The Moral Power of the Resurrection

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.

Remembering Dietrich Bonhoeffer

“If anyone would come after me, he or she must deny themselves, take up a cross and follow me” (Mark 8: 34, author’s paraphrase).

“When God calls a man, he bids him come and die”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Cost of Discipleship). (In what follows have been primarily guided by Eric Metaxes, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet Spy (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 504-534).

Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-R0211-316,_Dietrich_Bonhoeffer_mit_SchülernThis past Wednesday was the sixty-ninth anniversary of the death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Easter Sunday 1945 came on April 1st. By April 1945, World War II was nearing its end. East of Berlin, the Russian Army was beginning its final thrust. To the West, Allied armies had crossed the Rhine River and were barreling towards the Elbe River, which was their final strategic objective. At Buchenwald Prison, the thunder of American artillery could be heard in the distance. The war could not last much longer. If only the prisoners could hold out a little longer, they would live. Some time that day, it was announced that certain prisoners, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, would be leaving. Two days later, sixteen people left in a wood-fed van. Smoke filled the back of the van, nearly suffocating those on the journey. In Berlin, the diaries of Admiral Carnaris were discovered on April 4th. The diaries contained information implicating Bonhoeffer in the conspiracy of high-ranking German intelligence personnel to kill Hitler and make peace. Hitler was incensed, and set in motion the events that resulted in Bonhoeffer’s death.

On April 8th, the Sunday after Easter, Bonhoeffer led the little band of prisoners in a worship service from the Isaiah 53, As Bonhoeffer finished the service a Gestapo officer entered with the words, “Prisoner Bonhoeffer, get ready to come with us.” These words always meant an execution. He said goodbye to his fellow travelers with a final word, “This is the end. For me, the beginning.” He was executed the next day at Flossenburg Prison. He was thirty-nine years old at the time of his death.

Years earlier, Bonhoeffer wrote a book entitled, The Cost of Discipleship. In it, he coined the phrase, “When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die.” In April 1945 that phrase came true for the young man who had returned to Germany years earlier to share the suffering of the German people and work for the overthrow of the evil regime of Adolph Hitler.

Bonhoeffer’s life and death are a testimony to the unfortunate truth that the blood of martyrs nurtures the church’s life. At the time he died Bonhoeffer was a promising young theologian with a brilliant future ahead of him. World War II interrupted that brilliant future. His friends knew that he was more than a brilliant theologian. They saw a man of exceptional faith and character who had returned to Germany to share in the suffering of the German people, despite the fact that he had been taken from Germany because he was in danger as a perceived enemy of the Nazi Party. Had Bonhoeffer not returned to Germany, fought the Nazi’s party, been imprisoned, and died, he would today be remembered as a brilliant, little read, German theologian. His courage and willingness to suffer made him a martyr to the Christian faith and a person of international, intergenerational influence among Christians and others.

In The Cost of Discipleship when Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, “When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die,” he means that the cross is the place where we die to ourselves, our agendas, our plans, our hopes, our dreams, our needs, our wants, in order that the world in which we live and work may be given new life. We die to ourselves when we begin to live for others. We are crucified when we begin to sacrifice our own plans, programs, ideas, needs, etc. for the plans, programs, ideas, and needs of others.

When Bonhoeffer speaks of cross bearing, he makes an important point: God never forces us to carry a cross. Cross carrying is different from the consequences we suffer for mistakes or because of the evil others do to us. These things are not cross bearing. They are the results of the fact that we live in a fallen world. Cross bearing comes when we voluntarily put to death our personal desires and agendas in order to do the will of God. Here is how Bonhoeffer describes this moment of decision: “When the disciples are half-way along the road of discipleship, they come to another cross-roads. Once more they are left free to choose for themselves. Nothing is expected of them, nothing forced upon them. So crucial is the demand of the present hour that the disciples must be left free to make their own choice…..” (Bonhoeffer, Cost of Discipleship).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer had a choice whether he would return to Germany where he was already seen as an enemy of the Nazi government. He had a choice as to whether he would continue to speak out against Hitler. He had a choice whether he would work for German intelligence carrying messages to the West from the German resistance. Each of those choices entailed an increasing risk of the death he eventually suffered. He chose to bear the Cross of Christ in Nazi Germany. God did not force him to do it. Nor will he force us.

Copyright 2014, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

The Importance of Parents

“My child, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments; for length of days and years of life and abundant welfare they will give you” (Proverbs 3:1-2, NRSV).

In the movie, “Star Wars,”  Obi Wan Kenobi, tells Luke to “trust his feelings” as he attacks a death star. Most young people didn’t question this at all. Those who, for example, flew bombers in World War II or jets during Viet Nam have no memory of trainers telling them to trust their feelings. What you were supposed to do is learn to use the targeting mechanism and do it well according to instructions. In fact, one of the most important things that pilots learn is to trust their instruments not their feelings.

Unfortunately, this line from Star Wars exemplifies a huge problem in our culture – the idea that major lifetime decisions are to be made on the basis of feelings not reason. This flies in the face of all human experience throughout most of human history, where wise people have urged humans not to follow their feelings but to develop good judgment and become wise.

Throughout most of human history people did not think that children naturally became competent adults or ladies and gentlemen without discipline, knowledge and training. In the Judeo Christian tradition, from ancient times, it was taken for granted that children would not naturally develop life skills, they would not naturally learn wisdom, and they had to be trained. To become an adult, and especially a virtuous adult, required training in the skill of the virtuous life. Today, too many people believe that children can naturally just by following their instincts, become competent to meet the challenges of life. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Just this week, as a pastor, I confronted the tragedy of children growing up without a father and a mother to help them learn what it means to be an adult. Such young people are often angry and at a loss concerning what to do in difficult situations. In contemporary America, some of them end up poor, homeless, alone, struggling to achieve the happiness and fulfillment every human being desires without the help every human being needs.

Obi Wan did not give Luke the best advice. A better piece of advice would be, “Don’t trust your feelings until you have learned to discipline your feelings with experience, logic, and the advice of others who have gone before you. After a long apprenticeship in the school of life, you will be able to trust your feelings because your feelings will have been trained to instinctively lead you wisely.” Sometimes, good advice is a bit more complex than a catchy phrase.

Copyright, 2014, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved