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“The world is overcome not through destruction, but through reconciliation. Not ideals, nor programs, nor conscience, nor duty, nor responsibility, nor virtue, but only God’s perfect love can encounter reality and overcome it. Nor is it some universal idea of love, but rather the love of God in Jesus Christ, a love genuinely lived, that does this.”

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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“Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

What does it mean to call Dietrich Bonhoeffer an apocalyptic ethicist or theologian? Philip Ziegler, in his new important study on apocalytpic theology, Militant Grace: The Apocalyptic Turn and the Future of Christian Theology, contends against the grain that Bonhoeffer (=DB) was an apocalyptic ethicist.

Is Bonhoeffer’s moral theology apocalyptic? This question is unsettled from L front to back. The texts that constitute Bonhoeffer’s Ethics are unsteady though well-worked fragments of the actual theological ethics he hoped to write. More unsettled still is the meaning of “apocalyptic,” whose popular and scholarly valences are as many as they are divergent and contested. Even if one could steady the question, prospects for a positive answer appear remote. Readers of the Ethics have not been led to the idea of “apocalyptic”: quite the opposite. One possible exception here is Larry Rasmussen, who does associate Bonhoeffer with apocalyptic eschatology. Yet even he considers the association forced: turning to apocalyptic means diverging from Bonhoeffer, who was “almost immunized” against such an eschatological perspective by Lutheran confessional and German academic traditions, says Rasmussen.” [SMcK: Criticism of Rasmussen was clear on this very point.]

Undeterred in going against the grain of DB scholarship, which is formidable, Ziegler says,

I want to argue that in draft upon draft of his Ethics manuscript, Bonhoeffer is definitely working out a theological ethic whose intent is to conform to the contours of Paul’s apocalyptic gospel.

He is undeterred because of the rise of apocalyptic Pauline theology that fits more with Barthianism (and some would say is Barthianism) and therefore with DB.

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“The more deeply we grow into the psalms and the more often we pray them as our own, the more simple and rich will our prayer become.”  

Dietrich BonhoefferLife Together50.

by Richard Beck

One of my favorite parts of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life is the spiritual transformation he underwent in the early 30s. Prior to these years, Bonhoeffer had mainly pursued theological studies as an academic, intellectual endeavor. The Bonhoeffer family was Christian, but they weren’t particularly devout by way of church attendance or personal devotion.

And while it may be strange to think of someone pursuing theology in a purely academic way, just attend AAR/SBL. Theologians and biblical scholars who have no faith in God are a dime a dozen.

That was Bonhoeffer before the early 30s. But then something happened to him. As Eberhard Bethge describes it, the theologian became a Christian.

What caused the change? Bonhoeffer’s time in America seemed to have played an important part. Bonhoeffer spent a post-doctoral year in 1930 studying in New York at Union Theological. During that time, two critical things happened.

First, Bonhoeffer was exposed to the black church. During his year in New York, Bonhoeffer attended and taught Sunday School at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.

Second, through his relationship with the Frenchmen Jean Lasserre, who was also studying at Union, Bonhoeffer was exposed to the Sermon on the Mount as the Word of God. Prior to this time, Bonhoeffer had used his Lutheran theology to keep the Sermon on the Mount in a box. But after 1930, Bonhoeffer began to see the Sermon at a command to be obeyed.

And beyond his experiences in America, I also think Bonhoeffer’s pastoral work with churches, like his confirmation class in the Wedding parish, also had a profound impact upon his faith.

All these experiences changed Bonhoeffer profoundly. Dietrich Bonhoeffer became a Christian. Here’s how his best friend Eberhard Bethge describes the change:

He now went regularly to church…Also he engaged in systematic meditation on the Bible that was obviously very different from exegetic or homiletic use of it…He spoke of oral confession no longer merely theologically, but as an act to be carried out in practice. In his Lutheran ecclesiastical and academic environment this was unheard of. He talked more and more often of a community life of obedience and prayer…More and more frequently he quoted the Sermon on the Mount as a word to be acted on, not merely used as a mirror.

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“…the psalms teach us to pray as a fellowship. The Body of Christ is praying, and as an individual one acknowledges that his prayer is only a minute fragment of the whole prayer of the Church. He learns to pray the prayer of the Body of Christ. and that lifts him above his personal concerns and allows him to pray selflessly.”  

Dietrich BonhoefferLife Together48-49.

RICK BROWN: Walk out what you’ve just talked about

June 12, 2018

Rick Brown Photo: Courtesy / Copyright 2017 Taylor Brown. All rights reserved.

Photo: Courtesy

Rick Brown

Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood biblical fellowship. Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who lived from 1906-1945. When Hitler rose to power he could see no German-Christian compromise with him. His resistance and his part in a failed assassination attempt on Hitler landed him in prison. He was executed by hanging on April 9, 1945, just weeks before the end of World War II. While in prison he wrote two classics: The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together. Listen to what he has to say about koinonia in his book Life Together:

“Christian community is like the Christian’s sanctification. It is a gift of God which we cannot claim. Only God knows the real state of our fellowship, of our sanctification. What may appear weak and trifling to us may be great and glorious to God. Just as the Christian should not be constantly feeling his spiritual pulse, so, too, the Christian community has not been given to us by God for us to be constantly taking its temperature. The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more surely and steadily will fellowship increase and grow from day to day as God pleases.”

Bonhoeffer reminds us that fellowship is a gift. We need to receive it thankfully. Often we don’t. We worry about whether we studied enough. We worry about whether we talked enough. We worry about whether we prayed enough.

But God does not. When we gather together in the fellowship of the breaking of bread, God smiles. He smiles when we are devoted to each other. Faithfulness is our part. Fruit is God’s. We don’t have to be taking its temperature constantly.

Then Bonhoeffer writes: “He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.” No community is going to live up to your dream of it. And whether you or I realize it, we ourselves will ruin that dream.

Here’s one final quote from Life Together: “Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us. This is true not merely at the beginning, as though in the course of time something else were to be added to our community; it remains so for all the future and to all eternity. I have community with others and I shall continue to have it only through Jesus Christ. The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us. We have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we do have one another, wholly, for eternity.”

Bonhoeffer reminds us that in Christian community Christ is the center.

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From Bryan: DB will continue to be a hero to all the flavors of Christianity…

Cheap resistance is like cheap grace. It risks very little.

June 7, 2018

image of police barrier

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In The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer distinguishes be­tween “cheap grace” and “costly grace.” Cheap grace requires nothing from us. Bonhoeffer describes it as “grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” We are not changed by cheap grace, and so it is not really from God. Costly grace, on the other hand, “is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.”

But costly grace is not just costly; it is also grace. “It is costly because it costs a man his life,” writes Bonhoeffer, “and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.” Bonhoeffer points us to the false dichotomy between preserving our lives and responding to the needs of the world. It is through costly grace that we receive our real lives.

In treacherous times, when powerful people and systems threaten us or others, we have to ask what God wants us to do—and we have to accept that doing it will cost us something. While there is a chance that the choices faith asks us to make will result in physical death, as it did for Bonhoeffer, the cost is likely to stop short of that. Choosing to do the right thing probably won’t make our hearts stop beating.

But what if it did? What would be worth that risk? If you are like most people, your list of people and ideals you’d be willing to die for is a very short one. Yet there’s something else we seem to be willing to risk our lives for: our fears. We allow fear to deprive us not of heartbeats and breaths, but of something even more precious: the fullness and beauty of a life lived well.

For those of us who believe that we rest in the hands of an eternal and ever-loving God, living a life full of fear is worse than dying. The great threat to Christian faith is not that we will not be safe from the world’s dangers but that we will be held captive by our fear of them—that we will have more faith in our fear than we have in Christ. This can be hard for North American Christians to understand, since we have rarely faced persecution. But the mission of the church is not to avoid causing a stir, nor to hold on to things that cannot save us. As Jesus says, to save your life you have to lose it.

Christians are not called to recklessness, but we are called to action.

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“One act of obedience is worth a hundred sermons.”

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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