What Is Discipleship?

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ʺPick up your cross and follow me.ʺ Matthew 16:24

The modern martyr for the faith, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor in Germany during World War II, had a very clear sense of what this statement entailed. And because of it, he was killed by the Nazi SS because he would not abandon his discipleship with Christ and agree to their perverse views and actions. He was hung just 23 days before the end of the war.

For Bonhoeffer, discipleship meant that one had to answer Christ’s call with one’s entire life. It was his opinion that, when Christ calls, he bids us to die; to die to the idols of this world; to live for Christ alone, even if doing so brings the threat of death, just as it did for Jesus. He thought, too, that discipleship is not limited to what can be comprehended. There are some things that are beyond our comprehension, that only faith can answer. The material world’s answers often appear to be simple, just, and attractive, but in reality, they always fall short of all three of those things. And the wisdom of God is incomprehensible to a world that can only respond to the immediate, the shallow, and the impermanent. The wisdom of God, according to Bonhoeffer, is expressed in ways that appear to the world to be the ʺfolly of the cross.ʺ

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The world says that the answers to life are in material goods, in fame, and in power. But Bonhoeffer writes that ʺEarthly goods are given to be used, not collected…ʺWhere our treasure is, there is our God.ʺ (Matthew 6:21) If one’s happiness is determined by material well-being; if one believes that God’s intentions are that you be materially successful and that praying to that ʺgodʺ properly will win his favor in that matter, one is not worshiping God, but mammon, that false and perishable god of nothing.

Luke’s version puts it another way: ʺAnd whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciples.ʺ (Luke 14:27) Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood this deeply, not just in his mind, but with his whole being. He understood that these were not mere words, but a call to real and purposeful action. Of course, he lived in a time and place that proved to be a true crucible for all people of faith. Many of his religious bretheren bent to their fears and went along with the Nazi regime in order to preserve their temporal lives. They did not pick up their crosses. Bonhoeffer did. He refused to deny his faith in Jesus Christ. Instead he picked up his cross and gave his life in order to preserve his eternal soul. None of us knows if our faith will be so tried during our lives, but we all hope and pray that if it is, we will have Dietrich Bonheoffer’s courage and conviction. We hope and pray this, not because we want to be remembered for our bravery, but rather, for our love of Christ. It is that which will bring others to Christ. It was so in apostolic times; it is still true today, and will be until the end of time.

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Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site blog.