This week in one of my classes we’ll be discussing Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s well-known The Cost of Discipleship. It is one of those unique little books of profound theology that is accessible to both the layperson and scholar alike. Moreover, the stark picture it paints of “cheap” versus “costly” grace and the notion that “when Christ calls a man He bids him come and die” are teachings I suspect will reverberate throughout the ages.
On both an intellectual and deeply spiritual level, the book is a challenge for me. Bonhoeffer’s thought requires thought, but more importantly it confronts me with my own life and actions–calling them into question through Christ. While reviewing the book for class today I came across the following idea:
Since the coming of Christ, his followers have no more immediate realities of their own, not in their family relationships nor in the ties with their nation nor in the relationships formed in the process of living. Between father and son, husband and wife, the individual and the nation, stands Christ the Mediator, whether they are able to recognize him or not. We cannot establish direct contact outside ourselves except through him, through his word, and through our following of him. To think otherwise is to deceive ourselves.
For Christians, the understanding of Jesus as the mediator between God and humanity has long been considered an axiom. Here, though, Bonhoeffer (if I interpret him correctly) takes this principle a step further: Christ is the One who mediates the Christian’s relationship to everything. We only live, in other words, as we live through Christ. We only love as we love in Christ. We are only a spouse or friend or citizen as we are through Christ. We only see, act, and speak through the person of Christ. For Bonhoeffer this is the reality of the Christian life of discipleship.
The implications of this understanding, if correct, are as profound as they are challenging. It makes sense in a lot of ways that Christ ought to be this kind of mediator. Even so, thinking of the Christian life is such terms requires, I think, a radical reorientation of our everyday perspective on how the world works. A continual process of humility, self-denial, and dying-in-order-to-find-our-life that Christ speaks to so powerfully in the gospels. Allowing Christ to be this kind of mediator means a final surrendering of the same control that we first acknowledged at the moment of salvation.
Yet just as the life of faith is about Christ being our mediator to all things, we very well know that we can refuse this reality. That we can reject this path of discipleship. Convince ourselves that following Christ means not having Him as mediator, and continuing to live as if there need be no change in the way we encounter and interact with reality. But then of course we can convince ourselves of a lot of things about the Christian life that are patently false.
For Bonhoeffer, Christ’s call to humanity is to follow Him. With our words and with our lives. It requires surrender. It requires a radical reorientation that only Christ can bring. It requires completeness. Allowing Christ to so permeate our lives so that we only interact with the world as through Him is something, I think, in which I have fallen short. I want to see things my way, blind as I may be. I want to do things in my wisdom, foolish as I am. I want to interact with others according to my preferences, flawed and selfish though they may be. Yet it is only by moving beyond these limiting elements, Bonhoeffer would say, that we (and I) will enter into true and costly discipleship.
A discipleship, in other words, with Christ as the center and ground of all things.