Dietrich Bonhoeffer settled into his chair at his office at Union Theological Seminary in New York. For the first time in a long time, he felt safe.
Bonhoeffer was a German-born theologian who had come to the public stage at exactly the wrong time. As he rose to prominence, so did the Nazi party in Germany. And Bonhoeffer dared to suggest that Christ was the head of the church, and not the Fuhrer. He could not stay silent about the things that he had seen, the treatment of the Jews and oppression of those who were different. He knew that this was not the way of Jesus, the way of the cross, the way of love. And as he started to speak out, he attracted the wrong kind of attention. The Nazis censored him, threatened him, punished him and his colleagues for speaking out against their party. There were plenty of movers and shakers in Germany – including in the church – that went along with the party line. But Bonhoeffer could not.
He and his colleagues began what has been called the “confessing church,” a community within the church that spoke out against the un-Christ-like things that he saw happening in his country. It became an underground church, a community hidden from the iron fist of the Nazis. They obviously couldn’t set up a seminary to teach the next generation of pastors and church leaders – at least not in the traditional sense. They instead began what was called the “seminary on the run.” They would set up shop in a community for a few weeks or months, until they were found out, and then pick up shop and move again. It was a meaningful experience for Bonhoeffer…in fact, he wrote about this experience in the book that we have been exploring together throughout Lent: Life Together. In these pages, it was the “seminary on the run” that inspired him to write about “the day together.” As we have explored, the shared practices of reading Scripture, praying, taking communion, and working together were at the heart of this community that stood for justice and against oppression.
But Bonhoeffer was tired of running. He had spent most of his professional life standing up publicly against the evils that he had seen, but now the evil was gaining strength. And he feared that he could not keep it up. Some warned him that he needed to leave the country, for the sake of his own life. And so, when Union in New York offered him a teaching position, he took it. And for the first time in a long time, he settled into his chair and knew that he was safe.
However, even though he was safe, he also felt lonely. He missed the community that he had cherished and worshipped beside and worked beside. He knew that they remained under the threat of oppression and death, and in many ways regretted his decision. From his chair in New York, he felt safe. But he felt alone.
My guess is that we can understand Bonhoeffer’s perspective, at least to a point. Maybe we haven’t been on the run from the Nazis but how many of us have ever felt alone? How many of us have been burned by the experience of community – in family, or with friends, or even in the church?
We understand that experience of weariness with community. With relationships. With people. Sometimes, we just want to settle into our chair a million miles away from everyone we know and hide. It feels like less work. It feels safer.
Our head says that we want to be alone because it is safer. But when we actually experience it, it tears us apart emotionally. And I’m not talking about solitude. There are healthy ways to spend time by ourselves that are healthy and restorative. But I am talking about a deep existential loneliness, a feeling that we are fundamentally alone. Joseph Conrad, author of the novel Heart of Darkness, calls loneliness “the naked terror.” To feel utterly and hopelessly alone is one of the darkest feelings we know.
This is the feeling that I imagine that the disciples are feeling early on the first Easter morning. They are terrified. They are grieving. They are hurting. At Jesus’ arrest, it became clear that they were enemies of the state. So they scattered. They ran. They denied. They went on the run. The Gospels don’t tell us too much about those moments, and my guess is that the apostles weren’t too proud to share them after the fact. They felt afraid. They felt guilty. They felt alone. Good Friday had broken their spirits and their community. The oppressive Roman regime had won.
- Peter and the “disciple that Jesus loved” were hiding out, away from the eyes of the Romans. It was safer that way.
- Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea had risked their reputation to care for Jesus’ body, and were now in danger.
- Mary Magdalene didn’t know what to do, so she went to the grave. Maybe, like many of us when we feel alone, she planned to just sit at the grave, maybe say out loud to the sealed tomb the things that she could not say to anyone else. Maybe, like many of us when we feel alone, she just wanted to be close to this person who had loved her so much.
But then dawn came on that Easter morning. At first, the scatteredness continues. Mary gets to the tomb and sees something is wrong, so she runs to the disciples, who run back and find it empty. But they don’t know what to do, so confused, lost, and still afraid, they wander off again, scattered once more.
Now Mary is alone again. Still hurting. Still afraid. More confused that ever. She slumps down in the wet grass and falls into tears. The gardener comes up behind her, but all she wants is to know what has happened. All she wants is to no longer be alone.
Then Easter happens.
In John’s Gospel, this is the Easter moment. Up until now, there is still division and scattering and fear and aloneness. But then Jesus speaks Mary’s name…
“He speaks and the sound of his voice, is so sweet, the birds hush their singing…”
Mary is alone no more. She understands that Jesus has come back for her – has come back for all of us! She understands that the God incarnate in Jesus loves her and the world so much that he defeated death itself to show her that love. She understands that she is now longer alone, but known. The one who participated in the creation of the universe is standing in front of her, gently speaking her name. And that nothing, nothing can separate her from that love.
She goes from “alone” to “known” and Easter happens in her heart. For John, the story is not complete just with Jesus’s Resurrection. It is not just about the physical substance for John. It is about the relationship. Easter doesn’t happen until Mary goes from “alone” to “known,” until Easter happens in her heart. Resurrection happens in the relationship. Mary comes to the realization that innately, foundationally, existentially, she is not alone. She is, at the essence of who she is…known.
And the same is true for us! In the midst of our existential loneliness, Jesus comes to us. To whisper our names in the gardens of our hearts. To tell us that we are loved. That we are known. Resurrection comes in the relationship that we have with God in Christ!
In fact, I would suggest that that is why we are here. That’s why we come to church! Serene Jones, a scholar – and current president of Union Seminary in New York – suggests that this is what makes Easter become real for us, as well:
If Jesus comes to us through the senses, it is important that we go to church and be in a space where we physically, emotionally, communally, experience Jesus in our midst – in the taste of the communion wine, in the residual scent of cleanser on sanctuary pews, in the familiar sound of a favored hymn that stirs us in places too deep to be named, in the feel of the Bible’s soft leather as it sits heavy in our laps. We do not go to church simply to remind our conscious minds that God lives and we are called to follow Christ. We need to show up so that our bodies can be reminded of him too, and so the unconscious recesses of our psyches can be moved anew, our dispositions toward grace rejuvenated, our anxieties quelled as the world shifts once again into place and Easter comes, and comes, and comes again.
In other words, we show up here on a Sunday morning because Resurrection comes in the relationship. In the handshake and hug and bowtie selfies and “I love your Easter dress.” And in the trumpet and flute and organ and piano and “Christ the Lord is risen today.” In the breaking of bread and passing the plates of communion grape juice (with apologies to Dr. Jones…we are Baptist after all). In the moist eyes when we see one of our children peek above the ledge and proclaim with as big a voice that she can muster that Christ is her Lord and Savior. Resurrection comes in the relationship. Easter happens when we move from “alone” to “known.”
Anne Lamott writes that we are Easter people in a Good Friday world. That’s who we are. That’s what defines us and defies the rest of the world. Easter happens when it becomes real to us, in community, in church, in life together. That’s who we are.
In fact, this is what Bonhoeffer realized, too. He couldn’t stay in his safe chair and watch his friends die alone. He wasn’t built like that. We aren’t built like that. We are made for life together. This author of Life Together finally realized how important “together” was to him. So he left his safety and his comfortable chair and he returned to Germany. To danger. To certain death. To his friends. His community. His “life together.”
He returned on the last steamer from America to Germany before the war closed in around him.
And even though it cost him his life, even though the Nazis arrested him, tried him, and hung him at dawn, Bonhoeffer never regretted returning. Because he knew that Resurrection happened in the relationship. He knew that the confessing church was what mattered most to him. He died knowing that he had fully lived. That he had stood up to the forces of evil, side by side with his friends and colleagues and sisters and brothers in Christ. He knew that he was built for life together.
Bonhoeffer returned to the Good Friday world of oppression and hate and fear and evil. Because he was a part of an Easter people. He was a part of a community that knew the power of the Resurrection would be the final word. He went to the gallows knowing that his eternity was secure, because the God who died on the cross and was raised on Easter morning would not be overcome by this Good Friday world! Bonhoeffer knew that the Easter people, the confessing community, the true Church of the Risen Christ may have to run from time to time, but they would never lose the race. They – we – are an Easter people that knows that our life together is defined by the grace and love of God. And not even the power of death with overcome it!