Today I write with no glib words, no zany humor, and no flowery expressions. I write with sobriety and solemnity. Today…I call on all of us to remember.
Today is April 8. I want to take you back to another April 8, on a Sunday, exactly 68 years ago. It is 1945, and although their end is rapidly approaching, for the moment the National Socialists still reign supreme in Germany.
In your mind’s eye see a prisoner, a German man incarcerated in a German prison. He has a squarish face, rather common looking. His rimless glasses help give him an ordinary look. He seems so average. Yet, his appearance belies the uniqueness, indeed, the brilliance of the man.
Although a political prisoner, a prisoner of conscience (these words have never been applied more truly), this man is also a Christian—and a pastor. He has gathered about him in Schoenberg Prison a group of faithful believers to worship and study together.
This imprisoned church has just finished its Sunday morning worship. The pastor has just said the final “Amen.” Suddenly two soldiers appear at the door. They call out the pastor’s name and deliver an order: “Make ready and come with us.” The small group of believers looks at their pastor with a mixture of terror and compassion in their eyes. They know the meaning of these words. This is the standard summons issued to a condemned prisoner.
The pastor rises and prepares to leave with the soldiers. However, just before he exits, he turns and says to one of his flock: “This is the end—but for me, the beginning—of life.” Moving words from a deeply spiritual man.
The next day, Monday, April 9, 1945, the pastor is executed by hanging.
This small congregation has lost it pastor. And the church has lost one of the greatest theological minds of the twentieth century. For this pastor was none other than Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Ironically, just a few days after his death, Allied troops liberated Schoenberg Prison.
Let us take a moment and reflect on the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Much that is laudatory can be said about him. He was truly a great theologian who influenced many other theologians in their thinking. Indeed, his influence is still felt keenly. He was a caring and devoted pastor. He was a writer whose works still challenge us today. He was a German who refused to kow-tow to Nazi terror and Nazi values. You really could sum up his life by saying he was a genuine believer who lived his faith. What we see in the life of Bonhoeffer is a man whose Christian beliefs and Christ-like character compelled him to stand steadfast in the face of intimidation, censure, imprisonment, and ultimately martyrdom.
In his definitive work, The Cost of Discipleship (a book every serious Christian should read), he stated a fundamental principle of his belief system: “Only the obedient believe.” He asserted that we cannot get by in life with a “cheap grace” that accepts the sacrifice of Christ for our sins, but refuses Christ’s call for us to sacrifice ourselves for Him. If we have true faith in Christ then we will demonstrate it by our behavior, by our deeds, by our lives.
But Bonhoeffer did more than just preach this message. He lived it. By his own standard, he was a true believer to the very end. He backed up his values and his faith by giving his very life.
I esteem Bonhoeffer very much. His writings dare me to seek self-evaluation and risk self-sacrifice, even as his life provokes me to venture all for Christ.
But there is a larger issue here… and the real reason I am writing this piece. For when I consider the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I am reminded that he is but one of multitudes of men, women—and even children—who have given their lives for the sake of Christ. And it is absolutely necessary to remember this historical reality. The early church revered the martyrs and venerated their memory. But I am afraid that today we have too often forgotten their legacy. In our complacent era and self-satisfied society, we have neglected the memory of these heroes of the faith. And we have taken for granted the very things that the martyrs were willing to die for.
We have forgotten how wonderfully precious the doctrines of the church are. So valuable that the martyrs joyfully poured out their life’s blood rather than deny one iota of orthodox teaching. We have forgotten the primacy and importance of truth—something that others have sacrificed everything for, because they held truth itself so dear. We have forgotten how closely we are identified (or at least should be identified) with Christ in His sufferings. If the world treated our Master and Lord in such a manner, should we expect less? In our self-centered and sanitized acceptance of saving grace, we have forgotten the bloody fee paid by our Savior… as well as the blood sacrifices of His noble ones, the martyrs of the church! We have forgotten at what price our faith has come to us.
We have even forgotten that to remember these virtuous heroes is not an option for the obedient believer, it is an obligation: “Think constantly of those in prison as if you were prisoners at their side. Think too of all who suffer as if you shared their pain” (Hebrews 13:3 Phillips).
So let us purpose that from henceforth we will not forget. We will honor those who have gone before. We will think of those who died for the Master. And on this memorial day, we will remember.