Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Sermon on the Mount, Bonhoeffer and Discipleship

As I was preparing for last Sunday's encounter with the Beatitudes, I read Hauerwas' commentary on Matthew. He drew so much from Bonhoeffer that I turned back to Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship. I know I read it in seminary, but that was about ten years ago. I am reading it differently this time, or at least new things are popping out at me. Bonhoeffer's insistence on the Sermon being about the community called and gathered around Jesus is challenging and freeing for Jesus does not proscribe what we must be, he simply describes us.

Commenting about the upcoming gospel reading about the community being the salt of the earth, Bonhoeffer writes:
"Ye are the salt." Jesus does not say: "You must be the salt." It is not for the disciple to decide whether they will be the salt of the earth, for they are so whether they like it or not, they have been made salt by the call they received. Again, it is: "Ye are the salt," not "Ye have the salt." By identifying the salt with the apostolic proclamation the Reformers robbed the saying of all its sting. No, the word speaks of their whole existence in so far as it is grounded anew in the call of Christ, that same existence which was the burden of the beatitudes. The call of Christ makes those who respond to it the salt of the earth in their total existence.

Of course, there is another possibility--the salt may lose its savour and cease to be salt at all. It just stops working. Then it is indeed good for nothing but to be thrown away. That is the peculiar quality of salt. Everything else needs to be seasoned with salt, but once the salt has lost its savour, it can never be salted again. Everything else can be saved by salt, however bad it has gone--only salt which loses its savour has no hope of recovery. That is the other side of the picture. That is the judgment which always hangs over the disciple community, whose mission it is to save the world, but which, if it ceases to live up to the mission is itself irretrievably lost. The call of Jesus Christ means either that we are the salt of the earth, or else we are annihilated; either we follow the call or we are crushed beneath it. There is no question of a second chance.
-Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 1995 Touchstone Books, pp. 116-117

Challenging words for a tradition so hyper-sensitive to notions of works righteousness. Images that Bonhoeffer uses there at the end distress us. Given his situation when the established church accommodates itself to the prevailing culture and then ultimately gives in to Nazi control, whatever the disciples thought they were, by attaching themselves to something other than Christ, adhering to cultural and social mores, their salt had been leached out. They had become something other than salt.

But our saltiness is not supported by our own effort. If it is the call of Jesus that makes us salt, then the community gathered around Jesus will never lose its saltiness completely for Jesus sustains it. We must place our hope in Christ and trust in his preservation of us. Even in the midst of Nazi control, the Church never departed from Germany, the salt remained, giving us the witness of the Confessing Church. Some portion of the community remained to give witness to Jesus and therefore BE salt. Wherever Jesus is, his community will be, and there, we will taste salt.


Anonymous said...


the main aim of Bonhoeffer was not the resistance but the renewal of the German Evangelical Church (former DEK, today EKD). In Germany there are evil powers trying to turn and to fix publics gaze on Bonhoeffers resistance activity. Everybody must admit that the Third Reich is over and the EKD sill exists with her problems. It is high time to turn the gaze away from Bonhoeffers resistance activity to his activity as reformer of the Church. Assumed Bonhoeffer would be recognized as very gifted theologian and assumed his theology would be applyed the EKD had to change totally.

I have just started a website concerning this issue:

Kind regards,
Rainer Braendlein (Munich, Germany)

The best book of Bonhoeffer: "The Cost of Discipleship" Buy it now!

Anonymous said...

It is my understanding that the Nazi's did succeed in creating a German Protestant church devoid of the Christian tradition it once had, and that is precisely what led to the creation of the Confessing Church movement, which was supported and sustained by Lutheran churches across western Europe and England. Given the first comment, it would seem as though more remains of the Nazi's church than Bonhoeffer and his Confessing Church advocates would have ever dreamed Germany would accommodate, 60 years after the Nazi's demise - a telling fact to observe.

I have long admired Bonhoeffer's work, trying to save the Lutheran Christian church in 20th century Germany, but, as an American and a person who admires Jesus for his philosophical and spiritual teachings, I am dismayed that today, here in America, we live in a police state that has accreted over the last 50 years, which has waged covert warfare against law-abiding citizens illegally until 2002, when George Bush legalized it, which has given us millions more citizens who are civilly - and actually - murdered (that is to say, they have NO civil rights), in effect creating a secret army which would have been a dream-come-true for the SS and yet, no church has batted an eye at the MILLIONS of innocent lives that are destroyed by this government.

What difference does it make, Brian, if you idolize Bonhoeffer but are unwilling to act as he did?

Anonymous said...

Are you familiar with the traditional Catholic website and YouTube channel of Most Holy Family Monastery?

Lots of eye-openers there! Would warmly recommend.