In the years before World War 2, Dietrich Bonhoeffer became increasingly distressed at the German church’s willingness to embrace and enable the Nazi regime in exchange for political recognition and power. On July 23, 1933, he delivered the “Church Election Sermon” at Trinity Church in Berlin based on Matthew 16:13-18, of which I present excerpts below.
If it were left to us, we would rather avoid the decisions which are now forced upon us; if it were left to us, we would rather not allow ourselves to be caught up in this church struggle; if it were left to us, we would rather not have to insist upon the rightness of our cause and we would so willingly avoid the terrible danger of exalting ourselves over others; if it were left to us, we would retire today rather than tomorrow into private life and leave all the struggle and the pride to others. And yet — thank God — it has not been left to us.
What are comparable situations in which we find ourselves in our own times? In our own communities?
Where is this church? Where do we find it? Where do we hear its voice? Come all you who ask in seriousness, all you who are abandoned and left alone, we will go back to the Holy Scriptures, we will go and look for the church together. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.
Jesus went out into a deserted place with his disciples, close to the edge of the pagan lands, and there he was alone with them. This is the place where for the first time he promises them the legacy of his church. Not in the midst of the people, not at the visible peak of his popularity; but in a distant and unfrequented spot, far from the orthodox scribes and pharisees, far from the crowds who on Palm Sunday would cry out “Hosanna” and on Good Friday, “Crucify him,” he speaks to his disciples of the mystery and the future of his church.
He obviously believed that this church could not be built in the first place on the scribes, the priests, or the masses; but that only this tiny group of disciples, who followed him, was called to this work. And clearly he did not think that Jerusalem, the city of the Temple and the center of the life of the people, was the right place for this, but he goes out into the wilderness, where he could not hope that his preaching would achieve any eternal, visible effectiveness. And last of all he does not consider that any of the great feast days would have been suitable time to speak of his church, but rather he promises this church in the face of death, immediately before he tells of his coming passion for the first time. The church of the tiny flock, the church out in the wilderness, the church in the face of death–something like this must be meant.
Who are the orthodox scribes and pharisees of our day? Who are the priests? Who are the masses? What is the Jerusalem of our day? What is the wilderness of our day? What are “deserted places” in our own lives and situations? How can we best apply Jesus’s withdrawal from the orthodox scribes/pharisees/priests/masses/Jerusalems of our lives and seek the “deserted places”/pagan lands/”distant and unfrequented”/wildernesses? What is the purpose of such withdrawals? How can we do this as individuals and/or religious communities?
Jesus himself puts the decisive question, for which the disciples had been waiting: “Who do people say that the Son of man is?” Answer: “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Opinions, nothing but opinions; one could extend this list of opinions as much as one wanted. . . some say you are a great man, some say you are an idealist, some say you are a religious genius, some say you are a great champion and hero, who will lead us to victory and greatness. Opinions, more or less serious opinions– but Jesus does not want to build his church on opinions. And so he addresses himself directly to his disciples: “But who do you say that I am?” In this inevitable confrontation with Christ there can be no “perhaps” or “some say,” no opinions but only silence or the answer which Peter gives now: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living: God.” …
What is the difference between Peter and the others? Is he of such heroic nature that he towers over the others? He is not. Is he endowed with such unheard-of strength of character? He is not. Is he gifted with unshakable loyalty? He is not. Peter is nothing, nothing but a person confessing his faith, a person who has been confronted by Christ and who has recognized Christ, and who now confesses his faith in him, and this confessing Peter is called the rock on which Christ will build his church.
What lessons can be learned from this? How can we apply this to our own lives? In what ways are we like Peter? In what ways are our religious communities and institutions like Peter? Also, how can we discern opinions from revelation, given that so often our feelings of revelation are strongly influenced by our own biases, prejudices, preferences, and opinions?
But Peter’s church–this is not something which one can say with untroubled pride. Peter, the confessing, believing disciple, Peter denied his Lord on the same night as Judas betrayed him; in that night he stood at the fire and felt ashamed when Jesus stood before the high priest; he is the man of little faith, the timid man who sinks into the sea; Peter is the disciple whom Jesus threatened: “Get thee behind me Satan”; it is he who later was again and again overcome by weakness, who again and again denied and fell, a weak, vacillating man, given over to the whim of the moment. Peter’s church, that is the church which shares these weaknesses, the church which itself again and again denies and falls, the unfaithful, fainthearted, timid church which again neglects its charge and looks to the world and its opinions. Peter’s church, that is the church of all those who are ashamed of their Lord when they should stand firm confessing him.
In what ways are our religious communities like Peter’s church? How have our communities and institutions, like Peter, been ashamed, timid, weak, or vacillated in moments of decision? When have they been unfaithful or fainthearted? When has the church looked “to the world and its opinions”? In what ways have we been guilty of any or all of these things?
But Peter is also the man of whom we read: “He went out and wept bitterly.” Of Judas, who also denied the Lord, we read: “He went out and hanged himself.” That is the difference. Peter went out and wept bitterly. Peter’s church is not only the church which confesses its faith, nor only the church which denies its Lord; it is the church which can still weep. “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion” (Ps.137:1). This is the church; for what does this weeping mean other than that one has found the way back, than that one is on the way home, than that onehas become the prodigal son who falls to his knees weeping before his father? Peter’s church is the church with that godly sadness which leads to joy.
Do our religious communities and churches “go out and weep bitterly”? When do they manifest “godly sadness” over their weaknesses and unfaithfulness? If so, how do they show this contrition and sorrow? What are ways to effectively do so? Why is it important that our religious communities and institutions publicly show sorrow or regret for their unfaithfulness, weakness, timidity, etc.?
It does indeed seem very uncertain ground to build on, doesn’t it? And yet it is bedrock, for this Peter, this trembling reed, is called by God, caught by God, held by God. “You are Peter,” we all are Peter; … not this person or that, but all of us, who simply live from our confession of faith in Christ, as the timid, faithless, fainthearted, and yet who live as people sustained by God.
“We all are Peter.” In what ways are we all Peter?
Given that God calls Peter in his weakness and shows faith in him, how can we most effectively show faith in our religious communities and institutions that suffer from similar weaknesses? How are our communities “sustained by God” in their weakness?
But it is not we who build. He builds the church. No human being builds the church but Christ alone. Whoever intends to build the church is surely well on the way to destroying it; for he will build a temple to idols without wishing or knowing it. We must confess—he builds. We must proclaim—he builds. We must pray to him—that he may build. We do not know his plan.
How is this manifest in our religious communities today? What sorts of “idols” do we try to build temples for, consciously or not?
We cannot see whether he is building or pulling down. It may be that the times which by human standards are times of collapse are for him the great times of construction. It may be that from a human point of view great times for the church are actually times of demolition. It is a great comfort which Christ gives to his church: you confess, preach, bear witness to me, and I alone will build where it pleases me. Do not meddle in what is my province. Do what is given to you to do well and you have done enough. But do it well. Pay no heed to views and opinions, don’t ask for judgments, don’t always be calculating what will happen, don’t always be on the lookout for another refuge! Let the church remain the church! But church, confess, confess, confess! Christ alone is your Lord, from his grace alone can you live as you are. Christ builds.
In what ways to we perceive the religious communities of our day as being “pulled down” or “collapsing”? How might this be evidence of God’s efforts to build up, strengthen, or construct something greater and more glorious in its place? How can we discern times when our communities are collapsing due to our own weakness vs. when God is demolishing deliberately to lay the groundwork for something new to take its place? What should our response be? How can we help with this process of rebuilding, reimagining, reconstructing?
And the gates of hell shall not prevail against you. Death, the greatest heir of everything that has existence, here meets its end. Close by the precipice of the valley of death, the church is founded, the church which confesses Christ as its life. The church possesses eternal life just where death seeks to take hold of it; and death seeks to take hold of it precisely because it possesses life. The Confessing Church is the eternal church because Christ protects it. Its eternity is not visible in this world. It is unhindered by the world. The waves pass right over it and sometimes it seems to be completely covered and lost. But the victory is its because Christ its Lord is by its side and he has overcome the world of death. Do not ask whether you can see the victory; believe in the victory and it is yours. … Fear not, little flock, for it is my Father’s pleasure to give you the kingdom. Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them. The city of God is built on a sure foundation. Amen.