When Jesus predicted His death to the disciples (Matt. 16:21), it surprised them. The Messiah wasn’t supposed to die — especially at the hands of the pagan Roman empire. In another sense, however, it wasn’t all that surprising. Prophets like Jesus, Jeremiah, or John the Baptist often met with less than happy endings. In this case, it’s equally surprising that He pushed on toward Jerusalem. But such was the cost of discipleship.
Jesus understood well that His messianic work of establishing God’s kingdom entailed more than preaching and eating with unclean sinners. It included suffering and death, and, of course, vindication through resurrection. Upon these final acts, the whole battle hinged. If the creator God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, would have the effects of His kingdom bear on earth as they do in heaven, then His Messiah would have to shoulder the battle that would eventually end all battles.
Jesus therefore easily makes the connection from His suffering to ours, not because ours redeems anyone — as Monday’s daily study will note — but because He was fulfilling God’s plans through the cross, which began in the garden; therefore, we too must go His way. That is, if we want to belong to the new covenant community in this time when the Evil One continues to wage war, then we also must say no to our selfish desires, pick up our crosses, and follow Him.
This call so captured a young Lutheran pastor during the rise of the Nazi regime that he wrote in 1937 what is now the Christian classic The Cost of Discipleship. And Dietrich Bonhoeffer, like so many with a prophetic voice before and after him, paid the ultimate price for refusing to consider his Christianity, his following of Christ, as nothing less (but certainly more) than active protest against injustices — an undeniable facet of bringing God’s will to bear on earth. Jesus knew such sacrifice all too well (and His disciples would also learn this soon). He didn’t doubt for a second that the likes of Caiaphas, Herod, Pilate, and Caesar would cut Him down the first chance they got. His message challenged their little kingdoms by undermining their pathetic attempts to grasp for the kind of power that sets itself up against the throne of God.
Hitler’s Germany posed a threat to the world and a challenge to the Christian church. History sadly records how badly the established church in Germany did in facing that challenge. After the Reformation, Bonhoeffer argued, the church again cheapened the preaching of the forgiveness of sins, and this has seriously weakened her witness: “The price we are having to pay today in the shape of the collapse of the organized church is only the inevitable consequence of our policy of making grace available to all at too low a cost. We gave away the Word and sacraments wholesale, we baptized, confirmed, and absolved a whole nation without condition. Our humanitarian sentiment made us give that which was holy to the scornful and unbelieving…. But the call to follow Jesus in the narrow way was hardly ever heard.” Thus the collective consciousness of the country went on with business as usual, baking their bread, selling their goods, with a prison camp like Flossenbürg just a few miles outside of town.
It was in the Flossenbürg concentration camp, incidentally, that Bonhoeffer met his untimely death in April 1945, just as the American forces were approaching. The account is too gruesome to describe here. Suffice to say it was slow and painful. Thus Bonhoeffer understood well the difference between what he called costly grace and cheap grace: “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” Or, to put it even more clearly, it is to hear the Gospel preached as follows: “Of course you have sinned, but now everything is forgiven, so you can stay as you are and enjoy the consolations of forgiveness.” If the Gospel made no such demands for discipleship, then Bonhoeffer could and should have happily joined the ranks of the organized church in Germany. And we too can happily join the church in America at those precise points where it baptizes the injustices of its culture (like abortion, for instance).
Nazi Germany, however, is an easy target. Wading through the subtleties of idolatry and calling them out in America is another matter. Where do we begin? How do we avoid both extremes of baptizing anti-Christian culture or withdrawing to the point of quiet inaction? The cost of discipleship in these United States doesn’t seem all that costly. Or have we missed what it means to be a disciple? Consider again Jesus’ warning to us: “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 16:25). What good will it do for us to accumulate bigger, better, and more things and yet lose our lives?