Chapter 2: The Call to Discipleship

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As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’

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Themes

In this chapter, Bonhoeffer pulls apart the question of how we are supposed to respond to Jesus’ call to discipleship. Though this seems like something that should be straightforward, he argues that we get it wrong most of the time. Using the pericope of the three people who sought to be Jesus’ disciples (see Bible passage above from Luke), Bonhoeffer lays out three common ways that we fail to answer the call:

  • By volunteering our discipleship when we have not been called, for discipleship can only begin with a response to Jesus’ call. Anything more than that ceases to be about obedience to Jesus’ call and becomes instead about our own ideas and beliefs about what we will receive by becoming a disciple. It becomes about us and not about Jesus.
  • By allowing obligations, real and otherwise, to come between us and our response to Christ’s. This may be the most difficult one for many people, for there are many real obligations placed on us by family, by friends, and by the expectations of society. What’s more, many of them carry moral and ethical weight. But in Bonhoeffer’s view, Jesus is the ultimate moral and ethical authority, and anything that would come between us and responding to Christ’s call, ceases to have authority over us.
  • By setting conditions and limitations on our discipleship. “I’ll follow you, Jesus, so long as you don’t make me leave my comfort zone,” or, “I’ll answer your call on the time frame I want and to the extent that I want,” or another variation on a theme, “I would follow if I only had more faith.” We cannot be disciples on our terms, but only on Christ’s. Any answer to Jesus’ call that comes with conditions, by definition is not discipleship.

How we answer Jesus’ call is paradoxically far simpler and far more difficult that we make it out to be. There is only one answer to Jesus’ call, obedience. All else is disobedience.

Reflections:

  • Bonhoeffer offers two claims about faith and obedience that must be held together. “Only the believers obey,” and “Only the obedient believe.” When have you had the experience of discovering belief only through obedience? When have you allowed a lack of belief become and excuse from obedience?
  • Where do you experience societal expectations and norms coming between you and Jesus’ call?
  • What conditions have you placed, or been tempted to place, on how you respond to Jesus’ call?