Regular readers of this blog will know of my deep respect and admiration for German theologian and Christian martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. No books have had more of an impact on my walk with Christ, my calling as a congregational preacher, and my faith in God than Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship and Life Together. Costly grace. True discipleship. Christian community. These are all concepts that Bonhoeffer not only wrote about brilliantly, but also lived out genuinely.
So you can imagine my delight at receiving over the Christmas holidays the first Bonhoeffer biography in almost 50 years. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by New York author Eric Metaxas. I took a big bite out of this massive 542-page volume last night. And I intend to have it completed by the end of the week. It is excellent.
In the several books on Bonhoeffer I’ve read, I’ve seen his “tidbit” quote about complete commitment to Christ.
“The religion of Christ is not a tidbit after one’s bread; on the contrary, it is the bread or nothing. People should at least understand and concede this if they call themselves Christian.”
I knew the quote was taken from a lecture on the essence of Christianity that Bonhoeffer delivered early on his career. But this new book tells me it was part of a three-lecture series to a group of teenage boys he was mentoring in Barcelona in the winter of 1928. Bonhoeffer was 22-years-old. But he already had a firm grip on what Jesus meant when he said, “Follow me.”
The title of the lecture is “Jesus Christ and the Essence of Christianity.” It was number two in his series, preached to the teens on December 11, 1928. And this new book has published a pretty big chunk of it.
Bonhoeffer begins by talking about the fact that most Christians have actually exiled Christ from their lives. He says, “Of course we build him a temple, but we live in our own houses.” Bonhoeffer points out that we only take Jesus seriously on Sunday mornings. Our religion only has meaning on the first day of the week where one “gladly withdraws for a couple of hours, but only to get back to one’s place of work immediately afterward.”
OK, now here’s the really good stuff about taking Christ and his call seriously:
“One admires Christ according to aesthetic categories as an aesthetic genius, calls him the greatest ethicist; one admires his going to his death as a heroic sacrifice for his ideas. Only one thing one doesn’t do: one doesn’t take him seriously. That is, one doesn’t bring the center of his or her own life into contact with the claim of Christ to speak the revelation of God and to be that revelation. One maintains a distance between himself or herself and the word of Christ, and allows no serious encounter to take place. I can doubtless live with or without Jesus as a religious genius, as an ethicist, as a gentleman — just as, after all, I can also live without Plato and Kant. Should, however, there be something in Christ that claims my life entirely with the full seriousness that here God himself speaks and if the word of God once become present only in Christ, then Christ has not only relative but absolute, urgent significance for me. Understanding Christ means taking Christ seriously. Understanding this claim means taking seriously his absolute claim on our commitment. And it is now of importance for us to clarify the seriousness of this matter and to extricate Christ from the secularization process in which he has been incorporated since the Enlightenment.”
Yes, Christ Jesus is an all-or-nothing proposition. Yes, we have a long way to go in our understanding and our practice.