Spiritualization of the Gospel

Although Dietrich Bonhoeffer is not generally remembered for his preaching, he believed that proclaiming the Word of God was the heart of Christian life.

On the plane to Seattle yesterday, I began reading a book of Bonhoeffer’s collected sermons. Thus far, I haven’t read one that is not worthy of serious and prayerful reflection. One that struck me was a sermon he gave on the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke’s gospel. He began that sermon with a statement that challenges not only homilists, but all of us, since we are all called to proclaim the Gospel.

A real evangelical sermon must be like holding a pretty red apple in front of a child or a glass of cool water in front of a thirsty person and then asking do you want it? We should be able to talk about matters of our faith in such a way that the hands reach out for it faster than we can fill them. People should run and not be able to rest when the gospel is talked about, as long ago the sick ran to Christ to be healed when he was going around healing… Shouldn’t it really be that way wherever the good news of God is spoken of? But it just isn’t that way – we all know that.

As if that were not enough of a rebuke, Bonhoeffer goes on to criticize our failure to accept that “the gospel is as concrete, as close to life, as it is” – our “spiritualization of the gospel,” which, he claims, lightens it up.

Bonhoeffer illustrates his point with a discussion of the story of the rich man and Lazarus, which he suggests is typically treated solely as an admonition that the rich should help the poor. We do not treat the story as a very concrete proclamation of the good news itself – a promise of salvation for the sick, the poor, the outcasts. (He recognizes and addresses the criticisms that might be launched against his concrete reading.) The frightening thing about the story, he suggests, is that “there is no moralizing here at all, but simply talk of poor and rich and of the promise and threat given to the one and the other.”

If Bonhoeffer is right, then he is also right that “We must end this audacious, sanctimonious spiritualization of the gospel. Take it as it is, or hate it honestly!”