Discipleship and the Cross

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’ (Mark 8:31-38)

Over the last few weeks in our exploration of discipleship through the thoughts of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we have considered the need to follow, the nature of following, and the means necessary to follow. This week, our attention turns toward the effects of following, i.e., sacrificial suffering.

Framing Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on discipleship’s sacrificial suffering is the above passage from Mark’s gospel. In that passage, the gospel writer considers the consequences to Jesus’ own life of faithful following, a life that resulted in rejection and suffering. Importantly, Bonhoeffer notes that this suffering is not necessary. That is to say, God did not require Jesus nor does God require disciples to suffer. Rather, suffering seems to be an inevitable effect of faithfulness that puts a disciple on a course, more often than not, running counter to the prevailing attitudes and actions of the larger world. Underscoring this point, Bonhoeffer notes how the text from Mark offers the disciple the free opportunity to cease following, meaning that discipleship is not a journey of obligation but a chosen path that has both costly consequences and transformative benefits. Narrated through the liberating phrase issuing from Jesus’ lips that “‘If any want to become my followers”—an open and voluntary offer, we learn from the interaction between Jesus and Peter. The exchange between them serves as a template for this freely chosen life of discipleship and the potential, consequential suffering that discipleship might require.

Just before this conversation, here, in Mark’s gospel, Peter is the only disciple to recognize and declare the Jesus is the long-awaited messiah. It is in this immediate context of faithful confession that Jesus and Peter have a second interaction that results in Peter’s going from hailed witness to denounced tempter. Peter serves the role of tempter, offering Jesus an alternative and less costly path just as the figure of Satan had done in the wilderness several chapters earlier. In other words, through this interaction between Jesus and Peter, Bonhoeffer reminds us that discipleship is not a necessary road but a chosen one and that such a choice is filled with alternatives and opportunities. Those alternatives and opportunities lead to the consequential road that discipleship might bring. These alternative opportunities never leave but serve a tempering function, potentially strengthening the faith of the one who regularly and intentionally chooses to follow.

And, this free decision to follow generates, in Bonhoeffer’s estimation, two possible types of suffering: (1) abandonment and (2) communal sharing.

Again, the suffering of discipleship is not a necessary part but seemingly the inevitable consequence of moving against the grain of the world around us. These two types of suffering that Bonhoeffer identifies outline this resultant fact. First, we suffer the pain of abandonment, abandoning one way of life for another and potentially severing personal relationships, suffering social rejection or marginalization, and—as in Bonhoeffer’s extreme case—even political persecution. Most of us will never experience the extreme case that Bonhoeffer and others like him endured because of their decisions to continue to follow despite the finality of their decisions. But, many of us will experience the more personal and social consequences, finding ourselves leaving one life and that life’s relationships and plans to endure the pain cause by such severing and abandoning. With one opportunity accepted, others opportunities will inevitably be denied. And, such choices can result in pain and discomfort. Bonhoeffer is simply reminding us that the life of discipleship is not without consequence, is not without some degree of suffering.

Second, similar to the first kind of suffering characteristic of discipleship, the next form of suffering is also relational in nature. Discipleship, as mentioned in previous weeks, is always a relational category, a category defined by one who calls and those who respond. Discipleship is never experienced in isolation but is enjoyed and must be experienced in community. That means that in giving up one set of relationships belonging to an old life we discover the new life brings with it new relationships. Such relationships, like all relationships require personal sacrifice and adjustment in order to be created, maintained, and strengthened. Making room in ourselves for others can be painful and may certainly be self-sacrificial. Equally, once we find ourselves in relationships with others, those relational ties will enable and expect us to bear the pain and suffering of others, dividing the burdens of our fellow travelers around the community.

For Bonhoeffer, the horizon of his communities’ shared suffering and personal sacrifices and relational severing was much closer than many of us will ever experience. He saw, daily, the material and social and personal costs that discipleship caused. Yet, he was encouraged to continue to follow because of his conviction that the shared suffering was a liberating—that is, “freely” chosen—suffering, a suffering that produced a liberated community dedicated to such deep mutual care and support that the very Kingdom of God may be experienced and witnessed in the present and to the world. For Bonhoeffer and the gospel writers, the Kingdom of God is always a relational expression of how our lives are meant to be lived and shared. Again, such suffering is not necessary but potentially inevitable when we consider the nature of the world in which we live, a world that seems more interested in personal achievement than share sacrifice, more interested in “what’s in it for me” than what’s in it for us, more interested in identifying what we are obligated to give and do rather than what we are able to give and do. Or, to put it as the writer of Luke did for once “Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you’ (Luke 17:20-21).

How about that . . . the Kingdom of God is found among us.

As I think of all that has been given me and all that others have offered to make me who I am and to provide this life that I enjoy and others do, too, this share life, despite its consequences and seemingly because of them, turns out to sound like pretty good news to me. And, after all, isn’t that the very essence of the gospel of the incarnation, a declaration that we are not alone nor meant to be alone, no matter the consequences, no matter the suffering required.

Now that is a journey worth the sacrifice and one I am willing to share in taking.

Have a great week and see you along the journey.

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