Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was the famous theologian and martyr who was murdered for his participation in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. His life is fascinating and shows a brilliant mind devoted to service of the church.
Bonhoeffer wrote technical works on theology as well as works that dealt with the practical life of Christian faith. Life Together and Discipleship (better known as The Cost of Discipleship) are two such works. But he was also a German Lutheran pastor who highly valued the place of preaching as a means of God’s grace.
Throughout the sixteen volumes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Collected Works in English are sermons which Bonhoeffer preached at various times. Some of the best have now been drawn together in The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, edited and introduced by Isabel Best (Fortress, 2012). These extend from April 15, 1928 (“God Is with Us”), when Bonhoeffer was an assistant pastor in Barcelona, Spain to November 26, 1939 (“Death Is Swallowed Up in Victory”) when Bonhoeffer preached to the seminarians he was training, then at Sigurdshof, a farm belonging to the von Kleist estate in Tychow, Germany.
This fine collection of thirty-one sermons show Bonhoeffer’s deep insights into Christian faith and his gift of applying the Gospel to the real needs of his congregations. His words speak with power, comfort, and challenge to us, just as they surely did to his hearers, seventy-five to eighty-five years ago.
An especially powerful sermon is “Overcoming Fear,” preached in Berlin on the Second Sunday after Epiphany on January 15, 1933. This was a tension-filled time in Germany, shortly before Hitler came to power. Fears of the collapse of the Hindenberg government, of communism and other extreme movements, and fighting in the streets, made everyone fearful.
Bonhoeffer preached on Matthew 8:23-27, the story of Jesus and his disciples in the boat. When the disciples were in deep fear of being lost, Jesus was wakened from his sleep, rebuked the winds and the sea and “there was dead calm.”
Bonhoeffer began by proclaiming that “the Bible, the gospel, Christ, the church, the faith—all are one great battle cry against fear in the lives of human beings.” Fear causes us to reach back into ourselves, “helpless and despairing, while hell rejoices.” Fear “takes away a person’s humanity.”
But humans can know there is One who overcomes fear, “Jesus Christ, the Crucified and Living one.” So, says Bonhoeffer, “look to Christ when you are afraid, think of Christ, keep him before your eyes, call upon Christ and pray to him, believe that he is with you now, helping you…Then fear will grow pale and fade away, and you will be free, through your faith in our strong and living Savior, Jesus Christ.”
In the little boats of our lives, a stranger enters and says, “I am Fear.” Now, “fear is in the boat; all arms are frozen and drop their oars; all hope is lost. Fear is in the boat.”
But then, “Christ is in the boat.” When this call is heard, “fear shrinks back, and the waves subside. The sea becomes calm and the boat rests on its quiet surface. Christ was in the boat!”
Fear is a reality. For “fear is in the boat, in Germany, in our own lives and in the nave of this church…Fear is breathing down our necks.” Yet “Christ is in the boat!” This is the talk we hear from the pulpit of the church. For “from this pulpit the living Christ himself wants to speak, so that wherever he reaches somebody, that person will feel the fear sinking away, will feel Christ overcoming his or her fear.” So: “Be of good courage, strong, firm, adult, sure, confident, not shaking with fear. Don’t hang your heads; don’t complain about what bad times these are…I am in the boat. And Christ is here, too, in the nave of this church. So why not hear him and believe him?”
“Fear is,” said Bonhoeffer, “evil’s net, spread to catch us.” In the midst of depression and despair, as people believe “there is no more mercy coming our way from God,” there is “only one thing that helps, and it is what the church does with any of us who thinks and feels this way. It takes the cross and places it before our eyes and asks: Did God abandon him? And since God did not abandon Jesus, we will not be abandoned by God, either.”
It is in the hour of storm, proclaims Bonhoeffer, that “God is incredibly close to you, not far away.” For “God wants to show us that when you let everything go, when you lose all your own security and have to give it up, that is when you are totally free to receive God and be kept totally safe in God. So may we understand rightly the hours of affliction and temptation, the hours in our lives when we are on the high seas! God is close to us then, not far away. Our God is on the cross.” For “the cross is the sign that stands in judgment on all the false security in our lives and restores faith in God alone.” Faith “does not rely on its own strength or on other people’s strength, but believes only and alone in God, whether or not there is a storm.”
Christians know that “when Christ is in the boat, a storm always comes up.” The world, with its evil powers try to destroy Christ, along with his disciples. Indeed, “no one has to go through so much anxiety and fear as do Christians. But this does not surprise us, since Christ is the Crucified One, and there is no way to life for a Christian without being crucified.”
But despite skepticism that Christ is “hidden away” so we think he may no longer be there at all, Bonhoeffer challenged the congregation: “Dear brothers and sister, what do we know about what Christ can do and wants to do for us, this very evening, if we will only call upon him as we should, if we call out, ‘Lord, save us! We are perishing!’ That was fear all right, but it was faith in the midst of fear, because it knew where help comes from, the only place.”
Imagine the ways our faith could be bolstered if we began each day—and repeated throughout each day: “Christ is in the boat”! Christ is in the boat of our world, our churches, our homes, our lives. If we affirmed that “Christ is in the boat,” our fears would be met by faith; and we would experience calm in our souls.
The thirty-one sermons in this collection can be read—one per day—for the next month. Imagine ways our faith could be strengthened if we listened to the word of God spoken by God’s servant, Dietrich Bonhoeffer!