A meditation for Palm Sunday and Holy Week
The Legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer
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."
that even today you knew the way that leads to peace."
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
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
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.
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
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.
first he was popular among the deeply religious people of the city.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
was Christ's awesome calling to expose these secrets for all to see.
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."
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
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
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?
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."
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.
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.
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?"
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.
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
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.
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
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.