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November 26, 2006 (The Reign of Christ)
(Webmaster’s Note: John Bickel, LCH member and history teacher at ‘Iolani School, gave this sermon in the persona of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German Lutheran pastor, theologian, and participant in the German resistance movement against Nazism during the 1930s and ’40s.)
Christians need to stand by God when God is grieving. Yes, first you must understand that God grieves. The Gospel lesson I chose for today is taken from the story of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. He prays before he undergoes his passion and death. He asks for his disciples to watch with him as he grieves. Again in the story of the death and resurrection of Lazarus in the Gospel of John, Jesus sees Lazarus’s sister Mary weeping. We then get the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept.” God weeps at the suffering of human kind. God weeps when humans intentionally create that suffering.
In my lifetime, I believe God was grieving from 1933 on. For that is the year Adolf Hitler took over my country. I was from an aristocratic and well-respected family of northern Germany. I was part of the Protestant Church Hitler was trying to establish as the Church of his empire. He did not want to support the church, however. He wanted to control it.
At first I went to London to avoid living under Hitler’s evil. Then in 1935 I returned. I needed to be a more active part of the resistance. You see, I have a twin sister, Sabine. She married a Jew. I knew that Hitler was persecuting unpopular minorities such as Jews, homosexuals, Communists, members of labor unions, and anyone who spoke out against him. With others I helped form the “Confessing Church,” the protestant church in Germany that did not bow to the Nazis. I helped organize and run an underground seminary to teach future ministers the Gospel of Jesus without the nationalism of the Third Reich.
Some find in Christianity an other-worldliness. They see spirituality as a reason to escape the problems of this world. They even quote Jesus when he said render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and God what is God’s. Yet I see the message of Jesus as just the opposite. For it is in the daily challenges in our lives that we find the chance to make the love of Christ a reality. It is in the confrontation with evil that we reclaim what is God’s for God.
This Sunday is designated the Reign of Christ Sunday. It is the last Sunday in the church calendar. Before we begin the new church year, we must examine what it mean for us to live under the “Reign of Christ.” For Lutherans we often think that as long as we are the chosen people of God, we live under the reign of Christ. For it was Luther who propelled the doctrine of salvation by grace and not of works. Yet here he is sometimes misunderstood. For the grace of God should not be made into a cheap grace. Grace comes indeed from faith. But faith without works is dead. We cannot base our salvation on works, but we must realize that belief in the love of God is meaningless unless it changes the way we deal with others.
For me living under the reign of Christ meant resistance to my government. I did not come to this position easily. I had grown up to love my country. I do not believe that you should challenge leaders easily. Yet I believe that strong people can bring out the crucial questions and form a clear opinion about them. The weak always have to decide between alternatives that are not their own. In the times of the Nazis, I had to be strong.
The government was taking away the civil liberties of its citizens. Hitler used the excuse of a communist terrorist burning our capital building as a reason to pass the Enabling Act, an act that allowed him special powers to arrest and interrogate people. He used the excuse of national security to arrest those who opposed him. Tens of millions of people were thrown into concentration camps. Almost 12 million of them died. Hitler used the nationalism of Germans to rally the forces to war in Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and eventually all of Europe. Was God not grieving at the evils of Hitler?
Like Luther of old, I could not accept the choices the established authorities gave to me. I joined those creating the Confessing Church to provide the true message of Christ to uphold the true Reign of Christ and not the power of the secular State and the popularity of the Nazis. When you see God grieving, you must stand by Him. This means when you see evil, you must resist it and stand by God and in opposition to evil.
And so this brought me to my most controversial and difficult decision. In 1939 I joined a group of military officers who had a plot to kill Adolf Hitler himself. Hitler was a single individual who was more responsible for massive death and suffering than any other individual I could think of in history. I knew killing was wrong. I still know that participating in an evil act of killing was wrong.
Yet I was participating in the killing of people either way. If I didn’t help eliminate Hitler, I was part of a system that allowed his killing to continue. So standing on the side of a grieving God led me to this horrible conclusion and this evil act. I pray for God’s forgiveness. I am happy to have been executed in April of 1945 for my part in the plot. For I had always believed that when Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die. For those who think they gain their lives in this world through riches and power will only lose it. Those who lose their lives will gain life more abundantly in Christ.
So to you in the 21st century I call you to stand with a suffering and grieving God. Are there not leaders in your time who lead people to prejudice, fear, and war? Speak out for justice and peace. For the failure to do so has grave consequences. Let me close with the words of my friend Martin Niemoeller. He demonstrates the need to speak out for the unpopular minorities and against unjust government:
At first they came for the Communists. I wasn’t a Communist; so I didn’t speak up. Then they came for the Jews. I wasn’t a Jew; so I didn’t speak up. Then they came for the Labor Union organizers. I wasn’t a Labor Union organizer; so I didn’t speak up. Then they came for the Catholics. I was a Protestant; so I didn’t speak up. Then they came for me. And by that time no one was left to speak up.
Uphold the true Reign of Christ: Stand with a grieving God: Speak Out for Justice and Peace!
Copyright © 2006 John Bickel
Comments welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org