March 13

Bonhoeffer: The Cost of Discipleship

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 4: 1-11


When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die.

With these and similar sentences, Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke to his generation. His words still speak to us today.

Just how does he speak to us today? It is this question which will occupy our hearts and minds in the shared project of Lenten preaching, Marsh Chapel, 2011. In four Sundays we shall listen for the divine Word in Scripture, in History and in Life. First, as Bonhoeffer himself would advise, we shall carefully scour the Gospel for each Sunday. Then, second, we shall set that Gospel next to his own life and work. Third, and finally, we shall apply our listening to our thinking and doing here at Marsh Chapel, as we reach out from here to the world. Exegesis, Exposition, Application—an old sermonic design—rounded out with a preface (like this one) to begin and poem to end.

Why Bonhoeffer?

His threefold representation of liberal thought, devotion to Christ, and investment in culture radically draws us to him, given our commitments here at Marsh Chapel. That is, he sat at table and in seminar with Adolf von Harnack, arguably the most lasting historical and theological voice from liberal Protestantism. That is, his life and death, writing and teaching, poetry and prose exude a disciplined devotion to the Christ of God, perhaps unlike any other in our time. That is, his personal life, upbringing, family life, and spiritual development rode the high waves of the best of western culture—literature, art, music, philosophy, science, history and religion (much as he detested the word). A liberal theology, sternly devoted to Christ, given to the world: here is his legacy for us.


We could not begin at a better Scriptural doorway than with the Matthean account of the Temptation. As one has said, ‘The accounts illustrate Jesus’ habitual refusal to allow his sense of mission to be influenced by concern for his safety or for merely practical interests’ (OAE, 1174). Jesus fasts for forty days in the wilderness, according to this legend which Matthew and Luke share. The passages from Hebrew Scripture remind us that the Messiahship of Jesus is set in the history of God’s chosen people, Israel, and the sort of disputation read today was quite common among the rabbis of old. The temptations Jesus faces have been perennial temptations for the community of faith, and for the children of Israel. The devil appears here, in good apocalyptic fashion, and in a way similar to his roles in other texts of the time. Jesus resists the charms of wealth, power and fame. Rather, he says, quoting scripture: One does not live by bread alone. You shall not tempt the Lord your God. Serve God alone. We shall pass by the long consideration we might give these dominical sayings as they arise in a University setting, which is not at all foreign to interests in wealth, power and fame. One would not easily or lightly choose Matthew 4 for the seal or crest of a college or school. Many parents would not be averse to seeing tuition investments bear fruit in some earthly, even worldly wealth, power and fame. They compete rather favorably in our time with learning, virtue and piety. But we digress.

Of this passage, great minds and hearts have spoken of old:

R Bultmann: ‘Miracle as such never yields to criticism but…divine and demonic miracles are sufficiently alike to be mistaken for each other.’ (Bultmann HSR op cit). J Calvin: ‘He wished to share our battles with us’ (Calvin, Commtaries, op cit). R Williams: ‘Having bought truth dear, we must not sell it cheap, not the least grain of it for the whole world’ (Roger Williams, THE BLOUDY TENENT 1644).

In our tradition, we begin Lent with a long hard climb, up a high mountain, straight into the headwind of temptation. There is a cost in discipleship. There is discipline in discipleship.


Which brings us straightway to Bonhoeffer.

Some years ago a friend remembered hiking up a hill to his dormitory. He was a young man. In the mist, walking down toward him, there came an elderly man, walking slowly with the weight of years and age. They nodded to one another as they passed. At the top of the hill my friend looked back down expecting to see the older one on the path. He had vanished. My friend had the deep sense, the strange mysterious sense, that he had passed himself, his old self, his later, soon to die self, walking by.

I thought of his vision, re-reading this week my own first reading of The Cost of Discipleship many decades ago.

An early reading of The Cost of Discipleship from thirty five years ago caused the following notations. I call on us, both the congregation present and the congregation afar, to listen with care to these choice and chosen sentences from Bonhoeffer’s most famous work. We shall introduce him this Sunday by his words alone, and next Sunday through the voice of his biography, his life. I want us to know his voice.

Bonhoeffer reminds us of the Call of Christ:

If they follow Jesus men escape from the hard yoke of their own laws, and submit to the kindly yoke of Jesus Christ. 8
In the modern world it seems so difficult to walk with absolute certainty in the narrow way of ecclesiastical decision and yet remain in the broad open spaces of the universal love of Christ, of the patience, mercy and ‘philanthropy’ of God (Titus 3:4) for the weak and ungodly. Yet somehow or other we must combine the two, or else we shall follow the paths of men. 9
We hear the words of One who is on his way to the cross, whose whole life is summed up in the Apostles’ Creed by the word ‘suffered’. No man can choose such a life for himself. 65
His word…is the recreation of the whole life of man. 67
The road to faith passes through obedience to the call of Jesus…If we are to believe we must obey a concrete command. Without this preliminary step of obedience our faith will only be pious humbug and lead us to the grace which is not costly. Everything depends upon the first step. It has a unique quality of its own…Only he who obeys can believe…You can only learn what obedience is by obeying. 86

Bonhoeffer places us before the Cross of Christ:

The cross means sharing the suffering of Christ to the last and to the fullest…When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die. 102
For God is a God who bears. The Son of God bore our flesh, he bore the cross, he bore our sins, thus making atonement for us.
Discipleship is not limited to what you can comprehend. 103
(Christians):When reproached they hold their peace; when treated with violence they endure it patiently; when men drive them from their presence they yield their ground…His disciples keep the peace by choosing to endure suffering
themselves rather than inflict it on others….Not recognition but rejection is the reward they get from the world for their message and works. 127

The Incarnation is the ultimate reason why the service of God cannot be divorced from the service of man. 145
The cross is God’s truth about us, and therefore it is the only power which can make us truthful…When a Christian meets with injustice he no longer clings to his rights and defends them at all costs. He is absolutely free from possessions and bound to Christ alone…The Christian affirms his absolute adherence to Jesus and his freedom from the tyranny of his own ego. The precept of non-violence applies equally to private life and official duty. 159
Love is defined in uncompromising terms as the love of our enemies…The only way to overcome our enemy is by loving him… God loves his enemies…
If there is no element of asceticism in our lives, if we give free rein to the desires of the flesh, we shall find it hard to train for the service of Christ. Discipleship means estrangement from the world. When all is said and done the life of faith is nothing if not an unending struggle of the spirit with every available weapon against the flesh. 188
Earthly goods are given to be used, not to be collected. 200
The disciples of Christ are to love unconditionally. Christian love sees the fellow man under the Cross and therefore sees him clearly.
Every attempt to impose the gospel by force…is both futile and dangerous…Our easy trafficking with the word of cheap grace simply bores the world to disgust…The Word is weaker than any ideology, and this means that with only the gospel at their command the witnesses are weaker than the propagandists of an opinion…209
The disciples are few in number and will always be few…Never let a disciple of Jesus pin his hopes on large numbers. 211

Bonhoeffer shows us the Narrow Way:

To be called to a life of extraordinary quality, to live up to it, and yet to be unconscious of it is indeed a narrow way. To confess and testify to the truth as it is in Jesus, and at the same time to love the enemies of that truth, his enemies and ours, and to love them with the infinite love of Jesus Christ is indeed a narrow way. To believe the promise of Jesus that his followers shall possess the earth, and at the same time to face our enemies unarmed and defenceless, preferring to incur injustice rather than to do wrong ourselves is indeed a narrow way. To see the weakness and wrong in others, and at the same time refrain from judging them; to deliver the gospel message without casting pearls before swine, is indeed a narrow way. The way is unutterably hard, and at every moment we are in danger of straying from it.

Sanctification will be maintained by their being clearly separated from the world…by their walking in a way which is worthy of the holiness of God …(and) will be hidden, and they must wait for the day of Jesus Christ. 314

Christ took upon himself this human form of ours. He became Man even as we are men. In his humanity and his lowliness we recognize our own form. He has become like a man so that men should be like him. And in the Incarnation the whole human race recovers the dignity of the image of God. Henceforth any attack even on the least of men is an attack on Christ. 341


I learned midway through the first semester at Union Theological Seminary that my roommate and I were sharing the room once inhabited by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Carlyle Marney famously asked, ‘Who told you who you was?’ His words continue to shape many of us, telling us again, as they did in this annotated first reading thirty years ago, who we are meant to be. During Lent 2011 we shall endeavor to listen and learn from this example and his writing.

A third voice enters our sermon here. His is the voice of the first Dean of Marsh Chapel, Dr Franklin H. Littell, about whom a full sermon was preached here in October of 2009. (You may hear his 2006 STH commencement sermon on our website). I shall not repeat his substantial biography, except to remind you that he was, among many other things, the Father of Holocaust studies in this country, through his work here, in Chicago, at Temple University and elsewhere. As we this Lent listen for the gospel in the study of Scripture and in the life and words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we shall rely on Littell to guide us a bit in our application of such exegesis and exposition. His biting statements in The Crucifixion of the Jews: The Failure of Christians to Understand the Jewish Experience (1975) give us plenty of caution as we seek to apply all this to our common life. In sum, he reminds us that there were very Bonhoeffers and we Christians would do well not to hide behind their very few skirts.

The German Church Struggle, 1933-45, and parallel conflicts between Christian minorities and totalitarian rule in the Netherlands, Norway, Austria, Denmark, and France has as yet scarcely entered into the thought of the planning committees for church school literature. Perhaps this is just as well for the moment, for misuse and misinterpretation of that encounter would be worse than neglect. When the martyrs and confessors of the Church Struggle are held up to honor without considering at the same time the failure of the churches in the matter of the Holocaust, a spirit of boasting can easily drown out any mood of repentance which might turn us around.

As Arthur Cohcrane pointed out in his classic on the Barmen Synod and Confession of Faith, the Church Struggle was ‘the struggle of the church against the church for the church’. This point cannot be made too often, for the cheap and easy view of the Church Struggle is that it was like the persecutions of old in which martyrs and confessors stood to death against heathenism. And now the purveyors of cheap grace are beginning to use the faithfulness of a few Christians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer to boast of the church’s record of courage in the face of the spiritual enemy! The truth is that the Church Struggle was fought out within the institutions themselves, not between insiders and outsiders, that most church constituents apostasized and only a small percentage remained faithful, and that most of the theological and ecclesiastical crises which surfaced during this time of trial are yet unresolved…To remember the Church Struggle of an earlier day is painful. The record of most theologians and churchmen, in England and America as well as in the Third Reich, was confused and weak where not outright wicked…Few indeed were the martyrs and confessors, and their meritorious conduct does not save the rest of us from the need for self-appraisal and repentance and correcting our false teaching and wrongdoing…44


We shall continue along the narrow Lenten path. We scour the Scripture of the day to hear and overhear the Gospel. This year we set that Gospel alongside the words and life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. We shall endeavor to apply the Gospel and his life to the Gospel in our own. To conclude, a friend has offered me the reminder of this fine poem about Bonhoeffer from our own former colleague Geoffrey Hill, titled Chr
istmas Trees

Bonhoeffer in his skylit cell
bleached by the flares’ candescent fall,
pacing out his own citadel,

restores the broken themes of praise,
encourages our borrowed days,
by logic of his sacrifice.

Against the wild reasons of the state
his words are quiet but not too quiet.
We hear too late or not too late.

~ The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel

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