The Church as “There”: Helmut Gollwitzer on Luke 24

This is an excerpt from a sermon that Gollwitzer preached in Berlin in either 1939 or 1940, when he filled in after Niemöller’s internment and before his own conscription. During this time Gollwitzer preached through Luke’s narrative of the passion. In this excerpt you will perhaps hear, as I do, echoes of our own ecclesial situation today.

Helmut Gollwitzer, The Dying and Living Lord, 92–93. Bold is mine.

A church was already there, to which the first Resurrection message could come. It was already there, just as it still is here today—and in many places it is certainly ‘there’ in exactly the same way as it was then. The people come together, they pray together, they keep the Sabbath and celebrate the Passover, and the feasts of the Church. But this is a weak and miserable affair; it changes nothing in the world; it causes no upheaval. What is it that holds this group together? Perhaps a little loyalty to their cause? Many people, indeed, have a fine trait in their character: even when they think they are supporting a lost cause, they do not at once give it up and turn to something which might be more profitable. Even when it seems to be a forlorn hope, they still stick to it, possibly very courageously, but perhaps also with a dash of fatalism as well. We can indeed respect and sympathise with people of such strong character; but they cannot win others through their own experience. This kind of loyalty did, doubtless, hold this Church together—and in addition there was also the wealth of memories, the common tradition of those years of companionship with Jesus. When we look at the motives which affect people even today, we see that very often it is this kind of tradition which, to a large extent, still holds the Church together. It holds many of you to the Church—fidelity to this idea, even when you no longer expect very much from it, and the remembrance of what this Church has meant to your fathers, and perhaps even in your own lives. This is all quite good in its way, but at bottom it does not mean anything; it has not power, and so far as the world is concerned, it is neither a danger nor a help.

The authorities of that day were quite right in thinking that this community, which was held together only by a little loyalty and tradition, was not even worth the trouble of a proper persecution.

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