Only weeks before the Nazi party gained power over Germany in the 20th century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached a sermon titled “Overcoming Fear.” Today, Stephen Nichols takes us back to this poignant moment in church history.
Welcome back to another episode of 5 Minutes in Church History. On this episode, we’re talking about a sermon preached by Dietrich Bonhoeffer on January 15th, 1933, in Trinity Church in Berlin. This church was built in 1739. It has a fascinating history. In 1806, after Napoleon conquered Berlin, the church was used as a barracks for Napoleon’s troops. As we move into the 20th century in 1932 and 33, it was the pulpit from which Bonhoeffer regularly preached. And this date in German history was very important, January 15th, 1933. In fact, on January 30th, 1933, just two weeks after this sermon, Hitler would take over the German government, and the Nazi party would be in power in Germany. It was a time, as we could all imagine, of fear, of anxiety, and so, Bonhoeffer preaches this sermon “Overcoming Fear.” He uses as his text, Matthew chapter 8, verses 23 to 27, the moment where the disciples are in the boat and that great storm suddenly comes upon the sea of Galilee and the disciples, some of them very seasoned fishermen, were overcome by fear and they turned to Christ for his help. Christ is sleeping in the boat, as we all know from this very familiar story. And they cry out, “We are perishing, we are dying. Lord, save us.” Of course, Christ turns to his disciples, and he rebukes them, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” He simply speaks to the wind, speaks to the sea, and all is calm.
Well, it’s a dramatic text, and it was also a dramatic moment. And as Bonhoeffer reflects on that text, he speaks of fear as being crippling, how it takes away our strength, how it breaks us down, how it leaves us without hope. He says at one point, “Fear is in the boat,” referencing the text there in Matthew, “all arms are frozen, and they drop their oars. All hope is lost. Fear is in the boat.” Bonhoeffer is going to go on to say that fear can be found among us in various forms. It leaves some people dull. He says, “They brooded glumly, and they doggedly go through life.” Others, he says, “are noisy about their fear and they cry out about it and complain.” He says, “Still others, they think they can drive out fear with fine words and bold fantasies.” And he goes on to say “If they shout these words loudly enough, it may seem to take care of things for a while.” But then Bonhoeffer comes back, “Fear is in the boat.” And then he says, “Fear is in Germany.” And he says, “Fear is in our own lives.” And he says, “Fear is in the nave of this church. Fear,” he says, “is breathing down our necks.” But while fear is in the boat, Bonhoeffer is very quick to point out that Christ is in the boat. And of course, as great as fear is, Christ is so far greater than fear.
But he looks at that question posed to the disciples by Christ of you of little faith, and Bonhoeffer uses it to remind his congregation that they must believe in an almighty God, “To believe that for God,” he says, “our greatest cares are like the worries of small children in their parent’s eyes. To believe that God can turn things around and dispose of them in no time of all. You of little faith,” He says, “why are you so fearful? In the midst of the storm, Christ is in the ship.” And then Bonhoeffer says, “Away with you, fear. Instead,” he says, “let us see you, Lord Jesus. Strong Helper and Savior.” Well, that was Dietrich Bonhoeffer and very fearful times in Berlin in 1933. And I’m Steve Nichols and thanks for listening to 5 Minutes in Church History.