Bonhoeffer :: Discipleship and the Cross

In this chapter Bonhoeffer explains the absolute centrality of the Cross for a life of discipleship. He starts by reading Mark 8:31-38.

31And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He spoke this word openly. And Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him. 33But when He had turned around and looked at His disciples, He rebuked Peter, saying, "Get behind Me, Satan! For you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men." 34When He had called the people to Himself, with His disciples also, He said to them, "Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. 35For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel's will save it. 36For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? 37Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? 38For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels."

Here Jesus connects discipleship to the cross. First he proclaims that He, as messiah, must suffer and be rejected. This is so shocking that Peter, the same Peter who moments before made his confession of faith ("You are the Christ"), takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. Jesus in response says perhaps the harshest thing he will ever say: "Get behind me Satan!"

Why does Peter protest as he does? Peter still does not understand what exactly Jesus is about. But he knows that he doesn't like what he is hearing. Peter knows Jesus is the Chosen One of God, the Christ. I don't know that Peter knew what he expected from this Christ: perhaps victory over the Romans and a glorious reign for all who followed him. What he didn't expect, though was what Jesus said was necessary; he "Must". Not only suffering (Peter was willing to suffer I think) but rejection and even death. Peter knew if this was the fate of the leader, it would also be the fate of the followers.

And so Peter rebukes the one he has proclaimed as Christ. Christ response interests me. It could have been gentler, don't you think? Perhaps, "Soon you will understand why this is necessary" or "I promise things will be OK, even though you don't understand" would have been sufficient. I think, however, that Jesus recognised some of Satan's most attractive arguments in Peter's response and so rejected not just Peter's arguments, but the attempt of the Evil One to tempt Jesus himself. We humans do not like suffering and will do many things to avoid it. I suspect that even worse in our eyes, however, is rejection. A swift look at the history of fashionable wear (starched collars, tiny pointy-toed shoes, corsets) reveals that we prefer suffering with acceptance to comfortable rejection.

And so Peter, and even Jesus as fully man, must have wanted a Messiah without the rejection and suffering. But this is no messiah at all. Those of us who have studied Isaiah together know that equal with the portrait of the messiah as conquering King is the portrait of the messiah as a suffering servant. To take away one is to destroy the other. And so Jesus rebukes Satan and rejects the temptation.

Immediately afterwards he begins again to speak of discipleship "Whoever desires to come after me ?". And he mentions the cross. Today, 2000 some years later, the cross has lost some of its punch. To us the cross is a metaphor, a reference to our salvation, a christianized symbol that we might put on our cars or wear around our necks.

To those to whom Jesus spoke, the cross was a reality of torture and execution. Jesus might well say to us "Whoever desires to come after me, let him go and strap himself willing into the electric chair at San Quentin". The cross is not comforting to these disciples, it is not yet imbued with all of the symbology we see in it. It was nothing more or less than death, but Jesus calls us we must carry our cross if we are to follow him. What can this mean? How does death, suffering, and rejection fit into discipleship?

Bonhoeffer notes the grace here. Jesus then asks us to take up our cross, but not until we are that new man, not until the old man is dead (first deny himself, then take up the cross). And so it is not in our own strength that we will have to bear a cross, but by the Grace of God. Before we look at the content, it is worth while to look at the language of discipleship. Do you present the gospel strictly as a lightening of burdens, a removal of cares. Is discipleship cheap? Jesus' language here, of suffering and cross-bearing, is anything but cheap. Is this how serious you are about your Christian walk?

Death is the first step on the path of discipleship: "let him deny himself". This is the death that is laid on every Christian: you wish new life, very well, you must be willing to give up your old one. The NT speaks frequently of the "New Man" and "Old Nature", one to be crucified to give way to the other. This is the first cross that we must bear, to give up all our desires that take our allegiance away from Christ. The rich young ruler had to give up his wealth, the eager disciple we read of last week had to give up his family in order to follow Jesus. Every attachment that we would lift to a place of prominence must be given up in the face of Jesus absolute call "Come and follow me". When Jesus Calls a man, he bids him come and die.

But what can Jesus mean by asking us to take up our cross? Bonhoeffer argues that taking up the cross is suffering and rejection in the life of a christian. Not the suffering that is common to all the world (blisters, indigestion) but suffering for righteousness sake.

This is the most convicting thought to me. Jesus does not say we will have to seek out rejection and suffering. He does not give me instructions about its discovery. He assumes it will find me (the servant is not greater than the master). Again we are tempted away from true discipleship. Surely, there is some way to be a christian and be loved and respected by the world, to be admired by the community. But Jesus assures us that this will not be the case. We will suffer for our faith, eventually the world must despise us.