From October 1933 through the spring of 1934, Dietrich Bonhoeffer pastored two churches in London. One of them was the German Evangelical Church in Sydenham. Its building was destroyed by bombs during World War II. The other one was St. Paul’s German Evangelical Reformed Church. These were small Lutheran congregations. Many of those in the congregations had fully assimilated into British life. In fact, most of them spoke English, and their German was actually not that great. Bonhoeffer spoke German and English, but all his sermon manuscripts from this period were in English.
Bonhoeffer’s first sermon at the Sydenham church was on 2 Corinthians 5:20, in which Paul tells us that we are ambassadors for Christ. Bonhoeffer opened the sermon by talking about how sometimes it can be difficult for a congregation to relate to a new pastor or minister when it has grown attached to a previous minister. Here’s how Bonhoeffer counseled the congregation at Sydenham: “For the congregation, however, this means that at this point, everything depends on its being led to let go of the issue of the person and to look instead to the Lord of the church; to pay attention to the preaching rather than the preacher; and to have only one question: Is this truly the Gospel of our God that we are hearing? Or is it the kind of arbitrary thinking that human beings invent, which blossoms today and withers away tomorrow like the grass of the field? There is really only one question for a congregation to ask of its pastor: Are you offering us the eternal Word of God, the Word of life, wherever you can, in the pulpit and in daily life? Or are you giving us stones instead of bread?” With his questions, Bonhoeffer challenged the congregation at Sydenham not to get attached to this person or that person, but instead to pay attention to whether the gospel is being preached.
It’s also in this sermon that Bonhoeffer talks about “out there.” He says, “Out there”—in the streets of London—“they are all running after the latest sensations, the excitement of evening in the big city, never knowing that the real sensation, something infinitely more exciting, is happening in here: here, where eternity and time meet, where the immortal God receives mortal human beings.” Bonhoeffer asks, “Why is this the case?” Why is it that folks are out there on the London city streets and think what’s out there is more sensational than what’s being preached in the Word of God here within these walls of a church? He answers, “It is because we ourselves have made the church, and keep on making it, into something which it is not. It is because we talk too much about the false, trivial human things and ideas in the church and too little about God. It is because we make the church into a playground for all sorts of feelings of ours, instead of a place where God’s word is obediently received and believed.”
These are the types of sermons that Bonhoeffer preached while in London at Sydenham and St. Paul’s. It was also while he was in London, in the fall of 1933, that he undertook an intensive study of the Sermon on the Mount, a study that would result in his book The Cost of Discipleship, which in German is one word, Nachfolge.