Bonhoeffer & Costly Discipleship

Sunday 5th February 2006
Year B, The Forth Sunday before Lent
St. George's, Hurstpierpoint
Holy Eucharist
Isaiah 40:21-31
Mark 1:29-39

Yesterday was the 100th Anniversary of the birth of Friedrich Bonhoeffer. He is known to most people as the Lutheran Pastor who was executed by the Nazis just before the end of the Second World War; but not many people know why he was executed.

True, he had never hidden his opposition to the Nazis and had refused to go along with most of his church which did not simply assent in silence to what was going on but actually collaborated; and he set up what he called the Affirming Church with its ringing Barmen Declaration, affirming sacred over secular values. That would have been quite enough to get him into trouble with the authorities; but the reason for his imprisonment and execution was that he was involved in the resistance movement which planned the assassination attempt on Hitler's life which failed in July 1944. So perhaps the first thing I should say is that there is not much point reading his carefully crafted letters from prison without a detailed biographical commentary; only at the very end, near to death, does Bonhoeffer stop concerning himself with German resistance, turning at the last to preparation for his own death.

The restless Bonhoeffer, the advocate of costly discipleship, the scourge of those who believed in what he called "Cheap Grace", would have liked today's Gospel. Here we are, less than 30 verses into the Gospel and Mark has already summed up the mission of Jesus, described His baptism by John and drawn a sound, Trinitarian conclusion. Jesus has already been tempted in the wilderness, chosen some of His disciples, preached in the Synagogue and cast out a demon.

In this morning's 10 verses the pace does not slacken. Jesus cures Peter's mother-in-law and innumerable people of physical and mental distress and he plans a campaign outside Capernaum where he has set up house; and, in the midst of all this activity, Jesus goes out early and prays. Bonhoeffer liked the combination of prayer and action; but perhaps what I like about him most is that during his time in prison one of his main concerns was getting enough tobacco; similarly, J.S. Bach rose enormously in my estimation when I learned that he smoked a pipe and had got into trouble with his bosses for spending too much on beer and brandy during a business trip.

Which is another way of saying that discipleship for most of us isn't monastic. We have to proclaim Jesus in a difficult and corrupted world; and we show that love in what we do and in what we say as well as in the time we manage to carve out for prayer.

What, then, should we be able to say of our own discipleship? A good starting point would be to answer these simple questions:


How would somebody else feel, then, if we told him that we were here to bring the Good News of Jesus but we had given up thinking seriously about the Bible when we reached puberty?

Now I am not just saying this as a cheap advertisement for this year's Lent Course (although, while I am about it, I might as well say that we should all heed the call of our Bishop to think theologically about contemporary controversies in our Church, which is the content of this year's Course) I am saying this because of Bonhoeffer's dictum that there is no such thing as "Cheap Grace" nor easy discipleship. Perhaps when the whole of Europe was Christian there was some reason for thinking that the really tough discipleship lay in being sent out, as James Hannington was, to the Empire; but today we are living in a Church whose essence should be missionary. We never tire of complaining about this terrible state of affairs to each other but it is ours to change.

We are often told that our Church is in a state of decline. I have three things to say about this: first, we have suffered great numeric decline over the past century as we have shifted from a conforming to an affirming church; in other words, almost all of the people who now come to church are those who really want to. Secondly, even in numerical terms there are now many parishes with growing electoral rolls because their Dioceses have missionary strategies; Chichester is lagging behind and we have to take some responsibility for that. Thirdly, however, our Church has got itself into an impossible tangle of complexity and controversy; and it will not escape from this without some tough, theologically-based dialogue. We cannot handle issues such as women bishops, gay partnerships, who can preside at the Eucharist, what is the modern role of Confirmation, and so on, by simply appealing to our prejudices or what we were taught at school.


I know I am asking a lot; but we have to lift our gaze above the weekly and yearly round of the Church as if our only job was to keep it going and slow down its decline; it isn't enough to say a few prayers and sing a few hymns. This tormented, dissatisfied, restless world needs the Good News of Jesus Christ as much as it ever has. The consumption, the alcohol and drug abuse, the pursuit of callous sexual gratification, are all symptoms of incompleteness, of distance from God. Equally, the massive cruelty and injustice in our world are corporate evils which speak of a society that has drawn away from God.


And yet there is every indication that our world, individually and corporately, needs a message of hope that we must bring. If we are not to bring this message of the Good News, who else is there?


We will almost certainly not be asked, as I have said before, to give our lives for Jesus as Bonhoeffer ultimately did; but we cannot go on thinking that Discipleship is easy and that Grace comes cheap. And why should it when so much awaits us?


I think that Bonhoeffer would have liked our Reading today from Isaiah: God, who made everything, can reduce earthly powers to nothing; God, who reigns over all, can yet recognise every one of His creatures.


How much more assurance than that could we possibly demand for our Discipleship?


In the end, Bonhoeffer moved from German middle class secular and ecclesiastical comfort to danger and death; all we are being asked to do is to move.