My family has been Christian for many generations. For a time I was the pastor of a small rural congregation that my ancestors were members of after immigrating to Minnesota from Germany in 1875. My great-great-great grandfather, Johann Christian Frederick Stier is buried on the hillside east of the present church building. He had been baptized in Roebel, Germany in 1808. There, my ancestors worshiped at St. Marian’s Lutheran Church, which was built in the 12th century– four centuries before the Reformation. My roots in the Christian faith go back a long way.
But my roots in the faith do not go back all the way. There was a time when a missionary had to leave his homeland and bring the Gospel to my ancestors, the wild Germanic tribes, those who had defeated the great Roman Empire and destroyed ‘the eternal city’ Rome in 410 AD.
Boniface was an English monk who, until the age of 42 lived in a monastery near Winchester. Then he went to Rome, where on November 30, 722 AD, he received a promotion from Pope Gregory II. Boniface was consecrated as a bishop; but he was given authority over no priests or existing congregations. Rather, he was declared “Bishop of the German Frontier,” and sent north as a missionary to the pagan German barbarians. He was told to proclaim Christ as Lord, start congregations, and build churches.
So off he went, and before long Boniface had the opportunity to become very well known.
He learned of a sacred area in Geismar, west of what is now Berlin. In that place was the Sacred Oak of Thor, the chief object of faith for the religion of the people in that region. One night Boniface cut down that revered tree. He then waited for the deed to be discovered, after which Boniface cheerfully admitted to being the culprit. The angry worshipers of Thor were ready to kill Boniface on the spot. But Boniface reminded the people of their own firm belief that if anyone tampered with that tree, Thor himself would kill the evil-doer.
“So,” Boniface said, “if Thor is such a great and powerful god, let him kill me himself. That should be easy enough for the mighty Thor. But I am here to tell you,” continued Boniface, “that there is no Thor; and that my God, Jesus Christ, is the one true God, and He will protect me from all harm.”
The people listened; and then watched, and then waited. No harm came to Boniface. The people came to be convinced that Boniface was right, that the God they came to tell them about was indeed stronger than the god of their fathers, and they were converted to faith in Jesus. Then, with wood from the Sacred Tree of Thor, Boniface built a Christian chapel in honor of St. Peter.
Boniface’s work in Germany continued for many years, and God blessed his efforts with much success. Boniface worked tirelessly to organize the many new converts into established congregations and dioceses.
Many years later, when Boniface was in his 70’s, he was on the missions frontier again, even farther into Germany, proclaiming the Gospel where the name of Christ was not yet known. He was again very successful, but this time there was violent opposition. On June 5, 754, Boniface and some companions were awaiting the arrival of several newly converted Christians who were to be confirmed. They were suddenly attacked by an angry mob, and Boniface and all who were with him were killed. Boniface’s earthly life was thus ended by those to whom he was attempting to bring the hope of eternal life.
Boniface was not a German. Like missionaries today, he was called to a distant and dangerous land to proclaim Christ. Boniface has been called the “Apostle to the Germans,” and is considered by some to be the greatest missionary of the Dark Ages.
I know Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior because Boniface and others like him gave their lives to bring the Gospel to the land of my ancestors. In my family I have a long heritage of faith; but when I trace it back far enough, I find a missionary telling my people about Jesus.
In my years as a pastor I have tried to encourage and inspire my congregations to be obedient to Christ’s command to bring the Gospel to all the nations of the earth. Almost all of the members of my congregations have been of Northern European descent– Germans, Norwegians, Swedes, and a few Danes. One of the things I have often reminded them of is that Jesus was not born in Germany, Norway, Sweden, or Denmark. In fact, Jesus did not even visit any of those places. Jesus was born, lived, died, and rose from the dead in Israel– and that is a long way from Northern Europe. We all must remember that somewhere back in our family tree, a missionary sought out our ancestors, told them about Jesus, and they were converted.
For Germans like myself, it has been a long time– almost thirteen centuries. But that long heritage is a reason to give thanks, and must not ever be taken for granted. Today, Christians of northern European descent have the hope and promise of eternal life because years ago some missionaries were sent out, and some people back home supported them.
May we be ever grateful for that mission work; and may we continue with that work, committing ourselves to doing our part to fulfill the Great Commission in our brief time on earth.
St. Boniface (675-754)
The story of Boniface was adapted from A History of Christian Missions, 1964, by Stephen Neill, pages 74-77.
Matthew 28:19-20 — (Jesus said), “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” –THE GREAT COMMISSION
Acts 1:8 — Jesus said to them, “You will be my witnesses… to the ends of the earth.”
Romans 10:13-15a — “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?
Merciful Father, your kindness caused the light of the Gospel to shine among us. Extend your mercy now, we pray, to all the people of the world who do not have hope in Jesus Christ, that your salvation may be made known to them also and that all hearts would turn to you; through Jesus Christ, your Son our Lord. Amen.
–Lutheran Book of Worship, 1978, page 45