6th Sunday of Easter
Texts: John 14:23-29;
Rev. 21:10, 22-22:5
THOUGHTS ON A DAY OF BAPTISM
In May 1944, sixty-four years ago to this month, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote down some thoughts for his godson’s baptism. Bonhoeffer’s best friend, Eberhard Bethge, was having his son Dietrich baptized and chose his friend Dietrich as godfather. There was one problem. Godfather Dietrich could not be physically present at godson Dietrich’s baptism because he was incarcerated in a Nazi prison, where he would be executed less than a year later.
In May 2010 we have three baptisms planned, and I thought I’d share some of Bonhoeffer’s thoughts at the baptisms of Lane Pavlowski, Jackson Seguin, and Alexander Dobbin. This new standard version of Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison [Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 8] arrived this week. And I must tell you that I’m blown away by it. We are trying to live into a new way of being church at Prince of Peace, a new Reformation. It all seems so new. And yet sixty-five years ago, in a Nazi prison awaiting death, Bonhoeffer was already glimpsing this renewed church! He was saying many of the things today’s leaders of the church are beginning to say, but sixty-five years ahead of his time. Under the reign of one of humankind’s worst moments, Hitler’s Nazism, Bonhoeffer dreamed of a better world for his godson, and he dreamed of a church which could make a difference in helping God to bring about God’s dream of a world of justice and peace.
Let me set somewhat of a benchmark of what I think the church needs to move away from. It comes from another recent arrival, the May issue of The Lutheran. In a letter to the editor, a reader complains that the April issue was soft on what he calls the Easter Gospel — quote, “which is Jesus Christ died on a cross and rose from the dead so we may have the forgiveness of sins and eternal life with him.” So far, so good. But here’s the problem. This reader of The Lutheran goes on to talk about “eternal life” in a way quite foreign to, say, the Gospel of John. For he talks about eternal life as something outside of this world and outside of human history. Here’s what he goes on to say:
Christ’s focus during his time on earth was on the eternal, not the temporal. His focus was to save souls for eternity, not to make a sinful world a better place to live.
Not to make the sinful world a better place? Well, how about at least standing up to sin and injustice so that it doesn’t become a worse place to live? Do you see where this version of Christianity and the church’s mission can get us in trouble? The Germany of Hitler’s Nazism had been a place where our Lutheran heritage had been born over four hundred years before. If the Christian faith hadn’t become so focused on the eternal to the deference of the temporal, do you think Hitler could have taken power in the first place? Bonhoeffer hoped for something different for his godson, a church that finds itself working with God to make the world a better place.
New leaders in the church — such as N. T. Wright, biblical scholar and bishop in the Church of England — are founding their calls for reformation on a better understanding of the Jewish basis of our faith. They remind us that the Jewish faith of Jesus and the apostles is rock-solid as a faith in a Creator God who fashioned a good creation and has no intentions of abandoning it to the powers of sin and death. Our faith in Jesus the Messiah is a faith in the one God sent to rescue creation from those powers. And you and I are called to join in on that mission, following in the way of Jesus and his mission of peace, a peace from God which surpasses our human understanding — except for the fact that Jesus sends us the Spirit of Truth to help us understand. That Spirit is an Advocate for those who are powerless in the world, like Jesus on the cross was apparently powerless. God’s peace comes through the powerless so that all can finally know God’s power of life.
I was struck, among many things, by how much Bonhoeffer’s call for reformation was already based on a renewal of our Old Testament roots, specifically the way in which the OT is about justice, about exactly the redemption we are talking about on this side of history, a redemption that makes the sinful world a better place. He compares it to other religions of redemption, which modern Christianity had tragically become, with a focus only on the eternal, outside of history. Bonhoeffer writes about what Christianity is meant to be, that
this is redemption within history, that is, this side of the bounds of death, whereas everywhere else the aim of all the other myths of redemption is precisely to overcome death’s boundary. Israel is redeemed out of Egypt so that it may live before God as God’s people on earth. The redemption myths look for eternity outside of history beyond death. Now the emphasis [of modern Christianity] is on that which is beyond death’s boundary. And precisely here is where I see the error and the danger. Redemption now means being redeemed out of sorrows, hardships, anxieties, and longings, out of sin and death, in a better life beyond. But should this really be the essence of the proclamation of Christ in the Gospels and Paul? I dispute this. The Christian hope of resurrection is different from the mythological in that it refers people to their life on earth in a wholly new way, and more sharply than the OT. Unlike believers in the redemption myths, Christians do not have an ultimate escape route out of their earthly tasks and difficulties into eternity. Like Christ [in the Garden of Gethsemane on then on the cross], they have to drink the cup of earthly life to the last drop, and only when they do this is the Crucified and Risen One with them, and they are crucified and resurrected with Christ. [And so] Christ takes hold of human beings in the midst of their lives.
Let me finish, then, with Bonhoeffer’s words to his godson, which we can hear as words to Lane this morning, to Jackson and Alexander in the coming weeks, and to all of us baptized children of God:
You are being baptized today as a Christian. All those great and ancient words of the Christian proclamation will be pronounced over you, and the command of Jesus Christ to baptize will be carried out, without your understanding any of it. But we too are being thrown back all the way to the beginnings of our understanding. What reconciliation and redemption mean, rebirth and Holy Spirit, love for one’s enemies, cross and resurrection, what it means to live in Christ and follow Christ, all that is so difficult and remote that we hardly dare speak of it anymore. In these words and actions handed down to us, we sense something totally new and revolutionary, but we cannot yet grasp it and express it. This is our own fault. Our church has been fighting during these years only for its self-preservation, as if that were an end in itself. It has become incapable of bringing the word of reconciliation and redemption to humankind and to the world. So the words we used before must lose their power, be silenced, and we can be Christians today in only two ways, through prayer and in doing justice among human beings. All Christian thinking, talking, and organizing must be born anew, out of that prayer and action. By the time you grow up, the form of the church will have changed considerably. It is still being melted and remolded…. It is not for us to predict the day — but the day will come — when people will once more be called to speak the word of God in such a way that the world is changed and renewed. It will be in a new language, perhaps quite nonreligious language, but liberating and redeeming like Jesus’s language, so that people will be alarmed and yet overcome by its power — the language of a new righteousness and truth, a language proclaiming that God makes peace with humankind and that God’s kingdom is drawing near…. Until then the Christian cause will be a quiet and hidden one, but there will be people who pray and do justice and wait for God’s own time. May you be one of them, and may it be said of you one day: “The path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day” (Prov. 4:18).
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, May 9, 2010