So I’ve been reading through some of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s sermon transcripts prior to his arrest and subsequent death. I stumbled upon this gem that I found to be very timely and relevant to events in the church today. The basic background of this sermon is it happened after the new Chancellor, Franz von Papen, took office in Germany. Papen hoped to form a society more in the German tradition, and a part of this tradition was invoking the name of God at the beginning of Parliament sessions. This is something the government used to do, but no longer did and was now going to be reinstated by Papen.
This sermon excerpt is taken from a sermon given on June 12, 1932 called “Risen with Christ.” It is on Colossians 3:1-4 :
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
“Dear congregation, that is certainly an extremely off-putting way to start a conversation with a person: Since you have been raised with Christ, do this and that. We have been baptized. We have been confirmed. There were times when we felt like opening the Bible. We are interested in various religious questions. Maybe we even stand by our church with loyalty and love. And finally, after all: we live in a world that over the last one and a half to two thousand years under the name of Jesus Christ has developed as a Christian world. And nevertheless: if anyone tried to start a conversation with us by just speaking to us about the fact that we have been raised with Christ, we would probably prefer not to continue to speak with them.
One need only walk through the streets, look at the people, and ask yourself whether they accept this premise and live their lives on the basis of it, in order to see that what we call Christianity is, in human terms, hopelessly in need, that it is greatly impoverished, whether the churches are filled to overflowing as in America or almost empty as in much of Germany.
Our fathers still said, “In the name of God, Amen.” They still lived under the illusion that with that, they had said something that everyone had in common, that was an obligation to them all, that bound them all together. But they probably never allowed this “In the name of God, Amen” to become too dangerous, too disturbing, too revolutionary.
And why should they? This opening, this premise, could just as well mean everything as nothing. Having said these words, one could confidently draw the line and just go on, unworried and unswerving, and in the name of humankind make decisions and decrees and pass statutes, whatever one thought was good and whatever one liked. One went one’s way in complete freedom, with the name of God harmlessly backing one up and the earthly well-being of human beings in view.
Perhaps at first we are intoxicated by this grandiose prospect; we feel drunk in this gigantic freedom, without God and without hope, without a goal and without restraint, rushing violently ahead into chaos. Even the greatest futility can be intensified into pathos and art, into life and motivation. But as soon as we stop, sober up from our intoxication, come to our senses, it becomes unbelievably empty inside us: “Do you not taste the cup of nothingness, that dark drink?” And now what, what do we want now? Do we want to survive another crisis and then die, or what do we really want? We are told: “I have been through too much, I cannot be without religion anymore”; and that probably means: I have already looked too deeply into nothingness to be able to stand being in it any longer. So go back – but back to where? We read that a government issues a proclamation that a whole nation should be rescued from collapse – by the Christian worldview. So we are all fleeing, individuals and nations, fleeing from an incomprehensible last collapse. “In the name of God, Amen” is to be used again. Religion is to be cultivated again and a Christian worldview spread.
Oh how poor, oh, how weak, oh, how pitiful all of that sounds. Do we think that we would really let ourselves be taken captive a second time by this “In the name of God, Amen?” That we would let it really determine our actions, that we, you and I, rich and poor, German and French, would let ourselves be bound together by this name of God? Or is there not really, hidden behind our religious tendencies, our irrepressible craving for freedom and our own will – to in the name of God what we want, in the name of the Christian worldview to play off one nationality against another and stir them up to conflict with one another?
And only now does it fall like scales from our eyes; only now are we overcome by the certainty of the monstrous fact – that we are fleeing from God. Whether we dare to drink the cup of nothingness, that dark drink, or we avoid it by taking refuge in religious busyness and talk, we are fleeing from that other cup that the Bible has tasted and which it proclaims to the world in a powerful voice: the cup of the wrath of God, the cup of the consuming fire of the living God. Our disobedience is not that we are so little religious but that we actually would like very much to be religious, find it very edifying when someone somewhere says and writes: “In the name of God, Amen,” are very much reassured when some government or other proclaims the Christian worldview. It is our disobedience, it is our fleeing, it is our calamitous downfall – that we, the more pious we are, are all the less willing to let ourselves be told that God is dangerous; that God does not allow God’s self to be mocked; that we human beings must die if we really want to have anything to do with the living God; that we must lose our life if we really want to gain it; that we must be baptized not only with water but also with fire and the spirit; that this “In the name of God, Amen,” if it really is to have any meaning and not be just empty talk, is a majestic region one can enter only as a completely captive slave – or not at all.
To drink this cup of God’s, if one really knows what one is doing, that is serious. And to drink the cup of nothingness, that dark drink, if one really knows what one is doing, is also serious – and the eternal God with his glowing promise is infinitely closer to those who do this than they could imagine from afar.”