Have you had a 2am conversation recently? One of those conversations where the pretenses that we use to protect ourselves from the glare of the daylight are removed and under the cover of darkness the true questions are asked? Have you laid in bed with a lover and shared the deepest fears and doubts of your heart? Have you sat next to a stranger on a red-eye flight and found yourself sharing more than you have ever shared before?
Nicodemus needed a 2am conversation. He needed the protection of darkness to visit with Jesus and ask his question: “How can this be?” He didn’t have time for the fluff, he didn’t have time for the inane arguments of his fellow Pharisees who were more concerned about the rules than the Spirit. He needed the truth, and in the night sought out Jesus and said he understood that Jesus was the teacher sent by God. That he understood, but he still had questions, he was desperate for answers, and I think Jesus was desperate to teach him. The Gospels are full of Jesus saying to the people, “why are you not understanding this!?!” And today’s story, even though it is early in his ministry, includes that familiar plea for understanding and belief. Just as Nicodemus was desperate for answers, Jesus was desperate for him to understand.
However, just a quick reading of this story could mistakenly be interpreted, not as a 2am conversation, but rather two ships passing in the night – never meeting or even aware of one another. Jesus is trying to explain what it is to be part of God’s Kingdom, God’s meaning, God’s hope for humanity. But his metaphors don’t appear to be landing, and Nicodemus keeps struggling to understand. Jesus says to be a part of the kingdom of God one must be born from above. “How can this be?” Nicodemus asks. “How can someone be born when they are already old? I don’t understand! What are you trying to tell me?” Both Nicodemus and Jesus get exasperated, and one would wonder if their conversation simply ended in defeat. But it didn’t.
It stuck with Nicodemus. It stuck with him enough that his other appearances in the Gospel story show that this early interaction had an impact. When his colleagues wanted the Temple police to arrest Jesus for his revolutionary words, Nicodemus tempers their reactions and reminds them of their own laws – that people must first be heard before being judged. And, finally, after Jesus was crucified, it was Nicodemus who asked for the body of Jesus, and helped to prepare it for burial. So, that 2am conversation stuck with him, and even though he didn’t understand at first, he started to. And, in the end, when it really mattered, he stuck with Jesus and honored him, even after Jesus’ most faithful disciples had abandoned him.
It’s such a human response – to make up one’s mind slowly and over time. To find God slowly and over time. So often the stories of embracing faith and love of God are told as dramatic conversion stories. Those are the stories that get the most attention, those are the stories people want to hear, even if it leaves them feeling inadequate in their own faith. For example, Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus is far too often held up as the pattern of conversion that we are supposed to model. A dramatic moment, a voice from above, a sudden blindness that forces an immediate reorientation to life. But, the truth is, most stories of discovering God and finding a faith and a purpose, are slow and take a lifetime. Most of the time for most of us, it starts with questions, confusion, and maybe even a digging-in of doubt. But, as life continues to unfold, as the world keeps spinning and events challenge our doubts, as we are confronted with choices – we begin to wonder if perhaps that was God all along.
For most of us, to be a person of God, takes time and it is a task that is never complete or perfect. Just as Nicodemus needed time for the teachings of Jesus to sink in and begin to make sense, just as the events of Jesus life and ministry unfolded and required Nicodemus to decide how he was going to respond, our own lives are a series of decisions and choices to be made that help us to find God. The greatest hope is that we all have the space to voice our questions, to share our ideas and our doubts, to have room and time for hundreds of 2am conversations. The modern day prophet for this morning, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, needed time to find God. And it was through the events of his life, and the decisions he made along the way, that helped him to finally understand what it is Jesus was trying to teach all along.
Bonhoeffer was born in Germany in 1906, which meant he was too young to fight in World War I, but not too young to grieve the death of his older brother who died on the Western Front. He entered adulthood during those years in Germany that fell between the two World Wars, a time of tremendous turmoil, a time when a country was desperate to find its place in the world again and therefore was far too susceptible to promises of order and power.
Bonhoeffer entered the ministry in 1923 and very quickly became a theologian and philosopher of importance. His doctoral dissertation, which is now published as a book under the title ‘Being and Time’ is a dense exploration of the human condition in relationship with God. Bonhoeffer was a popular lecturer in universities, and it would have been possible for him to remain an aloof academic for his entire life, but his love of ministry, especially for those who had been ignored by society, was strong. During his time at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, he worshipped in African American churches and led Bible studies for the poor in the ghettos of Harlem. Later in his ministry, he served two German refugee churches in the poorest neighborhoods of London, taking a special interest in teaching poor and sometimes homeless teenage boys.
Despite the following and respect he had for his writings and lectures on theology, and for his wonderful ministry to those living on the margins of humanity, Bonhoeffer admitted later in his life that he was not truly a Christian then. He was going through the motions, trying to live a life of faith in order to experience a heart of faith. But he was not succeeding. He did not know, in the deepest crevices of his heart, what it meant to truly follow Christ, to understand what it means to be a disciple, to be someone who experienced the Kingdom of God. In so many ways, I see in those early years of his ministry echoes of Nicodemus – someone desperate to believe and understand, but struggling. It wasn’t until both Bonhoeffer and Nicodemus were confronted with events that forced them to decide how they were going to live lives of faith, did they finally understand what true discipleship means.
In January 1933, Hitler became chancellor of Germany. Later that year, all churches in Germany were ordered to pledge allegiance to the third reich. The German Protestant Church, which was the denomination that Bonhoeffer served, took that pledge. Indeed, as the atrocities of the Nazi era and the Holocaust unfolded, it was the protestant church that gave theological backing for what was happening. It was the protestant church that not only excused the actions of the Nazis, but in fact defended them.
Bonhoeffer was appalled. He was furious that his church would support a state that killed without regard for human life. He was appalled at Christians in Germany who stayed silent as their Jewish neighbors were exterminated. He said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not the only clergy to experience spiritual conflict. One year after Hitler took power, a group of clergy in Germany formed the Confessing Church, writing the Barmen Declaration, named after the town where they first gathered, which declared that to be a follower of Christ meant that sometimes one must stand up to the state and that they would not, as was the law, declare their allegiance to Nazism.
The Confessing Church turned to Bonhoeffer and asked that he lead their secret, and illegal seminary in Finkenwalde. There, Bonhoeffer worked with young seminary students and imparted his wisdom and guidance. It was at this illegal seminary that he wrote some of his best work and formulized his foundational understanding that Christ exists in community. For Bonhoeffer, this meant that the work of Christ happens in community, and that communities that make real the teachings of the Gospel are in fact Christ on earth today. He said, “The church is nothing but the part of humanity in which Christ has really taken form.” Therefore, if the church was Christ in human form, then that church was to be the Gospel for the rest of humanity. And what is that Gospel, what is that truth, – to love God and neighbor as we love ourselves.
During these years, teaching young clergy what it means to be and do church in the midst of one of the worst periods of human history – this is the time when Bonhoeffer says he became Christian. When he was no longer going through the motions, but had become a disciple of Christ. That meant that everything in his life was now focused on serving God through the example of Jesus. And that led him down a path fraught with peril.
Bonhoeffer’s seminary was shut down by the Gestapo in 1937. But, he stayed in contact with his students, and he continued to teach them through letters and written prayers. He continued to write and plead that the German Christians of his time would declare that what was happening was not of Christ. “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims under the wheels of injustice,” he said “we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”
In 1942, Bonhoeffer and his brother-in-law smuggled 14 Jews out of Germany and into Switzerland. Later, Bonhoeffer became a spy and passed on information from the office of German Military Intelligence, the most powerful German group trying to overthrow Hitler, to Allied forces in Britain. He was arrested in 1943.
While in prison he continued to write copiously, and thankfully many of those papers and letters have survived. He wrote about what the church must do to recover after Hilter was removed from power. He wrote that “the church is only the church when it exists for others.” He also wrote prayers and smuggled them to his fellow prisoners, reminding them of God’s presence in their lives, even in those darkest hours.
In 1945 he was moved to Buchenwald concentration camp and shortly after moved to the Flossenburg extermination camp, where he was executed on April 9th, three days before the camp was liberated.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life is one that has been memorialized and held up as an example of what true discipleship looks like. He writings have been studied and praised for speaking truth to power in the most dangerous of circumstances. He was an incredible person, someone whose life and work is worthy of study. But, he did not come to it easily or quickly. A close reading of his work, and careful study of his life will reveal that he struggled with his questions, with faith, and his opinions about Jews evolved over time. He, like Nicodemus, likely had many 2am conversations, both with others and with God, that slowly formed him. And, just like Nicodemus, when it really mattered, he made the Kingdom of God as real as possible in his corner of the world.
It is the 2am conversations of our faith, it is the slow progression towards a relationship with God, that marks the journey of Christianity for so many people. It was that way for Nicodemus, for Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and it is certainty characteristic of my faith life. We get there over time, we are confronted with choices that help to make our faith real, we become true disciples slowly. John 3:16, which we heard this morning and is a favorite of so many people “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life,” that is not the totality of Christian life for many people. It is the hope and promise of a life of learned discipleship. So, today, let us not pray for a perfect and complete faith. Instead, let us say a prayer of thanks for all the steps along the way that lead us towards the Kingdom of God. Amen.