor." So Jesus soon lost his credibility with the rich.

And at first he was seen as a champion of the poor.

And for good reason. He seemed to be taking their side. "Blessed are the poor," he said. But when they pressed him for details on precisely how the wealth would be transferred into their hands, they were disappointed. "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and then all these things will be added unto you." Gradually Jesus began to lose his support among the poor. 

And at first he was popular among the deeply religious people of the city.

They were enthralled when he went to the temple and threw out the money changers. "My house shall be a house of prayer," he said. "But you have made it a den of thieves." What drama, what excitement as he shook the whip and sent the cloud of doves flying into the air. So the religious people were excited at first. They thought he would start a revival that would sweep their city. At last they could get back to that old time religion, just like it used to be when they were growing up. But the religious people were offended when Jesus insisted upon eating with the prostitutes and the tax collectors. And his words for the pious were somewhat less than flattering.

"Do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners, that they may be seen. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your father who is in secret, and your father who is in secret will reward you."

And so, gradually, the pious citizens turned against him. So that when Pilate asked the crowd whether to pardon Jesus or Barabbas, the rebel, they chose Barabbas in one voice, and there was not a single group that rose in his defense.

You see he was not willing to be a champion of their causes, however important. He had only one thing in mind: that God would become the focal point, the hinge, upon which the doors of their hearts would open. And he saw that the people were more concerned about the things that belong to the periphery of life. Just like today. For many of us, the things that belong to the periphery have become central, whereas God, who is the center, has been relegated to the circumference, to the surface, where things become rather shallow.

There are so many things that claim our attention and capture our allegiance: pressures of a career, the problems of our personal and financial life, the stress of living in a family, the isolation of being alone. We are torn and buffeted by the cross currents and the conflicting winds that blow from every direction and we lack a sense of God's peace at the center.

Looking out over the city of Jerusalem, Jesus might just as well have been looking out upon a large city like New York. "Would that even today you knew the way that leads to peace." But at the center, there was a deep longing; there was a void, and when there is a void at the center, the things of lesser importance fill the void and take hold with a terrible ferocity.

For example, the rich, who feign such indifference to money, know only too well how money can define a person's character and enslave a person's very being. And the poor, while yearning desperately to be free of poverty, are still afraid in their heart of hearts that it will require more effort and sacrifice to be free of poverty than to continue suffering. And even the sick and the dying, who cry out in their prayers for healing, still know how dependant they have become upon the very sickness which works into the heart and center of life. Perhaps I should say, we who are sick and dying, for all of us have a sickness unto death, and we let the prospect of death poison and define our lives, lacking peace at the center.

It was Christ's awesome calling to expose these secrets for all to see.

And the truth he shared with the disciples those last few days was this: "Truly, truly I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life will keep it." "He who loses his life will keep it."

When Jesus first said those words, it cost him the support of the last group of people who had supported him. The ones that found these words most difficult were the disciples who loved him most. For these beloved disciples had become attached to him. They had kneeled at his feet, listening to his every word. They had spent three long years working for the day when Jesus would take his case to the capital city and show them all exactly what stuff he was made of. In the disciples' minds it was their time of vindication. This was the hour all of them had been waiting for.

When they left the fishing nets, when they had walked away from their families, when they had committed themselves to serving Jesus, almost everyone said they were crazy. But now that their company was drawing near to Jerusalem, they thought the time of victory was near. Jesus would enter the city as a conquering hero. And all at once everyone would see the wisdom of their decision in following Jesus.

But now, on the eve of what was supposed to be his triumphal march into the city, Jesus was inexplicably talking about losing and dying. The disciples could not figure out what Jesus was taking about and neither can we.

Our culture too is built around the notion of striving and winning. We’re in the rat race of life, and as long as we’re in it, we want to succeed. We want to keep adding more and more to our lives until we’ve finally made it. And why not? The good life is here for the taking, so why not go out and get it?

The words of Jesus sound strange to our ears, as they did to the disciples so long ago. "Those who lose their life will keep it."

But when we think about it carefully, when we ponder Christ's words in the searing honesty of our souls, we can see the truth he was striving for. From birth to death it is required that we let go of what we have and trust that God has fashioned something finer for us than we would ever have devised for ourselves.

When the child first runs off to school, there's likely to be a terrible fear of losing the safety and security of home. But if the child will risk the terror of the unknown and reach out with a sense of adventure and curiosity, then a whole new world awaits discovery.

When a student graduates from school, and heads off into the world of work, there is often a sense of trepidation. "Can I really make it on my own? Will I survive?"

Unless the individual is willing to let go of what's safe and familiar and reach out to what is unknown, true maturity will never come. When we are presented with new opportunities and challenges in our professions, there is often a reluctance to take the risks demanded by the new situation. It often feels better to endure those ills we know than to put them behind and reach out for something new.

When we feel personal relationships changing, and when we feel them pressing against familiar limits, we often feel threatened, for with every change, there may be loss.

But unless we are willing to trust, to give ourselves over to a relationship, we shall find no lasting friendships and no deep love or affection.

And when we see our capabilities circumscribed by the inevitable hands of time, as we grow older, we are likely to become frantic as we seek to hold onto the distant memories of youth. We become fearful of growing old, fearful in fact of change itself.

I believe that Jesus was speaking to the very heart of our fears. He looked into our deepest anxieties and he said: "Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies, it bears much fruit."

The thing is, all good things come to an end anyway, so we might as well remain alert to the new life that God can bring to each and every new challenge we face.

I believe that the one thing necessary for our survival, the one thing necessary for our salvation, is that we become reconciled with the God who lives and moves at the very heart and center of life. Only when we are at peace with God within, can we be at peace amid the stress and changes of our daily lives.

Now it happens that April 9 is the anniversary of the death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. A German pastor and theologian, Bonhoeffer was hanged in 1945, by the Nazis for his participation in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.  It was only a month before the end of World War II. And it was not just his life that ended that day, it was his dream of being a pastor and a teacher, his dream of being married and raising a family, his dream of life itself. What did not come to an end was the influence of his ideas and the shining memory of his example. His personal letters written from that prison were later published in a little book: Letters and Papers From Prison. In it are recorded the memories, dreams and reflections of a man who was struggling to become a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ, and to put God at the very heart and center of life.

I believe that Bonhoeffer's memory lives on, more than sixty years later, because he succeeded at that task, and because his words offer guidance for us. From prison, facing death, Bonhoeffer advised that in order to be faithful to God we should focus not upon things supernatural or to fix our gaze upon heaven. Rather we should practice what he called "this worldliness" and engage life in all its dimensions.

As he put it, "by this ... 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 the sufferings of God in the world--walking with Christ even through the long hours of the night at Gethsemane."

In that Nazi prison, facing death, Bonhoeffer found the peace of God that resides at the very heart and center of life. He also found that freedom of spirit which is the prize of all people of faith. It was a prize for which he, like Jesus, gave up every other dream or reward. But by their shining examples we can see where the true source of peace and freedom are to be found.

"O God, during this Holy Week, let us pray that this brief span of time may become for us an occasion for the renewal of faith. As we walk with Jesus through the long hours of the night, and also into the blazing light of Easter Day may we find that the emptiness within has been filled with the peace of a loving God. Amen."

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and Executive Director of
  CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).  
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here.
God and Science (Hypertext Edition, 2005).
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion:
Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).

Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.  

For more information about Charles Henderson.