Week 37 — Church: Discipleship
In the years before World War II, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a rising star in the German Lutheran Church. Ordained at age 25, he took up pastoral duties at Old-Prussian United Church in Berlin. In his inspiring and theologically rigorous sermons, he spoke with conviction and authority. Soon word got around; he rose in prominence. But this was Germany in the thirties. As Hitler began his ascent– and as the teachings of the Gospel got in Hitler’s way– Godly leaders became a threat. Indeed, Bonhoeffer was a threat — because he saw Nazism for what it was. At great risk, he became an outspoken opponent of Hitler and the evils of Nazism.
The institutional German Lutheran Church didn’t do the same. It became infiltrated with Nazi sympathizers. A movement arose to purge church leadership of all who carried even a trace of Jewish blood. Soon came the call to banish the Old Testament– it was too Jewish. Preachers began to claim Jesus was not a Jew; that Jews were the perpetrators of Jesus’ death; that the entire Jewish race was illegitimate and forever stained.
Bonhoeffer fought hard to wrench his church back from the demonic abyss– but the forces of evil were too strong. In the end, after all his efforts had failed, he came to the painful conclusion that the German Lutheran Church was irredeemable. It had fled the Holy Spirit; it had abandoned the Gospel.
And so he departed to form a new, Gospel-centered church. It was an act of great courage, since it was a direct rebuke to the Nazi regime. He called it The Confessing Church. He opened up a seminary so as to teach young men to become its pastors. Soon the Nazis got wind of it, discovered the seminary’s location and shut it down. Bonhoeffer went underground. He continued to instruct and ordain new pastors for the fledgling church. The Confessing Church lived on, its services conducted secretly in German homes. As long as he could, Dietrich Bonhoeffer kept the flame of Christ alive in the midst of utter darkness, right under the eyes of the Gestapo. In the end, he paid for his discipleship with his life.
In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer describes discipleship by differentiating between cheap grace (which avoids it) and costly grace (which embraces it). Says Bonhoeffer:
“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves… the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance… grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ…
Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light.’ … It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.”
Time and again throughout history, Christian disciples have emerged to challenge and transform a frozen church. St. Paul challenged the church to welcome Gentiles– to not require them to be circumcised, as Jewish law stipulated. St. Augustine made Christian theology coherent to the masses, and then modeled the disciple’s path by publicizing his Confessions. Martin Luther stood up to, and eventually cleaved from, a corrupted Catholic church. St. Francis, St. Clare, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Benedict– all opened the church’s doors and windows so fresh winds could blow in. So too with Mother Teresa, Corrie Ten Boom, Dorothy Day, Billy Graham, and many more. Today our church is frozen again. Who will lead it forward?
Discipleship starts on the inside; it progresses outward. The first step is, quite simply, to follow Jesus. A fledgling disciple moves towards Him — seeking to be in His presence; to learn at His feet. In daily prayer, in fellowship with other Christian friends and in the pew at church, we begin to experience Jesus in our lives. We hear and ponder His teachings– becoming a student of the Gospel.
The more we learn about Jesus, the more we are drawn into a reflection upon the state of our soul. What biases and fears still lurk under the hood, unchecked? What sinful patterns need rooting out? What past hurts do we grip too hard? We need to confront these things. In prayer, we summon the courage to open ourselves to God. Only then can we begin to unmask– to let go of our false self. With Him by our side, we rediscover our original goodness– which is our true self.
Soon, without even realizing it, a change arises within us. We begin to hold ourselves to a higher standard. As we step outside, we find ourselves trying to “do what Jesus would do” in more situations. We begin to look beyond ourselves; to widen our circles of care. All of this helps prepare us to evangelize with our lives — to find a friend, be a friend, and bring a friend to Christ. This formation takes time and discipline, but it makes us ready to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” as Jesus commanded. (Matthew 28:18).
No disciple is perfect. As the Roman centurion said to Jesus, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof. But only say the word, and my soul shall be healed.” (Luke 6: 6–7). But Jesus can work miracles with modest tools. He seeks our intention, not our perfection. To every imperfect disciple, His call is the same: “Love Me. Love others as you love yourself. Go out into the world. Build fellowship. Teach. Stand out; be steadfast and courageous. Deny yourself. And most importantly, imitate Me in all you do, to the best of your ability, every day.” No matter how hard we try, of course, we are sure to fall short. But if we love Jesus and seek Him always, if we surrender all to His will, perhaps we might, as the sick woman did, “touch the hem of His garment”. And that is enough.
If you are a church leader, you bear an awesome responsibility. Whether clergy or lay minister, you are an instrument of God. You are called to carry Christ’s message to the flock– both in your words and your deeds. You are called to make the church more loving at its heart, and more serving and welcoming at its fringes. If the flock sees leaders who are humble, gracious and filled with love, they will respond accordingly. If not, they will become lost and in the shadow of death. That’s why, before you accept a leadership role, it is so vital for you to do the deep soul work necessary to become a disciple.
Are you one? Are you ready? Will you lead?
“Just as there are many parts to our bodies, so it is with Christ’s body. We are all parts of it, and it takes every one of us to make it complete, for we each have different work to do. So we belong to each other, and each needs all the others.” — Romans 12: 4–5
Yours in discipleship,
P.S.: Prayer is the disciple’s daily discipline. Prayer keeps our feet firmly planted on the ground, and our eyes firmly fixed on the Cross. This poem is about that.
AS SUN AND I ARISE
As sun and I arise, my Lord, I greet You
To share this bright new day in prayer before You
Shine light on sin, that I might seek grace from You
To ready my soul so that I might serve You
Prepare me, then, to be Your humble servant
Pray banish from my heart all selfish thoughts
Replace within a heart-fire ever fervent
That brings me to my knees before the Cross
And if it be Your will that I should lead,
Pray keep my gaze fixed firm upon Your face
That in Your Church Your work through me succeed
Well sheltered in Your love-imbued embrace
Take all of mine, my Savior, make it Thine–
Small contributions to Your grand design
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