Discipleship and the Church

Well, here we are at the final installment of our review of Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship, and once again, I find myself overwhelmed at the prospect of summarising it. This work is so rich, so steeped in the word of God, and so full of relevance for our church life and our individual walk as Christians...the only word that seems appropriate to describe it is exhilarating! It is an exhilarating read, although hard work for the brain, and I hope those of you who haven't dived into it yet will put it high on your list for 2014. After the Bible itself, of course. Because once again, the Christ-centric anchor point of Bonhoeffer's theology holds firm. In the final section of the book, he moves from looking at what discipleship meant for the first disciples, in their physical following of Jesus (based on texts from the Gospel narratives), to teasing out what that means for us in modern times. How do we experience the 'call' of Jesus? And what does He call us to do?

Bonhoeffer's answer to these questions is that the call of Jesus is to be heard now in the Church: in the ministry of Word and Sacrament. By sacrament, he is specifically referring to baptism and the Lord's Supper. This was a challenge to me. Bonhoeffer has a really high view of the sacraments and their importance in the life of the church, which was not quite in accord with my low Anglican background. Bonhoeffer talked about the Holy Spirit as the 'gift of baptism', whereas I always understood Him to be the gift of faith. Bonhoeffer gives heaps of bible references at every point, so there's plenty of scope for further investigation!  What he really emphasises, though, is the idea that, in baptism, the disciple dies with Christ, dies to sin and to the world and rises to new life in Christ. That is the cost of discipleship.

Bonhoeffer's high view of the sacraments is congruent with his high view of the Church itself. In fleshing this out (ha ha, no pun intended!), Bonhoeffer points us to the doctrine of the Body of Christ as it is articulated in Paul's letters. "Through his Spirit, the crucified and risen Lord exists as the Church..." It is in the form of the Church that we now have bodily fellowship with Christ. Thinking about that gives me a strange feeling about going to church tomorrow morning! It's a phrase I so often glibly employ, the body of Christ, but to really meditate on what that means... the people I meet tomorrow are the members of Christ himself; and my attitude towards them and my treatment of them, that is my treatment of Christ. And not just when I meet them at church, but in my dealings with my brothers and sisters at every point. "Everything the disciple does is part of the common life of the church of which he is a member."

The logical result of this high view of the church is also a serious view of the importance of sanctification in the life of the believer, and the holiness of the church, preserved in church discipline. In the midst of our individualistic society, the idea of church discipline is a hard word. I know I struggle with the idea of rebuking a fellow Christian, even when their sin is blatant. Am I holding the Body of Christ in high enough esteem when I just let it go?

There is so much more in this final section. I hope you have been as challenged as I have, and your vision of Christ enlarged. To Him be the glory...