April 4

Bonhoeffer: Life Together

By Marsh Chapel

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John 9:1-22


For Lent 2011 at Marsh Chapel we have listened for the gospel in Scripture, in the life Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and in application of the gospel of truth to our own time, with help from Franklin Littell. Bonhoeffer’s affirmation of liberal thought, affirmation of Christ as Lord of life, and affirmation of the transcendent transformation of human culture in the preaching of the Gospel, are at the heart of our own life together here.

Like many today, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s family did not regularly go to church. They were cultural but not observant Christians. They assumed and affirmed the place of the (Lutheran) church, but did not attend. In this light, it is especially, movingly meaningful to remember how Bonhoeffer’s father, an eminent psychiatrist, responded to Dietrich’s decision to study theology. For this family, such a decision might have become one that came with the name tag, ‘black sheep in training’. Yet this is not the response his Dad gave. On the contrary, there was an openness, a respect, an admiration, mixed in with the predictable surprise, concern and criticism: In any case you gain one thing from your calling—in this it resembles mine—living relationships to human beings and the possibility of meaning something to them, in more important matters than medical ones. And of this nothing can be taken away from you, even when the external institutions in which you are placed are not always as you would wish. (Metaxas, 213).

One detects in this early letter something of the freedom and grace within the Bonhoeffer home. On this freedom, and on this grace, one may surmise and imagine, Dietrich Bonhoeffer relied as he gradually developed an understanding of life together. The disciplines of study, science and music from his home were transposed into the disciplines of prayer and worship in the church’s life together. The convivial joy of gathering and celebration, which his family exemplified even through 1944, were transposed into the regular reading of psalms, both thanksgiving and lament. The brotherhood, sisterhood of his own upbringing were transposed into a kind of fraternal love—in his churches, his classes, his school, his friendships and even in his imprisonment—on which all who knew him well regularly reflect. The fierce sense of loyalty, duty, responsible freedom, acquired within the liberal culture of Berlin in his youth, became, one could argue, and with some sense of irony, the ground out of which his later understanding emerged. Culture became the culture of faith. The Gospel speaks to the height and strength of human being.


Speaking of height and strength, in John 9 we reach the summit of the Fourth Gospel. Here this morning is the crucial chapter within the Fourth Gospel. In it we see clearly the two level drama of faith which John acclaims. Said Luther, “preaching the Gospel is one beggar telling another where they both may find bread”.

Today we meet two beggars. One is a man lost in the mist of memory, who somehow recovered his sight at the pool of Siloam. The other is the church, John’s church, and by extension the whole church including the community of Marsh Chapel, existentially lost, who somehow recover sight at the hand of Jesus the Christ. John has two eyes at work. One is trained on the distant memory of a powerful Jesus. The other is trained on the experience of the Risen Lord in the life of the church. Both see again, by the healing action of the divine.

This blind beggar, and his healing, and all the trouble that such a good deed occasions, is important to John because in him John sees clearly what is going on in his own church. At Siloam, there was a lonely beggar. We are beggars too. In Jerusalem, one was powerfully healed. We have been healed too. With Jesus, a man’s sight, his most prized faculty, was restored. So too our spirit. So long ago, Jesus was heard to say, “I am the light of the world”. He is the light of our world too. Did Jesus of old bring healing to the needy? By grace he does so every week in our midst still! What the earthly Jesus did for the blind beggar, the Risen Lord does for the beloved church.

That’s the good news.

There is other news too.

At Siloam, Jesus heals on the Sabbath. We too have learned that the Sabbath was made for man and not the other way around. In Jerusalem, there is immediate conflict over what this new Power means for old traditions. We too know the conflict between gospel and tradition. With Jesus’ healing there comes a division between generations. Such contention and difference is ours too.

Our gospel shows us two beggars, one in Jerusalem a long time ago. And one which is the church itself, to whom Jesus speaks, the Risen Lord speaking in the spirit through the very human voice of John.

Two blind beggars, one a man and one a church. Expulsed, thrown out, shunned, set apart.

Most especially, in this crafted memory, the blind man given sight is then thrown out of the synagogue for consorting with Jesus. And this is the central communal dislocation of John’s church. The story, culminating in 9: 22, ‘thrown out of the synagogue’, is the story of a struggling community, which, like a beggar, is wandering outside of what inherited tradition alone can provide. And we are, too. John 9 is about what happened to a community of faith in the late first century. Its rancorous depiction of opponents, ‘the Jews’ or the ‘Judeans’, refers to those siblings, those closest in heart and mind, with whom there has been a rupture. Not to understand the history of the fourth Gospel so is tragically and irresponsibly to enhance anti-Semitism both ancient and modern.

The expulsion from the religious family of origin has two dimensions, one of sight and one of sound, one sociological and one theological. First, in actual experience, the little and poor community has lost its roots and its support. It is dislocated. Second, in the nature of hope, the community has now to find new resources, new ways of thinking about hope. It is disappointed.

(Why the separation? For ample reason. For the Jewish community, John’s high claims about Christ amounted to a breach of monotheism, a kind of ditheism, two gods. “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one….” And the charge had merit. Now we can say so many years later, why this is minimal, look, by the fourth century the church acclaimed not one, nor even two, but three persons in the Godhead!)

Just here is the good news. In the very depth of dislocation, John’s church experienced grace in their life together. We may too. In the very depth of disappointment, John’s church experienced freedom in their life together. We may too.

Bonhoeffer’s teaching and life bear such witness.


That is, to complete the affirmation begun last Sunday, religionless Christianity is not churchless Christianity. For the sake of life together Bonhoeffer, and we, together, set our minds and hearts against pride, sloth, falsehood, and against superstition, idolatry and hypocrisy. That is, it is not a question of avoiding the church, but of avoiding the inherent illnesses of religion, and of strengthening the disciplines and commitments within the church.

So Bonhoeffer cherished preaching: The Christian hope of resurrection in contrast to (religious) otherworldliness sends man back to his life on the earth in a completely new way. The Christian must like Christ totally give himself to the earthly life. (Green, 322)

So Bonhoeffer cherished teaching: I want therefore to start from the premise that God should not be smuggled into some last secret place, but that we should simply recognize the autonomy of man and not run him down in his worldliness but confront him with God at his strongest point. (Green, 324)

So Bonhoeffer cherished marriage: ‘It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on the marriage that sustains your love’‘ (Metaxas, 4580

So Bonhoeffer cherished the church: ‘A state which includes within itself a terrorized church has lost its most faithful servant’

So Bonhoeffer cherished silence: ‘God comes to people who have nothing but room for God and this hollow space this emptiness in people is called in Christian speech, faith’ (Coles 46)

So Bonhoeffer cherished witness: ‘Only he who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chant (Littell, 50)

So Bonhoeffer cherished the prophetic: ‘It is rather the task of Christian preaching to say: here is the church, where Jew and German stand together under the Word of God; here is the proof whether a church is still the church or not’ (Metaxas 155)

So Bonhoeffer cherished the Bible: 136 ‘I believe that the Bible alone is the answer to all our questions…’ (like listening to someone whom we love) (Metaxas 136)

So Bonhoeffer cherished faith: ’love is the name for what God does to man in overcoming the disunion in which man lives’ (Coles 84)

So Bonhoeffer cherished Life Together—hymns sung, prayers offered, gifts given, sacraments administered, friendships honored, letters written, listening practiced, reading enjoyed.

So shall we. If an hour of worship is not worth our attention, what is? If one hour of real attention a week to all that lasts, counts, matters and works is not worth engaging, what is?


We have relied in this Lent’s application of the gospel on Franklin Littell, former Dean of Marsh Chapel, for some guidance and insight about how best to apply our exegesis of John and our exposition of Bonhoeffer to our own lives. Littell, the father of formal Holocaust studies in America, a Methodist minister who had witnessed both the rise and the terror of Adolf Hitler, preached from our pulpit for one year in 1952. But his lasting voice continues to address us, in part through his book, The Crucifixion of the Jews: the failure of Christians to understand the Jewish experience.

Life together, for John and Bonhoeffer and Littell, has meant the courage to find grace in dislocation. In expulsion and imprisonment and failure, we become dimly aware of real grace. But we first have to endure being expulsed from our earlier religion. We first have to endure the inescapable discipline of imprisonment. We first have to endure the crime and punishment of failure. Littell’s premonition was that the very same issues which led to the majority failure in Christianity to contend with Hitler are still and pervasively alive and abroad in the church. These are the religious issues, named last week, which continue to strangle and hobble real church life, real community, real life together. Individualism eclipses the common good. Episodes in experience occlude our view of community. Intellectual dishonesty precludes our ability to speak a full truth. Religion, which infantilizes, blocks the way to faith, which gives maturity, or responsible freedom. Littell has this for us to ponder: what if the faith tradition most damaged by the Holocaust, in the long term, was Christianity?

The Holocaust was the consummation of centuries of false teaching and practice, and until the churches come clean on this ‘model’ situation, very little they have to say about the plight of other victimized and helpless persons or groups will carry authority. There is a symbolic line from Auschwitz to (present troubles), but what the churches have to say about (present troubles) will not be heard until their voice is clear on Auschwitz. The tune must be played backward, the ball of scattered twine must be rolled up through the difficult and mysterious byways of the maze, before we come again into the blessed daylight of faith.

The meaning of the Holocaust for Christians must be built into the confessions of faith and remembered in hymns and prayers. That was the turn in the road that most of the churches missed…Antisemitism is not just a peculiarly nasty form of race prejudice; Antisemitism is blasphemy—a much more serious matter!

When Christians denied their obligations to the Jews, the way to boasting and triumphalism was opened wide, and most churchmen are still marching cheerfully through it (Littell, 65)


How shall we proceed? How shall we live up to the gospel, and live down our waywardness?

Through a moment of self-critical honesty, as when Maureen Dowd recently took the measure of her own tradition:

‘It is time for (us) to take inspiration from that sublime—even divine—side of the church, from those church workers whose magnificence lies not in their vestments but in their selflessness. They’re enough to make the Virgin Mary smile (M Down, NYT).

Through a moment of reflection on experience, as when James Matthews thought about his travel to India?

‘India enabled me for the first time to see myself and America as others see us, and it liberated me to be at home in the world’ (Bishop James K Matthews, BG 9/25/10).

Through a moment of Lenten discipline, as we struggle against the great pollutions of our time in air and debt and internet? As we park our car and save our money and do not ‘reply all’?

In Scripture (especially John), in History (especially Bonhoeffer), in Life (especially Littell), we are called to live in responsible freedom. We are called to shuffle off any and all religious or secular impediments, so that we may freely choose, responsibly decide. It is in our life together that we find the nutrients to sustain this perilous journey.

So, today, a table of mercy, a cup of salvation, the bread of life

~The Reverend Doctor Robert Allan Hill
Dean of Marsh Chapel

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