The Call of Discipleship

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.


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