All Saints Sunday, 2013
It’s All Saint’s Sunday. A day when we, as a Church, remember the saints that have gone before us. Generally, it’s a day for warm memories and challenging stories. Traditionally, capital “S” saints who are revered in the Catholic Church are people who are set apart, their holiness and particular living worthy of memory. In the Protestant church, many hold that all Christians can and should be categorized as “saints” even the not so holy. Therefore, on a day like to today, we remember all our beloved who have “gone to glory” before us.
This brings us a challenging thought however – isn’t our collective past as Christians fraught with very non-holy actions? Even our saints, upon closer examination, are not exactly paragons of holiness. If we expand the definition to include everyone, we’re really in a bind!
The Chapel where I pastor is called, “Memorial Chapel.” This year will be the 136th year of active worship within it’s walls. Those walls are covered with what are essentially gravestones marking the heroic dead – many of whom are officers who died during the “Indian Wars.” Surrounded by the memory of one of America’s bloodiest periods, where sovereign peoples were put to the sword and whole people groups laid waste by good Christians who worshiped in that very church is complicated to say the least. From here, native children were placed in good Christian homes forbidden to even speak of their cultural heritage. Fort Leavenworth was the edge of civilization back then, beyond that was war.
On All Saints day, I remember that our Christian past is complicated and not always terribly Christ-like.
Then, as I am preparing for my message, my text is from Luke 6:20-31:
“Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
How do I, a Chaplain in the mightiest Army the world has ever known make sense of 1. Our bloody history and 2. Jesus words in this text?
As I thought about his text I remembered another pastor, a saint, who faced similar questions. Perhaps it might be helpful to remember his struggle.
“Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing….
Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship
These words were written by a young pastor. The words were first published in 1937. The pastor the wrote them had been overseeing an illegal seminary training pastors for ministry in Nazi Germany. At the time of this publishing, the Gestapo closed the Seminary in Finkenwalde and arrested 27 pastors and former students. This was a text written for a country in battle for its soul.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his twin sister Sabine was born on February 4th, 1906. His father, Dr. Karl Bonhoeffer is just beginning to teach neurology and psychiatry. He would go on to become one of the most well-known and most respected psychiatrists in Germany. His mother was one of the few women in her generation who obtained a university degree. It was a happy family. A family of thoughtful, educated, and scientific people. D’s brothers would go on to become scientists and were dubious at best of D’s forays into the theological life.
Dietrich’s young life was marked by a continual interest and calling into a life in the ministry. His father is proud of his son but hopeful that this religious phase would pass and he would pursue something more fitting his vast academic abilities.
This didn’t happen however, and Dietrich did indeed pursue theology. He was published at a young age. Within four years after beginning theological studies at Tubingen University, he successfully defends his brilliant and ground-breaking doctoral thesis, Sanctorum Communio (Communion of Saints), a significantly new way of looking at the nature of the Christian church. He is just 21 years old.
Like any young seminarian, he wonders what comes next. He sails to New York and begins a teaching fellowship at Union Theological Seminary. He identifies with the African American church experience in Harlem where he spends a great deal of time teaching and interacting with the congregation. He is exposed to the “Social Justice” movement as taught through what would become known as the “Social Gospel.” It is a profound moment for him and would inform what came next.
He is a contemporary of the theologian Karl Barth and the two wrote often. Barth said to him that Germany needed his voice. Things were getting bad there. In 1931, Dietrich Bonhoeffer returns to Germany.
1933. A pivotal year for Germany. Adolf Hitler, the Austrian Corporal turned artist turned political theorist completes his rise to power and is appointed Chancellor. Two days later, Bonhoeffer now a professor of theology at the University of Berlin, delivers a radio address on leadership attacking Hitler. He is cut off the air. In April, 1933 he publishes “The Church and the Jewish Question,” which was the first known essay to address the new problems the church faced under the Nazi dictatorship; his defense of the Jews was marked by Christian supersessionism – the Christian belief that Christianity had superseded Judaism, in history and in the eyes of God; the real question, he argued, was how the church would judge and respond to the Nazi state’s actions against the Jews; his essay was completed in the days following the April 1, 1933, boycott of Jewish businesses. Some scholars believe Bonhoeffer was influenced on this issue by his close friendship at Union Seminary with his African American colleague, Frank Fisher, and his direct observation of Fisher’s experiences under racism.
In the summer of 1933, many protestants welcomed the rise of the Nazi state. A group called, the Deutsche Christen (“German Christians”) became the voice of Nazi ideology within the Evangelical Church, even advocating the removal of the Old Testament from the Bible. The Deutsche Christians cited the state Aryan laws that barred all “non-Aryans” from the civil service, they also proposed a church “Aryan paragraph” to prevent “non-Aryans” from becoming ministers or religious teachers; the Deutsche Christen claimed that Jews, as a “separate race,” could not become members of an “Aryan” German church even through baptism a clear repudiation of the validity of Gospel teachings. The mainstream church was also coming under the grip of Nazism, becoming silent on the world that Germany was becoming.
In November of that year, he is ordained pastor at St. Matthias Church, Berlin.
In 1934, he and a group of brave Christians, form the “Confessing Church” in direct opposition to the established church who was about the business of assisting the State along the path leading to genocide. The Confessing Church was free of Nazi influence but not Nazi persecution. On August 2, German President Paul von Hindenburg dies and Hitler is proclaimed Chancellor and President.
He moves to Finkenwalde in 1935 where he is part of the founding of the aforementioned Seminary training pastors for ministry. By December, Himmler declares all examinations for the Confessing Church invalid, all training there invalid and all participants liable to arrest. German Jews are being arrested under the Nurmburg laws.
This is the world in which he writes about “Cheap Grace.”
He sets it against “Costly Grace” – “Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man’ will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.”
It is “All Saints Sunday.” A day where we remember those saints who have gone before us, stood with us, and in whose shoes we stand today. It is right that we remember them. It is right that we recall the stands that others have taken so that we can evaluate where we are, who we are, and what we represent. Our Faith is not a faith that exists in opposition to others. We have a faith that is typified in its best sense in Love.
However, if the shoe of opposition fits, are we willing to wear it?
“Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”
Dietrich lived in that tension between the being a peacemaker and embracing war – even internal war – against a State which was doing such wrong. By 1938, he had made contact with the German Resistance. His twin sister Sabine and her Jewish husband escape together to England by way of Switzerland.
1941, Bonhoeffer is forbidden to print or publish. He makes two trips to Switzerland for the Resistance. WW2 is in full force. Over the next two years, Dietrich would continue to write, teach and preach while making several visits to Norway and in Sweden he would meet with the British – all on the behalf of the Resistance.
1943. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is arrested. He writes during his incarceration. He continues to minister while in prison – both to the other inmates and the guards. One guard, a Corporal, approaches Dietrich with a plan for his escape and the Soldier’s with him. The plot is laid but in the end, D stops it as he does not want other members of his family, incarcerated and not to be endangered by his actions or escape. He is transferred to Buchenwald. He is very cold in the winter of 1944. The news is that America and Russia are pushing in on Germany from all fronts. They cannot hold out forever. He leans up to the crack in his door and for hours converses with those near his cell, prisoner and guard, about the grace of God.
1945. In February an Allied conference is held at Yalta to discuss post-war settlements. On March 7 American forces cross Rhine River. On April the 3rd of that year, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young German pastor, theologian, and author, is moved from Buchenwald to the Flossenburg concentration camp. On the 9th, he is executed with several other key leaders of the Resistance. On April 12 President Franklin Roosevelt dies; Harry Truman is sworn in as president. On April 30 Adolf Hitler commits suicide in his Berlin bunker. By May 2 Berlin falls. On May 7 the German forces make an unconditional surrender.
“Costly grace is the sanctuary of God; it has to be protected from the world, and not thrown to the dogs. It is therefore the living word, the Word of God, which he speaks as it pleases him. Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus. It comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. Grace is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
So which was it? Was Bonhoeffer a combatant? A German patriot fighting for the soul of his country if not it’s government? Is there a time to take up arms? Is there a time to stop turning the other cheek?
These are questions I face regularly and struggle through. I recall Jesus words, “If you live by the sword, you will die by the sword.” I do not experience them as particularly judgmental but more of a statement of fact, if you live by the sword, it is very likely that you will die by it.
We live in complicated times but no more so than any other time. Those who are commemorated on the walls of memorial chapel lived in complicated times as well. They followed God in ways that made sense to the world that they understood. Let us not forget that their immediate peers and superiors had just finished fighting a war to end Slavery and the economics that the institution upheld.
When working through our Christian history and all the victories and failings of those who have gone before, we would be remiss forget the times in which they lived. They should be understood and given grace for the world that they understood rather than be judged by the one we understand.
Where does that leave us?
Living the Gospel in the best way we know how. Living out our faith in a way that makes sense to us in the world we understand hoping that a hundred years from now, we will be judged by the world we knew.
And in all this, seeking to live in the way that Jesus taught. Loving others. Blessing those that curse us. Doing good to those who hate us. Doing unto others as we would have them do unto us.
Is there a tension? Of course. But as a Chaplain who preceded me once said powerfully, “if you don’t feel the tension, then you’ve probably already given in to one side or the other already.” It is no wonder that the Apostle, in one of his last letters, written from prison, said that we were to take on the example of Jesus Christ in our lives. Living as a servant to our fellow man and, in the end, to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.”
Even so, I hope we can remain faithful. Perhaps when we, as saints “going into glory” meet Jesus he’ll say to us that we had this right and that wrong but in the end, we were faithful. I can only hope and work for that moment when he says to me, “Welcome home my good and faithful servant.”
One thought on “All Saints and the struggle of understanding Christian History”
Excellent article. As someone has said, “Grace is not a little prayer we say before a meal. Grace is a way of life.”