The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer
edited and collected by Isabel Best
Fortress Press, Minneapolis. 214 pages
reviewed by Ronald P. Byars
Isabel Best has selected 31 sermons preached from 1928 to 1939. They contain no personal reminiscences and no overt editorial commentary on the rise of Hitler or the Nazi party and yet, given the context, are acutely relevant to those days of storms. Context is everything, from preparing a sermon to hearing one. Bonhoeffer was keenly aware of his context, and had the imagination to see where the sharp edges of the Gospel were in tension with it.
An observation by the editor might well be posted over the 21st century preacher’s desk:
Bonhoeffer realized that the church’s message was no longer
being taken seriously by much of the modern world, and was
looking urgently for ways to communicate the gospel in
a disillusioned and secularized society. (p. 42)
What did Bonhoeffer preach about? He preached about God, Christ, the cross, church, joy, forgiveness. Does that sound kind of soft, safe, easy to swallow? It can be, when it loses its connection to a specific context, but no one hearing these sermons could have escaped Nazi propaganda.
Preaching on the rich man and Lazarus, Bonhoeffer said,
What does a gospel that was brought to the weaklings, the
common people, the poor, and the sick have to do with us? …
We disdain the mass of Lazaruses. We disdain the gospel of
the poor. It undermines our pride, our race, our strength. (p. 37)
On the very day of an election called by Hitler with the intention of replacing church leaders with Nazi sympathizers, Bonhoeffer said,
No human being builds the church, but Christ alone. Anyone
who proposes to build the church is already on the way to
destroying it, because it will turn out to be a temple of idolatry, though the builder does not intend that or know it. We are to
confess, while God builds. We are to preach, while God builds.
We are to pray, while God builds. We do not know God’s plan.
We cannot see whether God is building up or taking down. (p. 85)
Our context is different, but the quote is nevertheless worthy of being posted on the wall of the room where the Session meets.
A sermon series on 1 Cor. 13 testifies that faith is about more than being right about doctrine or contemporary issues. It’s about a love that is anything but sentimental. As though foretelling his own future, Bonhoeffer declares, “If I become a martyr for God’s cause … but have not love, I truly gain nothing.” (p. 145). By that measurement, how are we doing?
RONALD P. BYARS is professor emeritus of preaching and worship at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Va.