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Archive for December, 2015

During the Christmas season we are reminded that the baby Jesus was born in a stable and laid in a manger because there was no room in the inn. And we are always challenged to make room for him now in our hearts.

In his prison letter of April 30, 1944, Bonhoeffer writes:

It always seems to me that we leave room for God only out of anxiety. I’d like to speak of God not at the boundaries but in the center, not in weakness but in strength, thus not in death and guilt but in human life and human goodness.

These are fascinating words. They help us see our own inclination to use God as the fixer of the problems that are beyond our control, while having no use for him when life seems under our control to our satisfaction.

I recall reading as a new Christian the little book by J. B. Phillips called Your God Is Too Small. I was especially impressed with Phillip’s charge that we often treat God as a fireman called in to put out the fires of our lives, than sent back to his station to await our next emergency.

With an image like that in my head for more than half a century, I cannot find anything surprising about Bonhoeffer’s words. The idea is the same but Bonhoeffer is trying to plunge deeper into its meaning. God is not just at the edges of our abilities but in the center even of our strength.

That means we are to be followers of Jesus in all times and in all ways, not users of Jesus on an occasional basis. Is that really such an odd thought that Evangelicals such as biographer Eric Metaxas have to dismiss Bonhoeffer as having gone off the track in his last few years? Isn’t Bonhoeffer simply being biblical, just simply and directly biblical?

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A friend of mine runs a program on the West Coast which is helping Christians, Jews, and Muslims to know, respect, and enjoy one another.His work can be seen as an extension of Bonhoeffer’s call to understand Jesus Christ as the Lord not just of Christians but of all people. When we stop judging people by their labels, we become more inclusive in our attitudes and values.

My friend has just sent out a post in response to the vicious attacks in San Bernadino. He seeks to articulate a biblical foundation for our way treating those who seem drastically different from us. Let me condense his observations.

  1. Jesus had told his disciples that there would come a time when people would kill them and think that by doing so they were “offering a service to God.” His words were soon fulfilled: Paul was a violent radical, trying to stand for what was right and protecting his own religion. He persecuted Christians and turned them over to authorities to be killed. The first word we have of him is that he happily watched the Christian Stephen being stoned to death.  We wonder what Paul thought of Stephen, who did not cry out for judgment against his killers but for forgiveness for them. There came a time when Paul was confronted by the crucified and resurrected Jesus, who did not condemn him but instead called him to become a follower.
  2. Jesus stopped his disciples from protecting him with their swords and refused to ask his Father to send legions of angels to guard him. Instead, he was loving and patient with his enemies and, even as they were killing him, prayed that they would be forgiven. And he expected the same of his followers: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27–28).
  3. Not only is revenge ruled out for followers of Jesus, so is fear. “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt. 10:28)  “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. … he who fears is not perfected in love” (1 John 4:18).

My friend has spoken well. Christians are followers of Jesus Christ and are called to emulate his example and fulfill his command, which is centered in love, grace, forgiveness, faith.

So when we hear of those today who call for retaliation against Islam, we say No. And when they call for fearful withdrawal from all Muslims, we say No. We are followers of Jesus Christ, not of petty politicians, not of ranting racists, not frightened fellows who say security matters more than love.

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Bonhoeffer’s ideas about a “religionless Christianity” seem too radical, even threatening, to some people. They’ve never struck me that way at all, perhaps because of the way I became a Christian in the first place.

I was raised with no church background so when I began reading the New Testament at age 19, I came to it with fresh eyes. One of the characteristics of Jesus which made a deep impression on me was that he got along well with a wide variety of people — all except the religious folk. When, after a year of careful bible study I gave my life to the Lord, I already had a deep leeriness of religion. I did not want to be a “Christian” but a follower of Jesus. I had not given my life to Christianity but to Jesus.

It was some years later that I first read Bonhoeffer’s words about religionless Christianity. I hardly noticed them because they seemed too obvious to need careful thought. In the years since then, I have in fact given careful thought to what he said, though I’ve never lost my keen awareness that Jesus doesn’t get along well with religious people.

Religion is a human way of trying to please — or appease — God. We decide for ourselves that we’re going to use this or that vocabulary, this or that liturgy. We use religion as a language and as an institution to maintain control, at one level over God’s people and at a deeper level over God himself. If we do this or say that, God is supposed to bless us because that’s what we have said he should do.

I don’t think God likes to be told what to do. . . . .

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Some people are disturbed by Bonhoeffer’s claim that we are entering an age of “religionless Christianity.” I’ve never quite seen the problem.

In the Old Testament (I Samuel 7), when King David proposes building a house for God (i.e., a temple), God’s first response was the challenge, Are you the one to build me a house to live in? Have I ever asked for such a thing? No, your offspring will be the one to build me a house.

At the time it must have seemed to people that the house was to be built in the next generation, as it was by David and Bathsheba’s son Solomon. Now with hindsight we can see that the Lord was referring to the Messiah, Jesus Christ, not to Solomon, and that it was to be, in Jesus’ words, “a house not made with built hands.” Jesus himself is the cornerstone of the new Temple, the people of God.

The temple was built and God blessed it, even though it was not built at his own command. This story must come to mind when we hear Bonhoeffer speak of religionless Christianity. God did not call into being the Temple and the inevitable growth of the Temple cult.

We can think too of Jeremiah 7, where the Lord says he is not interested in their burnt offerings and sacrifices for what he has always wanted is that his people would obey his voice. He wants, that is to say, not a religion dedicated to him but simply a person-to-person relationship with his people.

Pondering such Scriptures for what is now 2500 years, how can we think it odd that Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls for a religionless Christianity?

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer sent an astonishing number of handwritten letters every year of his adult life. His imprisonment on April 5, 1943 meant he could write very few from that point forward, yet he continued to write as much as he could. Many of his letters were smuggled out of prison, occasionally even by sympathetic guards.

Beginning in late April of 1944, there was a tremendous outpouring of deep, substantial theological work that he put into letters to his close friend Eberhard Bethge. the first of these, dated April 30, comes almost as a shock because it is so drastically different from those which he has been writing up to this point.

“What might surprise you or even worry you,” he wrote to Bethge, “would be my theological thoughts and where they are leading . . ” And then he jumps right into the matter.

“What keeps gnawing at me is the question, what is Christianity, or who is Christ actually for us today? . . . We are approaching a completely religionless age; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore.”

Readers in America are often puzzled at his claim about ours being a religionless age, though it is becoming more clear every year. What he saw in Germany was becoming true for most of Europe in the early 20th century and is now becoming true in America today.

In the early 1970s there was a huge explosion of religion in the US but it faded very rapidly. Who could have dreamed then that 40 years later atheists would be writing best sellers against God?

In a sense, then, we in America are just coming into a position from which we can ask with Dietrich, Who is Christ actually for us today? While those of us still deeply involved in the life of the church may think it is an odd question, it is one which must be asked if we are to have anything to say to that rapidly expanding portion of the population which has no interest in Jesus Christ at all.

“How,” Bonhoeffer asks, “can Christ become Lord of the religionless as well?” It is easy enough to say they can get religion and join a church, then all will be well. Bonhoeffer, however, takes an entirely different tack. He sees us needing not to make others religious but to accept for ourselves a religionless Christianity. When we do that, we will establish a certain solidarity with the world and earn the trust necessary if they are to hear our testimony about the living and present Jesus Christ.

Dietrich has no answer yet. He is simply raising the questions. And I am doing the same thing, leaving you with these questions:

What is Christianity?

Who is Christ actually for us today?

How can Christ become Lord of the religionless?

Think about them and we’ll return to them later. Have fun!

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