Wednesday, March 01, 2006

An Introduction

Just getting started, this first day of Lent, with my Lenten reading, The Cost of Discipleship (Nachfolge, auf Deutsch) by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. (And yes, I am reading it in translation — even when I lived in Wiesbaden my German was never up to this.) Just to start off, I think that there are a couple of points to consider.

Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor and theologian in Germany between the two World Wars. Then, as well as now, both the Lutheran and Catholic Churches recieve the bulk of the so called church tax collected by the state. Bonhoeffer was dealing with an established church facing Hitler. In 1933, the Nazi government started to alter or combine many institutions, in order to take control of them. One of them was the so-called Protestant Reich Church, which was intended to swallow up all non-Catholic Christians. (The Nazi Party was always much more explicitly anti-Catholic, but many Nazi's tried to keep their ties to churches where they could, if these churches could be cleansed of so-called "foreign" or "non-ayran" elements.) Bonhoeffer was a leader in the Confessing Church movement, that attempted to keep an independent Protestant church alive in Germany. As I will bring up some other time, his oppostion to the Nazism took other forms as well. But it is true that the issue of how a Christian could work out the sometimes competing calls of Scripture and the institutional church, especially an established one. His answer was radical discipleship:

When the Bible speaks of following Jesus, it is proclaiming a discipleship which will liberate mankind from man-made dogmas, from every burden and opression, from every anxiety and torture that afflicts the conscience. If they follow Jesus, men escape from the hard yoke of their own laws, and submit to the kindly yoke of Jesus Christ. But does this mean that we ignore the seriousness of the demands? Far from it. We can only achieve perfect liberty and enjoy fellowship with Jesus when his command, his call to absolute discipleship, is appreciated in its entirety. Only the man who follows the command of Jesus single-mindedly, and unresistingly lets his yoke rest upon him, finds his burden easy, and under its gentle pressure receives the power to persevere in the right way. The command of Jesus is hard, unutterably hard, to those who try to resist it. But for those who willingly submit, the yoke is easy and the burden is light. "His commandments are not grievous" (1 John 5:3). The commandment of Jesus is not some sort of spiritual shock treatment. Jesus asks nothing of us whithout giving us the strength to perform it. His commandment never seeks to destroy life, but to foster, strengthen, and heal it.
The nature of true discipleship is a fundamental topic of this book, which makes it perfect for Lent, when we try to return to a closer relationship with Jesus.

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