Archive for August, 2012

The Call of Discipleship

Posted in Uncategorized on August 27, 2012 by yhcreligiouslife

As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him. (Mark 2:14)

Following Bonheoffer’s argument in his Cost of Discipleship, last week’s iChapel focused on why we even need to follow. This week, Bonheoffer’s redirects attention away from why we must follow, considering instead the instigation and character of that call to follow. That instigation and character may be summarized in three words: grace, action, and people.

Drawing from his reflection on Jesus’ call to Levi recorded in the above verse from Mark’s gospel, Bonheoffer outlines the anatomy of the life of discipleship. First, the call to the life of discipleship, while including our response, is always primarily a commentary on the character of God as one who initiates efforts to share life with us. The life of discipleship is a life in response, but a life in response is necessarily secondary and subsequent to an elementary and prior willingness to call. God calls but does not have to. And, the willingness to supply the call creates a hitherto absent opportunity, generating a space for response with boundaries defined and maintained by grace. In this way, Bonheoffer wishes to remind us that the life of faith within the church is always conditioned by God’s gracious character, a graciousness that generates and sustains everything.

Second, Bonheoffer notes the rather stark and simple grammar of the narrative governing Levi’s call and response. Levi, according to the text, hears and then follows. There does not seem to be an intellectual consideration of Jesus’ offer and little, if any, time elapse between offering, hearing, and responding. Bonheoffer suggests that this simplicity is meant to convey the nature of discipleship. Discipleship is defined less by belief and intellectual accent than by obedience and material, real consequential action. Given the doctrinal assumption that Jesus is the same Word of God that created at the dawn of existence, then the words spoken by Jesus deliver the same creative force, generating from the old life a new one. The call, as suggested above, creates a new space, in this case, a new space that offers a new existence. Such an existence, it seems, fills the vacuum of the new space with the lives of those who encounter the transformative and creative world of possibilities embodied in Jesus and manifest in the living expression of new creation experienced in those that follow.

Third, while the call to discipleship is both a commentary on the gracious character of God and a witness to the re-creative material response embodied in those that follow, the call is, also, by necessity an event that does not occur in isolation. The call is a call from one to another. In other words, the call of discipleship is not an objective description of an intellectual and theological proposition but a subjective description of a personal proposition to connect extended from one person to another. Disciples follow not because the right argument was made but because the person calling is known, seeks to be known, and longs to know us. Discipleship, it turns out, does supply a kind of knowledge, it own kind of rationale. Yet, that knowledge is not abstract and deduced but discovered through encounter, experience, and relationships. It is a relational knowledge, the kind of knowledge more akin to wisdom than the kind of knowledge descriptive of deductive rationality. That is, Levi seems to follow not because Jesus persuaded him to go but because Levi wants to know intimately and directly the divine logos, conferring knowledge gained not through apprehension but direct embrace.

As he formulates the architecture of a life of discipleship, Bonheoffer has begun subtly to draft a model for faithful living that seeks to replace the structure of fall with the structure of salvation. Formed around taking, complacency, and isolation, the grammar of the fall story describes a world in which we act out of self-interest rather than gracious self-offering and -receiving. It describes a world in which we repeat the claim to know what is good and proper through our own abstracted, intellectual determinations rather than disciplined submission to the tutelage of an external master. It describes a world in which we seek to make our way and our claims on our own rather than risking life in community and discovering the deepening possibilities accompanying trust and connection.

In the end, Bonheoffer concludes that the life of discipleship most likely will cause suffering because the follower will be asked to break away from what is known and enter into a life defined more by resistance than by acceptance. Also, he surmises that the life of discipleship will most likely require a violation of the conventionalities and social expectations that govern our daily lives because discipleship leads to a different way of seeing the world and living into the new possibilities for a new world, leading disciples with the distinct possibility of standing outside the comfort and conformity of a conventional, status quo existence. Finally, Bonheoffer notes that discipleship demands obedience and that such obedience requires our willful setting aside our own agendas and expectations to brace possibilities and necessities beyond ourselves and created on divine terms and not our own.

Bonheoffer’s description of the call to discipleship and the potential consequences of a life lived in response to such a call, once again, are brought into sharper focus when remembered that he offered his description to his congregations and pastors endeavoring to live faithfully under the weight of Nazi Germany. For Bonheoffer, the assertion that a life of discipleship assumes a call from an old way into a new and demands a kind of knowledge more akin to obedient faithfulness than abstract, objective reasoning were not just amusing distractions to entertain the theologian’s mind but were assertions bearing the stains of his personal experience. Moreover, his assumption that such a life of discipleship might lead to suffering, norm and law breaking, and responding to plans and agendas larger than our own are not descriptions of possibilities but accounts of his lived actualities.

As before, our own call to discipleship—when contrasted with Bonheoffer’s—might seem trivial and facile given that our greatest sacrifices for our faith entail deciding on whether to sleep-in or get up in time to gather for worship at one of the dozens of houses of worship near our homes. Yet, like last week, Bonheoffer’s words provide a way to open our eyes to our own complacency, recognizing that the call might serve as a dislodging tremor meant to move us outside of comfort to the margins, voluntarily identifying with those who do suffer because of faith, whether that faith is the same as ours or not. Think of how powerful the witness is of those Christian communities who, because of faithfulness to their own traditions and not despite those traditions, stood beside members of mosques and temples as a sign of mutual solidarity in the face of expressions of hatred and bigotry. Or, consider those faithful disciples who in response to their faith find themselves willfully moving from the middle to the edge and siding with our communities’ marginalized, vulnerable members, members marginalized and made vulnerable because they do not conform to our society’s often arbitrarily drawn societal norms. Or recall those faithful witnesses among us who resist the assertion that our lives are meant to be lived, experience, and judged successful only to the degree to which we do it—whatever “it” is—on our own or avoid showing weakness and dependence on others.

As Bonheoffer needs his readers to come to see, the life of discipleship entails our being called out from ourselves, from our own self-indulgences and toward a life of wiser, clearer vision to see the world as God sees it and to learn to live into the real, shared possibilities of that world.

But, for this to happen, we must, always, first remember that discipleship is not a choice but a compulsive response to a gracious call initiated by another that opens a whole new world to us, a world defined not by our limitations but by God’s (re)creative reality.

Now, that, I think, is good news.


Costly Grace

Posted in Uncategorized on August 20, 2012 by yhcreligiouslife

The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. (43)

As Bonheoffer begins his account of discipleship, i.e., the habit of following, he does so not by examining who we are to follow or where we are going but by considering why we need to follow in the first place. He does this by contrasting to opposites, cheap and costly grace. Cheap grace, Bonheoffer concludes, is that grace that demands no transformation, while costly grace requires complete transformation.

Let me explain.

Grace, as a Christian theological category, is the assertion that we all receive something we do not deserve and have not earned. It is not a costless something. It is merely a something someone else has purchased on our behalf. Like a birthday gift, we receive the gift not because we have earned a present. Rather, we receive a gift as a prize for simply being born, a feat we did not initiate nor had any say in its achievement. Yet, despite our lack of personal initiation or achievement, we are rewarded anyway. A good gift given to us is given to us freely but was not acquired freely. That birthday gift was acquired/made/found through someone else’s initiation and offered through someone else’s desire that we have it. As a theological idea, grace is that something that unites us with God, merging the holy with the mundane, the divine with the human. It is a merger, as classical Christian theology tells us, achieved through God’s instigation and not ours and through God’s desire to share life with us and not out of a necessity for us to be so united. Said another way, grace is a claim about the character of God and not about humanity.

That’s grace briefly explained. Now, we should move to consider what constitutes the costliness or the cheapness of grace, as Bonheoffer sees it. And, having considered grace, we will be able to link this conversation about grace with a consideration about discipleship.

For Bonheoffer, the distinction between grace that is costly or cheap occurs not because one type of grace has a certain set of elements and the other set another. Rather, the two graces are distinguished by their divergent foci. Costly grace is a claim about us while cheap grace is a claim about what we do. Or to put it another way, costly grace is a description of how we exist in relationship to God while cheap grace is a description of how our actions exist in relationship to God. The consequence is that a focus on us means we desire to change how we live in the world so as not to drive a wedge between ourselves and God while a focus on our actions means a lack of desire to change how we live in the world because all our actions, holy or profane, have been preemptively justified or rendered holy.

Given the circumstances in which Bonheoffer found himself in 1930s Germany and the role most churches assumed as willing justifiers of Nazi atrocities, his response is not surprising. His repulsion at the idea that the Christian faith had at its heart a notion that all actions are holy once under the banner of God’s infinite grace moves from the realm of abstract theological ponderings by an academic into the soul-rending and consequential reality of a pastor. If God’s grace simply justifies all our actions in the world, regardless of those actions’ conformity to or protestation against the powers-that-be, then Bonheoffer needs either a new God or an alternative accounting of grace.

He chose the latter.

Bonheoffer begins his declaration of discipleship as a consideration of grace because he first needs to distance himself from any notion that grace is complacent about the world in which we live and to provide the underlying necessity that grace—as the very heart of the gospel—demands our lives take a new trajectory. Such trajectories, it turns out, require someone to follow and a complete and total commitment of those followers . . . but I am getting ahead of myself.

Bonheoffer’s experience while seemingly worlds away and decades removed remains all too close and contemporary. Transformation of ourselves and participation in the good life, the holy life seem all too easy these days.

Think about how easy our world tries to tell us life is. We are told that adequate participation in social networking may be achieved through binary code and electrical impulses rather than turning off something electronic and sharing a meal with each other. We are told that good relationships are the product of finding a perfect, “destined” match rather than the result of hard work and shared sacrifice. We are told that adequate participation in elections includes using the same parts of our brains that we use to decide between Ruffles or Doritos. We are told that adequate participation in the sacrifices of war include our patriotically shopping at the mall. We are told that the gospel is somehow equated to offering blessings to God in order to receive our own material blessings as some sort of divine quid pro quo. We are told that adequate participation in protecting the biblical model of the family may be achieved without even considering actual models of the family found in scripture.

Hearing the world’s facile mantras, Bonheoffer’s complaints prove all too real a cautionary and prophetic tale.

If the world is to become a place more reflective of the one we want and see as embodying the beloved community of grace called the kingdom of God, then the emphasis need not be placed on the ease of the achievement but on the difficulty of the task achieved through an intentional gift of life lived, endured, and enjoyed together.

Such a life, such a world requires real, personal, corporate, and material change.

Only in a world of shared and individual sacrifice, of personal transformation and social reformation may grace been seen as a liberating gift and not an excuse to do as we have done and claim that status quo is good enough.

In the Beginning

Posted in Uncategorized on August 14, 2012 by yhcreligiouslife

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

—John 13:34-35


Welcome back to YHC for another year of learning, exploration, and life together.  As each year begins and students return to the Valley, we return to a weekly campus custom of the iChapel.  The iChapel is a weekly reflection sent out to the entire campus on a theme both relevant to that week’s chapel service and to the academic calendar.  This year through my iChapels, I will be exploring the idea of discipleship.  To concentrate this exploration, I will engage with a conversation partner.  That partner is Dietrich Bonheoffer.  More specifically, I will be engaging Bonheoffer through his work The Cost of Discipleship.   


Born in 1906 to a comfortable existence into a highly educated and prominent German family, Bonheoffer study theology and was ordained a minister in the German national (Lutheran) church.  Having completed two doctorates, he began a promising pastoral and academic career.  Soon, Bonheoffer found himself pressed outside of the contented, influential position afforded by his upbringing, as the Nazi regime enveloped the state church’s teachings with their political ideology.  Rejecting such a co-opting, Bonheoffer lost his sanctioned pastoral and teaching positions, assuming a central role in the emerging Confessing Church.  The Confessing Church sought to distinguish the role of the church from the role of the state, focusing on the headship of God over national authority.  In the midst of this ecclesial turmoil and escalating political tension, Bonheoffer penned his now famous work Nachfolge (or The Cost of Discipleship), a broad and critical reflection on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and our role as those who choose to follow.


“Following,” that is what is at the heart of discipleship.  The word “disciple” means “a follower.”  Of course, in discovering this fact, at least two questions issue:  (1) Whom do we follow, and (2) how do we follow?


Over the next academic year together, we will journey with Bonheoffer through this exploration, engaging these questions and pausing occasionally to reflect on what Bonheoffer might be saying not just to his German congregations but, also, to us.  Importantly, while Bonheoffer was speaking to a particular people within a particular time and of a particular faith, some of his reflections offer much broader implications for people of different times, different faiths, and different convictions.  I will try to explore those implications, too.  In the end, like Bonheoffer, our goal in the religious community of YHC is to get to the heart of the matter, stripping away excess and encumbrances, finding clarity and purpose for ourselves, this college, and the world.


Throughout this year, if we are able to achieve just a small portion of this task, we will have made significant strides, both personally and institutionally. 


So, enjoy the first days of the academic year and enjoy the anticipation of the faith-filled and faithful journey we are about to undertake.  Like most good journeys, it will not always be an easy one.  Yet, like most good journeys—to borrow verbiage from another of Bonheoffer’s works, it is better experienced as a life together.


See you around campus.  See you along the way.