In the recent discussions about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, The Cost of Discipleship, one point that came up was the question of how we hear Christ’s call to follow him. The point was made, correctly, that there is a difference in how we encounter Christ after his ascension into heaven.
Setting aside (please!) the question of whether there are flaws in Bonhoeffer’s conception of discipleship and following Christ – though I would draw your attention to the very pertinent comments from the man himself, as posted by Pr William Voelker in an earlier comments thread – I found the following passage very powerful on this question of how we hear Christ’s call today.
In chapter 27, at the start of his section on “the church of Jesus Christ and the life of discipleship”, Bonhoeffer is describing the questions that crowd in when we consider the issue of how Christ calls us today. How can we take the experiences of the disciples, or the paralytic, or Lazarus, as examples for us today? Which of the various models of discipleship found in the gospels are we to adopt for ourselves? How can we know we are truly following him rather than following our own whims? Bonhoeffer writes:
There is something wrong about all these questions. Every time we ask them we are retreating from the presence of the living Christ and forgetting that Jesus Christ is not dead, but alive and speaking to us to-day through the testimony of the Scriptures.
He comes to us to-day, and is present with us in bodily form and in his word. If we would hear his call to follow, we must listen where he is to be found, that is, in the Church through the ministry of Word and Sacrament. The preaching of the Church and the administration of the sacraments is the place where Jesus Christ is present.
If you would hear the call of Jesus you need no personal revelation: all you have to do is to hear the sermon and receive the sacrament, that is, to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen. Here he is, the same Christ whom the disciples encountered, the same Christ whole and entire. Yes, here is already, the glorified, victorious and risen Lord.
Hence our concern when reading the gospels, or any other scriptural passage, is not to pick and choose examples, but to look to Christ and listen to what he is telling us through a given passage of Scripture:
It is therefore abundantly clear that we cannot play off the various accounts of the calling of the disciples against other parts of the gospel narrative. It is not a question of stepping into the shoes of the disciples, or of any other of the New Testament characters. The only constant factor throughout is the sameness of Christ and of his call then and now…
The Scriptures do not present us with a series of Christian types to be imitated according to choice: they preach to us in every situation the one Jesus Christ. To him alone must I listen. He is everywhere one and the same.
To the question – where today do we hear the call of Jesus to discipleship, there is no other answer than this: Hear the Word, receive the Sacrament; in it hear him himself, and you will hear his call.
If there were only one gift that the Lutheran church could give to the wider church of Christ, it would be this: its conscious awareness of our participation in the church’s ministry of preaching the gospel and administering the sacraments as an encounter with the living Christ, rather than merely involving the communication of information about Christ. That has certainly been the insight for which I’ve been most grateful since joining the Lutheran church.
Indeed, Bonhoeffer’s words in this chapter left me reeling when I read them last night. I’d made attempts to read Discipleship on various occasions in the past 13 years, but had previously ground to a halt fairly early in the book. Reading chapter 27, however, I found myself wondering what would have happened if I’d read it ten years ago. It would have blown my mind, I should think. And probably saved me a lot of difficulty and confusion. And/or caused some…