Archive for March, 2011

March 27

Bonhoeffer: Religionless Christianity

By Marsh Chapel

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John 4:5-42


We have a full, free Monday evening dinner here at Marsh Chapel. Last Monday our volunteer cook lavishly prepared a sprawling delicious Greek meal, from olives to baklava. Yummie.

Thirty years ago some of us likewise took turns cooking. My grandmother used to serve a Sunday chicken dinner (biscuits, pies, creamed onions) which served as a model for what a couple of us tried to cook. We failed. Eberhard Bethge and his wife were with us. But with the potatoes too done and the chicken undone (it wasn’t much fun, close to none), not all the conversation stuck. Some did. Bethge was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s closest friend, a spiritual brother who wrote Bonhoeffer’s biography. Over semi cooked chicken, he told us about the German Lutheran Pastor, martyr, and theologian. He held up his fork, and stabbed the air to make his points, in English only mildly clothed in a German accent. With the dessert in disarray, much of the brilliance of the conversation disappeared into the din of noise from Broadway. Phrases remain in memory, or in stylized imagined remembrance. Cost of Discipleship. Cheap Grace. Man for Others. World Come of Age. Religionless Christianity.

We have dedicated five Sundays of Lent 2011 at Marsh Chapel to lifting up, remembering the voice of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The burned potatoes and rough chicken were served 35 years ago. Bonhoeffer was hung 32 years before we met Bethge over dinner that night. April 9 1945 in Flossenburg, Bonhoeffer was martyred, a conspirator in the failed attempts to assassinate Adolf Hitler, having lived his last two years in prison, having been engaged but never married, having inspired a generation of young students to Christian service, having written books that only now, perhaps, can we fully appreciate.

Bonhoeffer grew up in the height of western culture, an acculturation and liberal inheritance he continuously affirmed. He challenged that culture, not at its depth, but at its height, not at its weakness but at its strength, not at its worst but at its best. People ask: how can you preach at a non sectarian University? The reply: where else is real preaching possible? People ask: how can you preach in utterly secular New England? The reply: where else is anyone really free to hear the gospel? People ask: how can you preach to sleepy, bleary eyed 20 year olds? The reply: who better to judge our worth for the future? Bonhoeffer would probably agree. Christ is not to be found on the periphery, but in the heart, at the height of human history and culture. He is not Lord of religion, but Lord of life. Christ is the very center point of human life. This season we remember Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in whose life and writings a liberal legacy is honored, Christ Jesus is loved and affirmed, and at least in potential human culture istransformed. No wonder, given our commitments here at Marsh Chapel, we turn this month to him.

With a warmth and grace undeserved in the face of a junior varsity meal, Eberhard Bethge prayed with us, one fine evening, in 1976. Of all the phrases from that dinner hour, religionless Christianity was the most memorable. We heard about someone who desperately wanted his students to move from religion to faith. From religion to faith, from Christian religion to religionless Christianity. Maybe you are ready to make that move this morning? Listen for the gospel in Scripture and in History and in Life.

One lone woman at one old well is here to help us.

In a region well versed in religious difference and dispute, our Lord is pictured in John 4 cutting through religion. For Samaritan simply substitute ‘other’, religious other. If Nicodemus reminds us that we are free, and he does, the Samaritan woman reminds us that we are responsible, and we are. Freedom gives birth to responsibility. Jesus leaves the familiarity of Judah. He crosses, on this memory, multiple lines. He crosses the geographical line. He crosses the gender line. He crosses the racial line. He crosses the status line. He crosses the religious line. Our woman spells it out. You, a Jew: I, a Samaritan.

Jesus Christ is the Lord of life, not the Lord of religion. He calls us from religion to faith, out of false consciousness into a whole new way of being.

Spirit and truth, spirit and truth.

Our lone woman knows her Samaritan religion: Samaria, Jacob, ancestor, marriage (she knows marriage better than Elizabeth Taylor), holy mountain, Messiah. She is not a Jew and she is not a Christian, but you can substitute for her religious vocabulary any number of similarly developed religious tongues. She knows religion. Jesus offers her faith. Jesus offers her the religion of unreligion. The Lord offers us the religion of unreligion.

The Jesus of the Fourth Gospel is not easily blended with his counterparts in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Rather than projecting our own needs for uniformity out onto these ancient, holy, mysterious, puzzling and powerful writings, we first to listen to them. Listen. We need to let the Bible speak to us. Now, the Jesus of John 4 is a very different Jesus. He sees into others’ minds. He knows things without being told. He divines the secrets hidden in the heart. He stands alone and in public view with a woman, a Samaritan woman, a troubled Samaritan woman. This Jesus is guided along in a lengthy mystagogical conversation, full of riddles, double entendres, hidden meanings, mysterious silences. He offers living water. In none of this does one find a single correspondence with the earlier three quests for Jesus in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John’s is an entirely different Jesus. So, asked one bright student, which is true?

Excellent question.

And here is an answer. They all are. They all truly represent the actual historical experience of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, which various little communities in his fledging church did have of him. All four are historically accurate. With accuracy they describe the Jesus known in the actual lives of the communities of Mark, forty years after Calvary; Matthew, fifty-five years after Calvary; Luke, sixty years after Calvary; and John eighty years after Calvary. They give us grace and freedom to sense Jesus, as they did, present among us, as He was among them. He is risen. He is not here. See the place where they laid him.

John’s Gospel is roughly the same distance from Jesus in time as we are from Bonhoeffer in time, about 80 years, from the thirties to 10—110 or 2010.


Are you ready to move from religion to faith? Are you ready to drink from the living water? Are you open to spirit and alive to truth?

What on earth is ‘religionless Christianity?’ (cited in Clifford Green, The Sociality of Christ and Humanity, Missoula: Scholars Press, 1972; wherein are found this and following page numbers and citations from his book; my reliance on Dr Green in this section of the sermon is open, substantial, and grateful). 315

First, it is a faith that recognizes and honors the strengths and capacities of human beings. Later in life, in prison, Bonhoeffer could balance his earlier emphasis on submission of the will and ego with a fuller appreciation for human beings in a world come of age. He is proud of his urban culture and its traditi
on, which brings both freedom and responsibility.

Bonhoeffer refuses to turn back the page from modern life. He accepts the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and human autonomy as heightened in our time. In his famous phrase, man has come of age. Science, technology and social organization have given us security and confidence (even though they have created their own problems): knowledge, power and control. DB is particularly focused on insurance; man can insure himself against everything except against man.

Bonhoeffer affirms human strength: scientific research, industrial and farming technology, medicine, social and economic planning, insurance. (Green, 308)

While he saw the weakness of liberal theology (‘it conceded to the world the right to determine Christ’s place in the world’.), he never forgot its strength (‘it did not try to put the clock back’. ) (Green, 307)

“In the (prison) Letters we find a clear theological affirmation of the strengths of the mature ego which is liberated and shaped by Christ for the service of others, especially in responsibility for corporate, political life.” (Green, 335)

Second, religionless Christianity is skeptical of religion. Perfect for Universities, for young adults and for New England! Precisely ideal for Marsh Chapel! But what does he mean by religion? We proceed carefully here, for he means something different than we expect.

Beware religion, or a religious outlook, that is episodic, peripheral, subjective, individualistic, otherworldly, dishonest (intellectually), humiliating and self centered. (C Green summary, 313-318). It is all that diminishes, chains, and harms the human being. But faith is something else, lived in the context of the community of faith, THE CHURCH, (to which we turn next week).

Bonhoeffer’s view of religion is in a way similar to that of some famous critics, that religion infantilizes. If religion is keeping you from growing up, religion is not a good thing. Innocence and holiness are not the same thing. Hold onto this verse: the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

Third, religionless Christianity takes as its aim a grown up faith, a mature, fully human way of being in the world. Faith means maturity. Faith is reliance upon God. Faith is freedom from narcissism and freedom for responsible existence for others.

Christ is the man for others. We are to live as he did live, a man for others, or as we would put it today, a person for others.

Christ crucified and weak thereby creates room for human strength, freedom, independence, responsibility and integration—in short, maturity. (Green, 320). Human problems have human solutions. So, we must find a way to live safely with nuclear energy, or dispense with it. So, we must find a way to live peaceably across ancient middle eastern religious differences, or suffer the consequences. So, we must find a way for workers and owners to honor one another, or be ready to pay the price in endless strife. What did Paul write? If you bite and devour one another, take care that you are no consumed by one another. (Gal. 4)

Bonhoeffer’s words carry a paradoxical power. His sense of responsible freedom, Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman together, is compelling: God lets us know that we must live as men who can manage our lives without God. The God who is with us is the God who leaves us alone. Before God and with God we live without God. 321 Sin consists in the lack of faith needed for commitment to free responsibility. 325


We have these weeks of Lent 2011 committed ourselves to listen for the Gospel by which we are saved in Scripture and Tradition and Reason. Jesus invited the Samaritan woman to a religionless faith. Dietrich Bonhoeffer made his appeal for a religionless Christianity. How shall we apply gospel truth to our own lives?

Having turned in exegesis to John and in exposition to Bonhoeffer, we turn again for application to Franklin Littell, the first Dean of Marsh Chapel, who was not in the habit of mincing words. One ongoing application for those of us who have been seized by the confession of the church, who have been loved by the faithfulness of Christ, is to look again, to look long, to look hard at the Holocaust. We have yet to understand what happened to Christianity in the dark abyss, the hellish, ghoulish fire of Auschwitz. Almost alone, Littell continues to ask what the ongoing repercussions are for Christianity, for the possibility of future Christianity. Her reminds us unsparingly of what happened religiously in an ostensibly Christian country:

Nazism was in no sense a revolt against ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’. Neither was it ‘secularist’. Quite the contrary…The Fuhrer and other party orators made constant reference to ‘divine providence’, ‘spiritual renewal’, ‘moment of decision’, ‘immortal destiny’…and the like. Many of the party hymns were simply new words written to popular gospel songs, with the same brass bands marching and evoking from crowds the same emotional response. The key question, and here the issue of ‘heresy’ arises, is why the millions of baptized and confirmed Christians had no sense that they were now responding to visions and programs antithetical to the biblical faith. (F Little. The Crucifixion of the Jews. 70)

Coda:Elie Wiesel

Two years after the dinner with Eberhard Bethge, a few of us were privileged to meet a scholar who had just been hired at Boston University, Elie Wiesel. Our 1979 dinner with him in New York came before we had read anything of his work, and was in the home of Robert McAfee Brown. He was very kind and very quiet. Now we have spent since 2006 almost 5 years in Boston. The lectures Wiesel gives every fall, here, provide a profound moral compass, a serious historical point of reference, for the rest of our educational work, and especially for the preaching of the gospel. Hear again the end of the most striking passage from his book, Night, and the memory of a child who was hung:

“For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. Behind me I heard the same man asking: “Where is God now?”

And I hear a voice within me answer him: “Were is he? Here He is – He is hanging here on this gallows. . . ” (Night, 78)

How are we to live with faith in earshot of this passage? Our Lutheran Pastor, Teacher, Witness struggled against this hell. His life gave life to his words: “The responsible man … tries to make his whole life an answer to the question and call of God… we are moving toward a completely religionless time…the profound this worldliness of Christianity… the Christian is… simply a man as Jesus was a man…I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes, failures and experiences and perplexities.” (Green, 328).

Receive the gospel:

“The hour is coming and now is when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father…The hour is coming and now is when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth” (Jn 4:21)

~The Reverend Doctor Robert Allan Hill
Dean of Marsh Chapel

March 20

Bonhoeffer: Cheap Grace

By Marsh Chapel

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John 3: 1-17


The primitive Christian church proclaimed two accounts of Jesus. The first is the story of his death. The second is the story of his life. The death narrative and the life narrative continue in tandem, continue in dialectical dialogue, to this day.

The older is the death story. The church first preached Jesus’ death. ‘Ye do preach the Lord’s death until he come’, said St Paul near the year 50ad, in describing the marrow of the meaning of the meal, the Eucharist, at the heart of the community’s life. Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried: here we hear the older story, the death story. This older story, the account of the Crucifixion and the radiant apocalypse of resurrection to follow, is the church’s primal affirmation. Paul: ‘I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me, and the life I know live in the flesh I live by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, who loved me, and gave himself for me’.

The second story followed the first, though that seems odd to us today. Later, some decades later, the church began to convey not only the story of the cross and resurrection, but also the narrative of the incarnation and proclamation of Christ. This was the primitive church’s second story. Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary: here we hear the second oldest story, not of death but of life, not of cross but of cradle, not of suffering but of growing, not of example but of precept. John: ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’. In this secondary affirmation, the church accounted for Jesus’ advent, his birth, his teaching and preaching and healing, his parables, his miracles, his family, his disciples, and his call to those who would hear, ‘follow though me’. “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and soul and mind and strength. And thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. The whole law is here summarized”.

Now these two sibling stories have usually gotten along well, with the occasional familial rancor. You will notice that the second story is that of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany and Ordinary Time. You will notice that the first story is that of Ash Wednesday, Lent, Holy Week, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter. They are related but different stories. How they are related consumes two thousand years and the whole history of Christianity.

Some traditions and denominations within Christianity tend to favor the life story. Orthodox, some Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Quaker, Unitarian and various other Christians tend to know the second story better, and to sing the Carols of Christmas loudest. They tend to interpret the New Testament letters in light of the Gospels. They tend to interpret Holy Week in light of Epiphany.

Some traditions and denominations within Christianity tend to favor the death story. Lutheran, Calvinist, some Catholic, Presbyterian, Baptist and various other Christians tend to know the first story better, and to sing the hymns of Holy Week and Easter loudest. They tend to interpret the New Testament Gospels in light of the letters of Paul and others. They tend to interpret Christmas in light of Good Friday.

But you will ask for a synthesis. ‘Please, Dean Hill, is there no way to bring these two stories together? Is there not an apt balance between Bethlehem and Calvary, Nazareth and Golgotha? May we not find a suitable compromise? Must we ever be at daggers drawn, death vs life, one vs two, Novum Testamentum vs Jesus Seminar, Buttrick vs Craddock, Calvin vs Wesley? In the immortal sentence of Rodney King, Dean Hill, please, por favor, ‘CAN’T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG’?


No. The answer to your heartfelt desire is: no. You will inevitably read one story by the light of the other. Or, at least, the LENTEN answer is no. Now. Now…Come back at Christmas and ask again THEN and you may find a more irenic, more life affirming, more pacific, more latitudinarian response! But you will need to stay around until December for that.

In any case, in this season of Lent, we are best advised to listen to the first story, the account of Jesus death, and to do so guided by Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, that is, by Exegesis, Exposition, and Application. A quintessential Lutheran, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is here to help us.


Our Holy Gospel from John, chapter 3, takes us insot the heart of Lent, the heart of darkness, a prelude to Calvary. Nicodemus appears at night, trying to catch the spirit. His darkened, murky encounter with the Christ of God reminds us, as Bonhoeffer wrote, that ‘discipleship is more than what we can comprehend’. In that sense, discipleship comprehends us, grace comprehends us, Christ comprehends us, rather than the other way around.

Nicodemus is a ruler of Israel. He is a teacher and a religious leader. He has stayed by the mother tongue, the mother tradition, the mother religion. He has stayed in the womb. He has never left home. But you cannot become yourself if you never leave home. To become who you are you have to go somewhere else. Not always geographically. Jesus never traveled more than fifty miles from Bethlehem.

John is concerned with Spirit, not speculation; with the artistry of the everyday, not with Armageddon; with the church, not with calamity.

You have already learned the heart of this text: that Nicodemus and Jesus are representative types of religion—past and future, law and liberty; that the word for Spirit and wind is the same word and that John can and does mean both; that the command to be born from above is plural, you all, or as they say in the South, “all y’all.”

John turns his gaze now away from inherited religion to focus on culture, away from Judaism to address the Gnostics, who wanted fervently to be saved by knowing “whence we come and whither we are going.” Says Jesus, “The Spirit blows where it wills.”

Cultural religion says, “You know whence you came.” Spirit says, “You do not.”

A pre-Christian culture says, “You know where you are going.” John says, “Not so: Those who are born of the spirit, of them you do not know whence or whither.”

John’s neighbors affirm: we know whence and whither. John replies: not so of those born of the spirit. You are left with confusing liberty, the assorted decisions of a complex life. You are free. In Christ, you are set free. In Spirit, you do not know. In Spirit, you believe.

Here stands Nicodemus, a man in full. A religious leader, really a representative of the best in spiritual inheritance. He ventures out at night, choking from the challenge of truth, new truth, full truth. Where he has been will not take him where he needs to go. He is a person on the edge of a great dislocation: he is about to make up his mind to change his mind about something that really matters. Think of Bonhoeffer in 1944.

Some years ago the Christian Century ran a series of articles by nominally great religious leaders, titled “How My Mind Has Changed”. A disappointing series. One found really little significant change of mind in any of them. Typical of preachers—stubborn, self-assured; it takes one to know one.

But here stands Nicodemus, a courageous soul. He is facing the great heartache of maturity. You face it too. He is facing out over a great ravine, a great gorge,
a great precipice. On a matter of mortal meaning, he is making up his mind whether to change his mind. That takes real courage.

Benjamin Franklin found this courage when he left behind his beloved Europe and his confidence in diplomacy to take up arms with his fellow colonists. Abraham Lincoln found this courage when he finally moved to side fully with the abolitionists. Robert F. Kennedy, then the junior Senator from the Empire State, found this same courage when he left the Cold War mind of his own past and of his dear brother to oppose the war in Vietnam. Sometimes you get to a point where you have to make up your mind whether to change your mind. To face facts, as Nicodemus courageously faced the works, signs, deeds of Jesus the Christ. It takes great courage to change your mind about something of mortal significance. In fact, it may not even be humanly possible, apart from grace.

It means admitting error. We would sooner be proven sinful than stupid. John takes us to higher ground. We have an easier time receiving forgiveness for sin than we do receiving grace for change. So, we hear John 3, the first of our three Lenten tasks in these weeks of Lent 2011. For our rendering of, our exposition of, the Gospel, we turn to the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.


Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in Breslau Germany, in 1906. His father was a prominent psychiatrist, and the family sooned moved to Berlin. Bonhoeffer made, for his family, the unusual decision to study theology, and began in Tubingen in 1923. In the next several years, he wrote and published, and traveled to Barcelona and New York. He later served as a pastor in London, and returned for further study to NYC, again at Union Seminary. In 1934 he worked to organize the Confessing Church, which criticized the Lutheran church’s support of Hitler. For three years, he led a small seminary for the Confessing Church, in Finkenwalde, until it was closed by the Gestapo (about the time his book, the Cost of Discipleship, was published in 1937). Although on returning to Union in NYC in 1939 he could have stayed there, he determined to return to his homeland. In 1940 he was prohibited from public speaking in Germany. For many years he had taught and practiced a kind of pacifism. But in 1943 he began to take part in a plot to kill Hitler, for which activity he would lose his life. He was also engaged to married that year, and then imprisoned in Berlin. In 1945 he was moved from Berlin to Regensburg and from Regensburg to Flossenburg where he was hung on April 9, days before he would have been liberated.

Bonhoeffer is best known for his ferocious assault on cheap grace. We here at Marsh Chapel in Lent 2011 will not let his voice be forgotten. Hear him again:

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 cheap wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolation of religion are thrown away at cut prices.

Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means foregiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian ‘conception’ of GodIn such a church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin.

Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner…Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves.

Cheap grace is the preaching of foregiveness without requiring repentance, baptism withouth church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all he has. Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. Costly grace is the sanctuary of God; it has to be protected from the world and not thrown to the dogs…it comes as a word of foregiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart.

Do we realize that this cheap grace has turned back upon us like a boomerang? The price we are having to pay today in the shape of the collapse of the organized church is only the inevitable consequence of our policy of making grace available to all at too low a cost. We gave away the word and sacraments wholesale, we baptized, confirmed, and absolved a whole nation unasked and without condition. Our humanitarian sentiment made us give that which was holy to the scornful and unbelieving.

With us it has been abundantly proved that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children unto the third and fourth generations. Cheap grace has turned out to be utterly merciless to our Church.


We set ourselves these weeks a third assignment, to apply the Gospel and this one life. As Justice Holmes said of a sermon he heard (5 beautiful words): ‘I applied it to myself’.

Monday morning this week brought a quiet calm to an empty campus. Our plaza centrally adorned by the majestic, universal beauty of the MLK sculpture was empty, or nearly so. A winter solitude settled on the center of our University.

Across the plaza hustled a young father, administrator and doctoral student. He is completed a dissertation on the leadership of our fourth President, Daniel Marsh. He paused in front of the Chapel named for his subject, and then saw last Sunday’s sermon title. Slowly, haltingly, deep in reverie, he came across the rest of the windswept emptiness.

Then he spoke: The Cost of Discipleship. I will never forget reading it in college. It changed me. It inspired me. It stays with me. Not since have I read it or anything like it. Bonhoeffer’s voice penetrated my heart and soul, and lives there still.

The Lenten series here offered, Marsh Chapel 2011, is lifted with the hope that such an experience, either of reading remembered or of words presently heard, will broadly be ours. May you know his voice, remember his voice, honor his voice, hold and be held by it. For something there is that warns us that sometime, maybe soon, maybe sooner than later, we shall need, deeply need to remember that voice. Our life, our salvation may in part depend upon it.

We are relying this Lent, for the application of the Gospel heard in Scripture and Life, upon a third voice, beyond that of Nicodemus and that of Bonhoeffer. This is the voice of Franklin Littell, who preached thunderously from this pulpit in 1952.

The meaning of the Holocaust for Christians is at least this: when the baptized betray their baptism, when those who have been grafted into history flee back out of history, when the new men and new women in Christ cast off the new life and become part of the dying age again, the old Israel is left alone as the sign that the God who is God yet rules…For Christians only: we must begin our agonizing self-assessment and reappraisal with the fact that in a season of betrayal and faithlessness the vast majority of the martyrs for the Lord of history were Jews. The Jewish people carried history while
the Christians fled headlong from their professed vocation. (80)

Israel and the Holocaust are alpine events deeply resented by many modern Christian teachers—the former, because its survival against great odds requires a theological reappraisal for which few are ready; the latter because popular religion admits error but denies guilt. (2)

Just as the child is aware of the mother before it is self-aware, just as it commonly says mama before it says I, so the awareness of God and his work in history is primordially known to the person of faith. But the world of techne, in its aversion to the mysterious and the open, has sealed off that dimension of human experience. From the elementary school, the young person is taught to think in the symmetry of the closed, the traditional mathematical model, and by the time he has finished with the university he may be a skilled technician—but he is rarely a wise man. (13)


Within the jail cell of his last years, Bonhoeffer penned memorable prayers, reflections, meditations, and a hymn that is located in our hymnal, and we shall sing it next week. It is a hymn of faith. A hymn we may hum when we want to summon the courage to change our mind. A hymn we may hum when we need to remember the supreme sacrifice of others. A hymn we may hum when we try again to see ourselves, truly, in our real location in history:

By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered
And confidently waiting come what may
We know that God is with us night and morning
And never fails to greet us each new day

~ The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel.

March 13

Bonhoeffer: The Cost of Discipleship

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 4: 1-11


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

With these and similar sentences, Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke to his generation. His words still speak to us today.

Just how does he speak to us today? It is this question which will occupy our hearts and minds in the shared project of Lenten preaching, Marsh Chapel, 2011. In four Sundays we shall listen for the divine Word in Scripture, in History and in Life. First, as Bonhoeffer himself would advise, we shall carefully scour the Gospel for each Sunday. Then, second, we shall set that Gospel next to his own life and work. Third, and finally, we shall apply our listening to our thinking and doing here at Marsh Chapel, as we reach out from here to the world. Exegesis, Exposition, Application—an old sermonic design—rounded out with a preface (like this one) to begin and poem to end.

Why Bonhoeffer?

His threefold representation of liberal thought, devotion to Christ, and investment in culture radically draws us to him, given our commitments here at Marsh Chapel. That is, he sat at table and in seminar with Adolf von Harnack, arguably the most lasting historical and theological voice from liberal Protestantism. That is, his life and death, writing and teaching, poetry and prose exude a disciplined devotion to the Christ of God, perhaps unlike any other in our time. That is, his personal life, upbringing, family life, and spiritual development rode the high waves of the best of western culture—literature, art, music, philosophy, science, history and religion (much as he detested the word). A liberal theology, sternly devoted to Christ, given to the world: here is his legacy for us.


We could not begin at a better Scriptural doorway than with the Matthean account of the Temptation. As one has said, ‘The accounts illustrate Jesus’ habitual refusal to allow his sense of mission to be influenced by concern for his safety or for merely practical interests’ (OAE, 1174). Jesus fasts for forty days in the wilderness, according to this legend which Matthew and Luke share. The passages from Hebrew Scripture remind us that the Messiahship of Jesus is set in the history of God’s chosen people, Israel, and the sort of disputation read today was quite common among the rabbis of old. The temptations Jesus faces have been perennial temptations for the community of faith, and for the children of Israel. The devil appears here, in good apocalyptic fashion, and in a way similar to his roles in other texts of the time. Jesus resists the charms of wealth, power and fame. Rather, he says, quoting scripture: One does not live by bread alone. You shall not tempt the Lord your God. Serve God alone. We shall pass by the long consideration we might give these dominical sayings as they arise in a University setting, which is not at all foreign to interests in wealth, power and fame. One would not easily or lightly choose Matthew 4 for the seal or crest of a college or school. Many parents would not be averse to seeing tuition investments bear fruit in some earthly, even worldly wealth, power and fame. They compete rather favorably in our time with learning, virtue and piety. But we digress.

Of this passage, great minds and hearts have spoken of old:

R Bultmann: ‘Miracle as such never yields to criticism but…divine and demonic miracles are sufficiently alike to be mistaken for each other.’ (Bultmann HSR op cit). J Calvin: ‘He wished to share our battles with us’ (Calvin, Commtaries, op cit). R Williams: ‘Having bought truth dear, we must not sell it cheap, not the least grain of it for the whole world’ (Roger Williams, THE BLOUDY TENENT 1644).

In our tradition, we begin Lent with a long hard climb, up a high mountain, straight into the headwind of temptation. There is a cost in discipleship. There is discipline in discipleship.


Which brings us straightway to Bonhoeffer.

Some years ago a friend remembered hiking up a hill to his dormitory. He was a young man. In the mist, walking down toward him, there came an elderly man, walking slowly with the weight of years and age. They nodded to one another as they passed. At the top of the hill my friend looked back down expecting to see the older one on the path. He had vanished. My friend had the deep sense, the strange mysterious sense, that he had passed himself, his old self, his later, soon to die self, walking by.

I thought of his vision, re-reading this week my own first reading of The Cost of Discipleship many decades ago.

An early reading of The Cost of Discipleship from thirty five years ago caused the following notations. I call on us, both the congregation present and the congregation afar, to listen with care to these choice and chosen sentences from Bonhoeffer’s most famous work. We shall introduce him this Sunday by his words alone, and next Sunday through the voice of his biography, his life. I want us to know his voice.

Bonhoeffer reminds us of the Call of Christ:

If they follow Jesus men escape from the hard yoke of their own laws, and submit to the kindly yoke of Jesus Christ. 8
In the modern world it seems so difficult to walk with absolute certainty in the narrow way of ecclesiastical decision and yet remain in the broad open spaces of the universal love of Christ, of the patience, mercy and ‘philanthropy’ of God (Titus 3:4) for the weak and ungodly. Yet somehow or other we must combine the two, or else we shall follow the paths of men. 9
We hear the words of One who is on his way to the cross, whose whole life is summed up in the Apostles’ Creed by the word ‘suffered’. No man can choose such a life for himself. 65
His word…is the recreation of the whole life of man. 67
The road to faith passes through obedience to the call of Jesus…If we are to believe we must obey a concrete command. Without this preliminary step of obedience our faith will only be pious humbug and lead us to the grace which is not costly. Everything depends upon the first step. It has a unique quality of its own…Only he who obeys can believe…You can only learn what obedience is by obeying. 86

Bonhoeffer places us before the Cross of Christ:

The cross means sharing the suffering of Christ to the last and to the fullest…When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die. 102
For God is a God who bears. The Son of God bore our flesh, he bore the cross, he bore our sins, thus making atonement for us.
Discipleship is not limited to what you can comprehend. 103
(Christians):When reproached they hold their peace; when treated with violence they endure it patiently; when men drive them from their presence they yield their ground…His disciples keep the peace by choosing to endure suffering
themselves rather than inflict it on others….Not recognition but rejection is the reward they get from the world for their message and works. 127

The Incarnation is the ultimate reason why the service of God cannot be divorced from the service of man. 145
The cross is God’s truth about us, and therefore it is the only power which can make us truthful…When a Christian meets with injustice he no longer clings to his rights and defends them at all costs. He is absolutely free from possessions and bound to Christ alone…The Christian affirms his absolute adherence to Jesus and his freedom from the tyranny of his own ego. The precept of non-violence applies equally to private life and official duty. 159
Love is defined in uncompromising terms as the love of our enemies…The only way to overcome our enemy is by loving him… God loves his enemies…
If there is no element of asceticism in our lives, if we give free rein to the desires of the flesh, we shall find it hard to train for the service of Christ. Discipleship means estrangement from the world. When all is said and done the life of faith is nothing if not an unending struggle of the spirit with every available weapon against the flesh. 188
Earthly goods are given to be used, not to be collected. 200
The disciples of Christ are to love unconditionally. Christian love sees the fellow man under the Cross and therefore sees him clearly.
Every attempt to impose the gospel by force…is both futile and dangerous…Our easy trafficking with the word of cheap grace simply bores the world to disgust…The Word is weaker than any ideology, and this means that with only the gospel at their command the witnesses are weaker than the propagandists of an opinion…209
The disciples are few in number and will always be few…Never let a disciple of Jesus pin his hopes on large numbers. 211

Bonhoeffer shows us the Narrow Way:

To be called to a life of extraordinary quality, to live up to it, and yet to be unconscious of it is indeed a narrow way. To confess and testify to the truth as it is in Jesus, and at the same time to love the enemies of that truth, his enemies and ours, and to love them with the infinite love of Jesus Christ is indeed a narrow way. To believe the promise of Jesus that his followers shall possess the earth, and at the same time to face our enemies unarmed and defenceless, preferring to incur injustice rather than to do wrong ourselves is indeed a narrow way. To see the weakness and wrong in others, and at the same time refrain from judging them; to deliver the gospel message without casting pearls before swine, is indeed a narrow way. The way is unutterably hard, and at every moment we are in danger of straying from it.

Sanctification will be maintained by their being clearly separated from the world…by their walking in a way which is worthy of the holiness of God …(and) will be hidden, and they must wait for the day of Jesus Christ. 314

Christ took upon himself this human form of ours. He became Man even as we are men. In his humanity and his lowliness we recognize our own form. He has become like a man so that men should be like him. And in the Incarnation the whole human race recovers the dignity of the image of God. Henceforth any attack even on the least of men is an attack on Christ. 341


I learned midway through the first semester at Union Theological Seminary that my roommate and I were sharing the room once inhabited by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Carlyle Marney famously asked, ‘Who told you who you was?’ His words continue to shape many of us, telling us again, as they did in this annotated first reading thirty years ago, who we are meant to be. During Lent 2011 we shall endeavor to listen and learn from this example and his writing.

A third voice enters our sermon here. His is the voice of the first Dean of Marsh Chapel, Dr Franklin H. Littell, about whom a full sermon was preached here in October of 2009. (You may hear his 2006 STH commencement sermon on our website). I shall not repeat his substantial biography, except to remind you that he was, among many other things, the Father of Holocaust studies in this country, through his work here, in Chicago, at Temple University and elsewhere. As we this Lent listen for the gospel in the study of Scripture and in the life and words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we shall rely on Littell to guide us a bit in our application of such exegesis and exposition. His biting statements in The Crucifixion of the Jews: The Failure of Christians to Understand the Jewish Experience (1975) give us plenty of caution as we seek to apply all this to our common life. In sum, he reminds us that there were very Bonhoeffers and we Christians would do well not to hide behind their very few skirts.

The German Church Struggle, 1933-45, and parallel conflicts between Christian minorities and totalitarian rule in the Netherlands, Norway, Austria, Denmark, and France has as yet scarcely entered into the thought of the planning committees for church school literature. Perhaps this is just as well for the moment, for misuse and misinterpretation of that encounter would be worse than neglect. When the martyrs and confessors of the Church Struggle are held up to honor without considering at the same time the failure of the churches in the matter of the Holocaust, a spirit of boasting can easily drown out any mood of repentance which might turn us around.

As Arthur Cohcrane pointed out in his classic on the Barmen Synod and Confession of Faith, the Church Struggle was ‘the struggle of the church against the church for the church’. This point cannot be made too often, for the cheap and easy view of the Church Struggle is that it was like the persecutions of old in which martyrs and confessors stood to death against heathenism. And now the purveyors of cheap grace are beginning to use the faithfulness of a few Christians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer to boast of the church’s record of courage in the face of the spiritual enemy! The truth is that the Church Struggle was fought out within the institutions themselves, not between insiders and outsiders, that most church constituents apostasized and only a small percentage remained faithful, and that most of the theological and ecclesiastical crises which surfaced during this time of trial are yet unresolved…To remember the Church Struggle of an earlier day is painful. The record of most theologians and churchmen, in England and America as well as in the Third Reich, was confused and weak where not outright wicked…Few indeed were the martyrs and confessors, and their meritorious conduct does not save the rest of us from the need for self-appraisal and repentance and correcting our false teaching and wrongdoing…44


We shall continue along the narrow Lenten path. We scour the Scripture of the day to hear and overhear the Gospel. This year we set that Gospel alongside the words and life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. We shall endeavor to apply the Gospel and his life to the Gospel in our own. To conclude, a friend has offered me the reminder of this fine poem about Bonhoeffer from our own former colleague Geoffrey Hill, titled Chr
istmas Trees

Bonhoeffer in his skylit cell
bleached by the flares’ candescent fall,
pacing out his own citadel,

restores the broken themes of praise,
encourages our borrowed days,
by logic of his sacrifice.

Against the wild reasons of the state
his words are quiet but not too quiet.
We hear too late or not too late.

~ The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel

March 6

Word and Table: Mercy

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear Sermon only

Matthew 17:1-9

One Step Up: Global Change

Come Sunday we gather from near and far. Driving an hour from the west, a couple finds close parking and happily enters the nave. Rubbing two eyes awake, an undergraduate slips on a coat and hustles across the street. In Rhode Island a regular listener turns up the volume, and pours coffee. A woman makes her way from the T stop, stepping past a bit of ice and a pool of water. For an hour we are gathered before Word and Table.

Peter and James and John his brother have preceded us. It is comforting to hear and know their names. Ahead of us they have climbed the seven storey mountain, the mountain of change, the mount of Transfiguration. They have been led up, as have we. Lead on O Lord, and lead up. A most beautiful phrase.

These winter weeks have brought news of unpredicted and seismic change, across the Middle East. There is more thin ice around in history and politics than we might have thought. We are a part of these events, in some immeasurable but real ways, well apart from what we might see or hear on the news. We hope for the gift of freedom and for the security of order, and wonder how we can expect both.

One step up, climbing the mountain. Lead up, lead up.

Two Steps Up: Personal Loss

The week carries us here. When we come to hear and see, for voice and light, to Word and Table, we come with our clothes on. This is a good thing. Our experience hangs on our shoulders and covers our backs and guards our steps.

Our losses bring us up. We say, ‘that brought me up short’. Our losses put us on notice, as we climb, as we ascend.

We lost a dear friend, in our sister pulpit across the river, this week. Rev. Gomes pitch perfect humor and personal courage, carried on the waves of his unique voice, we shall truly miss. A late sermon began with a conversation with a Harvard Freshwoman, who said to him, ‘I have been here a month, I expected to meet great people and have great discussions, but I have met no one interesting, no one of great fame, no one of stature, no one who has interested me’, to which he replied, ‘Well, my dear, I mean you have met me, and I am not a celebrity but I am institution’. As my friend remembers his saying at her Williams College baccalaureate, ‘I make my living by the sweat of my jaw’. Yet it is personal courage, in naming his identity as a gay man and a Republican to boot, as ‘A Christian who happens to be gay’, and more so his loving but critical interpretation of our Good Book, which we shall cherish. More: love lasts, and we have known love in our friend. But the loss hurts.

We know the stature of our friends most truly when we must bid them adieux. A second step up, lead up, lead up.

Three Steps Up: Discord and Division

A community, including academic communities, involves difference and division. A dollar can be spent only once. A chair filled by one is not filled by another. Decisions are made about who speaks and who publishes and who influences. Debates with religious overtones and undertones reveal serious disagreements: liberty for Israel and justice for Palestinians are both worthy goals, but not just everyone liberally agrees on how best to get to both places at once. In fact, if our experience right here is any indication, there is a high mountain still to climb. Step by step.

A third step up, lead up, lead up.


Now we pause, in Word at Table. Wherever you are: be there. Here we are. We are in worship. In this hour we step up to the worthy from the worthless. In this hour we step up from entertainment to enchantment. In this hour we step up from distraction to presence. In this hour we step from the quasi to the fully human. Together.

Light and voice, photo and phono. Law and prophets, past and future, Moses and Elijah. The bright cloud and the beloved. This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.


Peter rightly says, ‘it is good that we are here’. But then he misinterprets his own truth. It is good, to be here. But not to be doing here. Here is a place, Word and Table, for being, not for doing. Here we are human beings not human doings. Peter things he brings something to do here. But in the face of wonder, in the fury of awe, what is there to do? Our academic community struggles with history and mystery. Yet here they are, and nothing to do about it. “Good it is we are here”: to listen, to watch, to hear, to observe, to receive, to accept, to take. Sin is not taking what is offered.

Rise and have no fear. But do not stay here.

Down, down, down the mountain we go.

One Step Down: Security for Peace

We are given mercy to share and more than enough in Word and Table. We shall need some extra, and some to share, if the endless contention and intractable difference of the conflicts of this age are to give way to the peace of the age to come.

Matthew has added the sun, the bright clouds, the well pleased and the falling to knees, in order to teach us something about the power of mercy, the power of the beloved. One moment of attempted dialogue across difference offers mercy. One resistance to the tempting use of hateful speech offers mercy. One honest recognition of difference without recourse to violence brings mercy. We try to recall, to imagine what we ourselves would want, and how we would wish to be treated. Do unto others as you would have them to do unto you.

Lasting peace requires both liberty and justice, both security and fairness. We know this from our own experience.

One step down, down the mountain we go.

Two Steps Down: Ode to Friendship

Peter, James and John do not stay on the heights. They come down, step by step, awaiting resurrection as do we.

You know, when we lose close friends, when we lose loved ones, we rely heavily on our faith, our faith that the future will meet us with needed and unforeseeable mercy. Faith is a walk in the dark, said Luther. Loss is a walk in the dark, say we. Climbing down again into life as we know it, we may want to let our experience of loss give us a lift for living.

Keep your friendships in good repair, said Dr Johnston. Friendship requires investment. Invitation. Acceptance. Time. Time wasted. Conversation. Care. Obliged commitment. The long view. As with grandparenthood, every trite thing said about the mercy of friendship is true. A friend in need is a friend indeed. A true friend risks the friendship for the sake of the friend. We may down into age with the hand of a friend or two.

A second step down, down the mountain we go.

Three Steps Down: A Little Discipline

2 Peter remembers our mountain, and that ‘the voice was borne to him by Majestic Glory’.

There is a lingering effect in the community of faith to the experience of mercy. We shall depart as we have gathered: Driving an hour back west, a couple finds happily leaves the nave. Rubbing two eyes awake, an undergraduate again slips
on a coat and hustles back across the street. In Rhode Island a regular listener turns down the volume, and pours more coffee. A woman makes her way to the T stop, stepping past a bit of ice and a pool of water. For an hour we have gathered before Word and Table.

We are transfigured, changed in the presence of mercy, of love.

We are little more able to stand up and walk forward. We are little more inclined to listen, to learn, to love. We are little more inspired to tithe, to pray, to keep faith. We may even be ready for Lent to come, with its call to discipline. We may be willing to keep a green Lent this year.

A green Lent? One opposed to pollution. What are some of the great pollutants of our day? Personal and public debt. Carbon emission. Needless email. So: save your money, park your car, and do not ‘reply all’. Or find your own green Lent variant.

A third step down, down the mountain we go.

Rise up and have no fear.

~ The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel