My favorite chapter in all of Bonhoeffer’s CoD is chapter 4, entitled “Discipleship and the Cross.” It is my favorite for a multitude of reasons but perhaps, sadly, because it cuts across the grain of so much of the “Christianity” of contemporary America and clings solely to the cross of Christ. It is at once an wonderful and sobering piece…one to be read and re-read numerous times. Throughout this chapter I constantly find myself nodding and saying silently, “Yes…yes.”
Jesus says explicitly on more than one occasion that to follow him is to encounter suffering. Conveniently, we tend to omit those passages in our preaching and teaching, at least in Evangelical circles. Bonhoeffer will not let us off that easy, surprise, surprise. He begins the chapter by discussing the scandal of the suffering Messiah in the eyes of the Jews of Jesus’ day, among the Twelve, and in the early church herself. Again and again, though, Jesus said he must suffer, must be humiliated, and must die. There was no evading the issue for him, and for Bonhoeffer, there is no escaping suffering, humiliation, and death for Jesus’ followers.
Just as Christ is Christ only in the virtue of his suffering and rejection, so the disciple is a disciple only in so far as he shares his Lord’s suffering and rejection and crucifixion.
Those words, dear readers, are not the way to secure oneself a spot on the bestseller list these days, but they are words of truth! The whole of the Christian life is following in the steps of our Savior, which necessarily brings with it suffering, rejection, and death. Denying ourselves and taking up our crosses is more than an empty cliche, it is the essence of what it means to be Christ-followers. “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
We mustn’t think, however, that Jesus’ words lead us to lives of morbidity, despair, self-deprecation and the like. Though his call may sound this way on the surface, we must not forget that our call is not primarily to suffer but to follow, and as followers we are not primarily concerned not with setting our eyes and hearts on our circumstances but upon the one whom we are following. In simpler terms, we focus not on our cross but on his cross; not on our pain but on his passion; not our works but on his work. “If in the end we know only him, if we have ceased to notice the pain of our own cross, we are indeed looking only to him.”
Unfortunately, our Christianity today is all too often concerned with success, glamor, becoming a better you, being purpose-driven, or some other cross-less fad. Bonhoeffer’s words were again prophetic in describing the sorry state of contemporary Evangelicalism when he writes:
If our Christianity has ceased to be serious about discipleship, if we have watered down the gospel into emotional uplift which makes no costly demands and which fails to distinguish between natural and Christian existence, then we cannot help regarding the cross as an ordinary calamity, as one of the trials and tribulations of life. We have then forgotten that the cross means rejection and shame as well as suffering. The Psalmist was lamenting that he was despised and rejected of men, and that is an essential quality of the suffering of the cross. But this notion has ceased to be intelligible to a Christianity which can no longer see any difference between an ordinary human life and a life committed to Christ.
In other words, when our worship becomes little more than a pep rally and our lives no different than those with no faith, our Christianity has ceased to be what it claims.
Kyrie eleison; Christe eleison; Kyrie eleison.
Κύριε ἐλέησον, Χριστὲ ἐλέησον, Κύριε ἐλέησον.
Lord have mercy; Christ have mercy; Lord have mercy.