By the end of the Second World War, Germany was in chaos. For a time, the parents and family of Dietrich Bonhoeffer did not know whether he had lived or died. There were conflicting reports. Eventually, however, it became known that he had been killed. So tragic was his death, and so many were his friends, that on July 27, 1945, three months after the end of the War in Europe, a memorial service was held in London. His friend and leader in the British church, Bishop Bell, preached at the service. Here is just a piece of what he said:
He was quite clear about his convictions, and for all that he was so young and unassuming, he saw the truth and spoke it out with absolute freedom and without fear. When he came to me all unexpectedly in 1943 at Stockholm as the emissary of the Resistance to Hitler, he was, as always, absolutely open and quite untroubled about his own person, his own safety. Wherever he went and whoever he spoke with—whether young our old—he was fearless, regardless of himself, and with all, devoted his heart and soul to his parents, his friends, his country as God called it to be, to his church and to his master.
Bell ended his sermon with the words, “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.”
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer was about to be executed, the prison doctor happened to see him. Years later, he penned this description:
I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer … kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.
Bonhoeffer fearless hope extended to the gallows and the grave. Bonhoeffer had a resurrection faith, faith that whatever might happen in this world, God is in control and can be trusted to vindicate his people in this world or the next.
When the disciples experienced the resurrection, they were changed. Before Jesus died and was resurrected, the disciples often misunderstood his message and mission. After the crucifixion, they fled and went into hiding. Then, the women returned with the news of the empty tomb, and Jesus appeared to Peter, then John, then to those on the road to Emmaus, then to the Twelve as a group over a period of forty days, and finally to as many as 500 followers (See, I Corinthians 15:3-8). After this experience, the disciples were filled with courage and with hope for the future.
Scholars compare this behavior to that of other followers of charismatic leaders once they die or removed from leadership. Ordinarily, people fairly quickly return to their prior pattern of life. In many cases, the process is almost immediate. The members of the Sanhedrin thought that Jesus death would result in a scattering they had experienced before where there were Messianic claims. Our soldiers and others in Germany after World War II experience the rapidity with which Hitler and the Nazi’s had very few followers. The same dramatic decline in support was experienced after the death of Stalin. In the case of Jesus, his influence over his disciples seemed to grow, not diminish, not just immediately but for the rest of their lives, and even during periods of heavy persecution.
The resurrection makes a difference. The resurrection is both a symbol and an assurance of hope. It means that this life is not all there is. It means that our defeats and discouragements are not the end. It means that we can know that God is for us, even if the world and circumstances seem against us. It means we can have courage and hope. We can stand up for what we believe to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life.