I have been thinking about our upcoming Confirmation on May 10.
I had decided in 2012 to present this sermon by Bonhoeffer to our Confirmation Class in
the form of a letter, handed to each of them and each parent, before our Confirmation Service in May. In 2013 I did that at our retreat weekend actually. This year I distributed the document to the Confirmands when we talked about What’s Next After Confirmation. I asked them to share it with their parents. I hope that it will be as powerful for each of them as it is for me. I think it may be inspirational for some others who read this blog.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1938
Confirmation Sermon on Mark 9:24
Mark 9:24: “I believe, dear Lord, help my unbelief.”
Dear confirmation pupils! This is a very sober word. But it is good that from the very beginning we get used to not bragging about our faith. Faith is not like that. Precisely because all depends today on our really keeping the faith, all desire for great words fades away. Whether we believe or not will be evident every day; protests do not change a thing. You know from the Passion story that Peter says to Jesus: “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you,” and Jesus answers: “Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And the story ends: “And Peter went out and wept bitterly.” He had denied his Lord. Great assertions, even if they were said truthfully and were meant seriously, are always closest to denial. May God protect you and all of us from this.
This confirmation day is an important day for you and for us all. It is not an insignificant thing that you profess your Christian faith today before the all-knowing God and before the ears of the Christian church-community. For the rest of your life, you shall think back on this day with joy. But for that very reason I admonish you today to full Christian soberness. You shall not and may not say or do anything on this day that you will remember later with bitterness and remorse, having said and promised more in an hour of inner emotion than a human being can and may ever say. Your faith is still weak and untried and very much in the beginning. Therefore, when later on you speak the confession of your faith, do not rely on yourselves and on your good intentions and on the strength of your faith, but rely only on the one whom you confess, on God the Father, on Jesus Christ, and on the Holy Spirit. And pray in your hearts: I believe, dear Lord, help my unbelief. Who among us adults would not and should not pray the same with you?
Confirmation is a serious day. But truly, you know that it is still easy enough to confess one’s faith in the church, in the fellowship of Christians, your parents, siblings, and godparents, in the undisturbed celebration of a worship service. Let us be thankful that God grants us this hour of common confessing in the church. But all of this will only become utterly serious, utterly real after confirmation, when daily life returns, out daily life will all its decisions. Then it will become evident whether even this day was serious. You do not have your faith once and for all. The faith that you will confess today with all your hearts needs to be regained tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, indeed, every day anew. We receive from God only as much faith as we need for the present day. Faith is the daily bread that God gives us. You know the story about manna. This is what the children of Israel received daily in the desert. But when they wanted to store it for the next day, it was rotten. This is how it is with all the gifts of God. This is how it is with faith as well. Either we receive it daily anew or it rots. One day is just long enough to preserve the faith. Every morning it is a new struggle to fight through all unbelief, faintheartedness, lack of clarity and confusion, anxiety and uncertainty, in order to arrive at faith and to wrest it from God. Every morning in your life the same prayer will be necessary. I believe, dear Lord, help my unbelief.
“I believe.” Today, when the Christian congregation acknowledges you as autonomous members of the church, it expects that you begin to understand that your faith must be your very own individual decision. The “we believe” must now grow more and more into an “I believe.”
Faith is a decision. We cannot avoid that. “You cannot serve two masters”; from now on either you serve God alone or you do not serve God at all. Now you only have one Lord, who is the Lord of the world, who is the Savior of the world, who is the one who creates the world anew. To serve him is your highest honor. But to this Yes to God belongs an equally clear No. Your Yes to God demands your No to all injustice, to all evil, to all lies, to all oppression and violation of the weak and poor, to all godlessness and mocking of the Holy. Your Yes to God demands a brave No to everything that will ever hinder you from serving God alone, whether it be your profession, your property, your house, your honor before the world. Faith means decision.
But your very own decision! No person can relieve you of it. It must arise from loneliness, from the solitude of the heart with God. It will be born out of the hot struggles against the enemy in your own bosom. You are still surrounded by a church-community, by homes that carry you, by parents who pray for you, by people who help you wherever they can. Thanks be to God for this! But God will lead you more and more into loneliness. He wants to prepare you for the great hours and decisions of your life when no human being can stand by your side and when only one things is true: I believe, yes, I myself, I cannot do otherwise; dear Lord, help my unbelief.
Dear confirmation pupils, the church therefore expects of you that you will come of age in your dealings with the word of God and in prayer. Your faith today is a beginning, not a conclusion. First, you must dive into Scripture and into prayer, you alone, and you must learn to fight with the weapon of the word of God wherever it is needed. Christian fellowship is one of the greatest gifts that God gives us. But God can also take this fist away from us as it pleases God, as he has done already to many of our brethren today. Then we will stand and fall with our very own faith. Someday, however, each and every one of us will be placed in this solitude even if he has evaded it throughout life, namely, in the hour of death and the Last Judgment. Then God will not ask you, have your parents believed, but: have you believed? May God grant that in the loneliest hour of our life we can still pray: I believe, dear Lord, help my unbelief. Then we shall be blessed.
“I believe, dear Lord…” In life, it is not always easy to say, “Dear Lord.” But faith must learn this. Who would not wish sometimes to say: I believe, harsh Lord, severe Lord, terrible Lord. I submit to you. I will be silent and obey. But to learn to say “dear Lord” is a new and difficult struggle. And yet we will have found God, the father of Jesus Christ, only when we have learned to speak that way.
Your faith will be led into difficult temptations. Jesus Christ was tempted as well, more than all of us. At first, temptations will come to you not to obey God’s commandments any longer. They will assault you with great force. Satan, Lucifer, the bearer of light will come to you, handsome and alluring, innocent and with the appearance of light. He will obscure God’s law and call it into doubt. He will want to rob you of the joy you will have in God’s path. And once the evil one has caused us to waiver, he will tear our entire faith out of our hearts, will trample it underfoot and cast it away. Those will be difficult hours in your life, when you tend to become weary of God’s word, when all is in revolt, when no prayer passes your lips anymore, when the heart refuses to listen any longer. As certain as your faith is alive, all of this must happen. It must happen so that your faith is tested and strengthened, so that you will be able to cope with increasing tasks and struggles God works on us through these temptations. He never plays a game with you, you can be confident of that, but the father wants to make fast the heart of his children. That is the reason why all of this will come over you. And even if the temptation is very confusion, if our resistance threatens utter collapse, indeed, even if defeat has already arrived, then we may and should cry out with the final remnant of our faith: I believe, dear Lord, help my unbelief. Dear Lord, it is after all the Father who tests us and strengthens us in such a way. Dear Lord, it is after all Jesus Christ who has suffered all temptations like us, yet without sin, to be an example and a help for us. Dear Lord, it is after all the Holy Spirit who wants to sanctify us in this struggle.
Your faith will be tested through sorrow. You do not yet know much about this. But God sends sorrow to his children when they need it the most, when they become too overly sure on this earth. Then a great pain, a difficult renunciation, a great loss, sickness, death, enters our life. Our unbelief rears up. Why does God demand this of me? Why has God allowed this to happen? Why, yes, why? That is the great question of unbelief that wants to suffocate our faith. No one can avoid this calamity. Everything is so enigmatic, so dark. In this hour of being forsaken by God, we may and shall say: I believe, dear Lord, help my unbelief. Yes, dear Lord, also in the dark, also when in doubt, also in the state of being forsaken by God. Dear Lord, you still are my dear father who makes all things serve my benefit. Dear Lord Jesus Christ, you yourself have cried out: My God, why have you forsaken me? You wanted to be where I am. Now you are with me. Now I know that you don’t leave me even in the hour of my need. I believe, dear Lord, help my unbelief.
Your faith will bring you not only temptation and suffering but, above all, struggle. Today’s confirmation pupils are like young soldiers who march into war, into the war of Jesus Christ against all the gods of this world. This war demands engagement of the entire life. Should or Lord God not be worthy of this engagement? The struggle is already being fought, and you shall now join in. Idolatry and fear of human beings confront us everywhere. But do not think that great words here can accomplish anything. It is a struggle with fear and trembling, for the hardest enemy stands not opposite us but within ourselves. You shall know that precisely those who stood and still stand in the middle of this struggle have most deeply experience this: I believe, dear Lord (yes, dear Lord!), help my unbelief. And if we, despite all temptation, do not flee but stand and fight, then this is not due to our strong faith and courage in battle, our valor, but rather it is the sole fact that we cannot flee anymore because God holds on to us so that we can no longer disengage from him. God leads the struggle within us and against us and through us.
“Help my unbelief.” God answers our prayers. Amid temptation, suffering, and struggle, he has created a sanctuary of peace. This is his Holy Eucharist. Here there is forgiveness of sins; here is the conquest of death; here are victory and peace. It is not we who have won it. God himself has done it through Jesus Christ. Righteousness is his; life is his; peace is his. We exist in unrest, but rest is with God. We exist in strife, but victory is with God. You are called to the Lord’s Supper. Come and receive in faith forgiveness, life, and peace. Ultimately, only this remains for you in the world: God’s word and sacrament. Amen.
 Sermon preached on April 9, 1938. Text quoted from Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Theological Education Underground: 1937-1940 (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works). Ed. Victoria J. Barnett. Trans. Victoria J. Barnett, Claudia D. Bergmann, Peter Frick, and Scott A. Moore. Vol. 15. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012. Print. 476-480.