“And behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20). At the other end of the lake whose shore lies before us, by the Sils Maria, there is an inscription carved into a mighty stone on a forested peninsula. The inscription reads “Friedrich Nietzsche,”2 and above is the song of deep midnight from Zarathustra who once originated in Sils Maria. Year after year Nietzsche had fled from the hustle of the world to the loneliness of this mountain vale,3 upon which at that time lay the deep stillness of natural isolation. Before the green mirror of the lake, to the right and to the left the steep cliffs, and in the distance the desolate ice and snow of the high mountain peaks, far from and their boisterous bustle, there he sat and wrote his great works. Among the which he created here are some of the greatest written in the German language. The deep isolation, the most desperate lostness of the soul, has perhaps never found such expression as in them. There is one which describes how, in the terrifying loneliness of the mountain heights, he cries out for people who understand him: “The friend remains, ready day and night.” But no one comes who understands him. And finally his screams subside, the cry of an endless desire: “The song is over, the desire of a sweet cry dies in the mouth…. Now the world laughs, the terrifying curtain is torn, the wedding came for light and darkness.” He just passes into the night of insanity.4 Why do I recount this? Not merely because it is a gripping episode from the intellectual history of our German people, but for another reason. There are men whose lives embody the fate of an entire epoch, and Nietzsche is such a man. His desperate destitution and loneliness is the loneliness of the modern man. To be sure, there still burns in his soul the desire for God. Indeed, he cries as Friedrich Nietzsche for the unknown God, and he consecrates to him solemn altars in the deepest depths of his heart. But the voice of the living God he no longer hears. At best he sees the apparitions like the dark form of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. He no longer knows Christ the Lord. In his destitution he cries out for fellowship with other souls. But he no longer finds the brethren. All this signifies the destruction of people, the destruction of the soul. And it is the great fateful question of Western humanity today, whether it will go the dark road of self-destruction without God, without Christ, without brotherhood, which the Lord has established in his church. If a new day of Jesus Christ does not dawn upon it, it will go into the night in which Friedrich Nietzsche met his end.
Do we not see here the great task of the church? We are gathered here at the other shore of the Lake of Sils. Do we hear the cry coming across the water from the other shore? Do we hear the cry to the unknown God? Do we hear voices of longing for the reestablishment of a human fellowship destroyed? And do we also hear the other voice which comes over from there, the complaint which Friedrich Nietzsche once raised against us, against Christi anity?5 Today in a new form in a thousand languages it rings out through every portion of the earth:
You must sing me a better song so that I learn to believe in your Redeemer: Why are his disciples so joyless in their salvation? We don’t need your Christ. We desire God, but you have only pious talk about God. We desire the Redeemer, but you only recount old history to us. Your theologians are not in agreement on what redemption is—and you want to preach redemption to us? We desire the deepest fellowship, we long for true brotherhood, and you give us only pious societies, which are in conflict with each other. Be done with your pious talk—it does not interest us. We desire to hear God, not you. Your subjectivity, your beautiful mystical experiences, keep to your self. We are dying, we are doubting, we have no time for it!
Brothers! Do we hear these voices? Do we hear the cry of a humanity which is wrestling with death? Woe to us if we were not to hear it! God hears it. He who hears the groans of the distressed understands this cry. And the Lord who once came to call sinners and not the righteous to repentance will perhaps regard these accusations in a way completely different than we are accustomed to “on that great day when he comes to judge the living and the living dead.” How should we respond to these voices? VVhat can we say? There is only one thing we can say. Kyrie eleison! [“Lord, have mercy”]. We can only do one thing: we can repent. Here indeed lies one of the greatest mysteries of the church of Jesus Christ. It continues to live in spite of all the indictments06 leveled at it through the course of nineteen centuries, for it lives from repentance. No criticism ofthe church, including the criticism of Nietzsche, has so unsparingly, so truthfully revealed all the wrongs of the church as the repentance which the great saints06 of Christianity, which the disciples of the Lord in all centuries have done. We live only from repentance. Only as we continuously repent can we live. Just as Christianity once began as a powerful repentance movement, all great epochs of the church have begun with the call to repent. If God the Lord will graciously grant his church today a new great day in her history—and it is our prayer that he will do so—then this day will also begin with repentance. A world which wrestles with death, a humanity that threatens to be drowned in the night of insanity cries out for deliverance. And we stand over against it. We do not know what we should do. There is no program to solve this problem. Evangelization of the world, mission work among the masses, the restoration of destroyed fellowship, unification of Christianity—will we bring all this about? No, we must recognize that we can do none of it. Only if we first recognize our complete powerlessness and helplessness, only if we first acknowledge before the face of him who is holy and true that we in our sins can indeed in no way encounter the world with the claim that it should hear us, only if we first acknowledge that our lips are impure and our hands are stained, only if we first can say nothing other than Kyrie eleison—only then can we learn to grasp the mystery of the church of Christ. If our mouths are dumb, then he spaks. If we with our wisdom and our are at an end, then he speaks his great Word to us: “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age!” With these words he once sent his apostles into the world, to tasks which humanly speaking were impossible, to destinations which they knew not. And they joyously went the unknown way. They knew that his forgiveness, his peace, his were with them. “Behold, I am with you always”—this is the mystery of the church. For upon what does the church rest? No not our faith, not on the holiness of our lives—then it would have long since dwindled out of history—but solely on Christ the Lord. Ubi Christus, ibi ecclesia [“where Christ is, there is the these words every definition of the church must begin. Because there is one Kyrios, there is therefore one church. Have we not all too often forgotten this? That there is one living Christ, that God raised the Crucified One and made him Lord, and that this Lord and personally is with us are not parables or pictures, rather realities of which we know in faith. Where his Gospel is plainly and purely preached, where his Sacraments are rightly administered, there he is really and personally Only this faith in the living Lord poises us properly for our tasks. He guards us from the two great sins of the Christianity of our times. The terrible sin of doubts the possibility that the church can accomplish anything, because it no longer takes seriously the confession of the present Christ. Such does not take it seriously that to Christ also today all is given in heaven and on earth, and he is just as near to us as to Christianity ofthe beginning. He guards us too from the terrible sin of optimism, which overlooks the fearful reality of sin in the world and knows nothing of the fact that the power of evil works most wretchedly where it the community [Gemeinde] of Jesus. Pessimism and optimism are human emotions. Where they rule, faith is falsified. For faith has nothing to do with emotions. It is the unshakable trust in the unbreakable promises of God. In humble repentance let us all turn ourselves to him. That we all, though belonging to entirely different communions, turn ourselves to him, the one [Redeemer], therein lies the essence of the ecclesia universalis [“universal church”] which we seek. If we all with empty hands and with contrite hearts come to him, then he will place us before our tasks, just as he once sent his first di sciples into the world, with the great promise which we hear today in faith: “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
- This essay was originally published as “Ansprache zur Erö der Fortsetzungsausschuss der Weltkonferenz fiir Glauben Kirchenverfassung am 29. August 1929 in Maloja. Text: Matth. 28,2 in Internationale Kirchliche Zeit-schrift [Bern] 37 NF 19.3 (July-Septem 1929):152—56. It was later republished as an essay in Lutherische B ” 16.81 (May 1964):37-40, and in ISC, 2:19-21.MH/RF
- Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was a German philosopher and the son a Lutheran pastor from Saxony. RF
- Sasse’s reference is to the village of Sils Maria at the opposite end of th Lake of Sils from Maloja. Here Friedrich Nietzsche spent the summers o 1881 and then 1883—1888 at a modest house. It was here tha he completed part 2 of his famous book Also Sprach Zarathustra. “The most important single clue to Zarathustra is that it is the work of utterly lonely man” (“Introduction” and “Editor’s Preface,” The Portable Nietzsche [ed. and trans. Walter Kaufmann; London: Penguin, 1968], 21, 103). RF
- In early January 1889, Nietzsche became insane. RF
- Nietzsche developed a bitterly anti-Christian atheistic philosophy, accusing Christianity of a “slave morality,” which makes a virtue of humility and tends to weakness in contrast to his ideal Übermensch (“superman”) view of humanity. (Lutheran Cyclopedia, 5 77) RF
- Ignatius, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 8:2. MH