The Whole Church Gathered: How Bonhoeffer’s “Discipleship” Speaks to the Church Today

“When children expect something it is impossible to give only part of oneself to them.” ­­– Dietrich Bonhoeffer, quoted in Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Theologian, Christian, Man for His Times: A Biography.

 The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer begins his book Discipleship by saying, “It is not ultimately important to us what this or that church leader wants. Rather, we want to know what Jesus wants.” Bonhoeffer wrote these words after the Gestapo shut down his beloved seminary in Finkenwalde. They were written as a way to challenge the way Christians thought of the church, specifically in Nazi Germany.

By the end of the first hymn, Sam had scribbled over all of the papers and was on to the bag of beads.

So where do we look to discover what it is that Jesus wants of us? Again, Bonhoeffer, in Discipleship:

If we want to hear his call to discipleship, we need to hear it where Christ himself is present. It is within the church that Jesus Christ calls through his word and sacrament. The preaching and sacrament of the church is the place where Jesus Christ is present. To hear Jesus’ call to discipleship, one needs no personal revelation. Listen to the preaching and receive the sacrament! Listen to the gospel of the crucified and risen Lord! Here he is, the whole Christ, the very same who encountered the disciples.

We hear Jesus’ call to discipleship in the church-community, listening to the Word proclaimed and sharing in the sacraments together. For Bonhoeffer, Jesus Christ is present in the church because the church is the body of Christ. Andrew Root explains the depth of this theology as found in Bonhoeffer’s dissertation, Sanctorum Communio. Root writes, “it is the church-community that takes Christ’s form by being a community of persons in relationship.” Furthermore, “Bonhoeffer shows that what it means to be a person, then, is to belong (is to have our very being) in and through others.” When we church communities separate our children and youth from the worship service we run the risk of missing the call to discipleship as we neglect the opportunity for relationships to be formed. In limiting their exposure to the adults who are called to carry them in the waters of baptism, we also neglect a part of our own personhood in not inviting them to “belong” with us in worship.

THE WHOLE CHURCH GATHERED

It happened on April 17, 2014, at our Maundy Thursday service. I brought along my 3-year-old son Sam and decided that he could probably handle being in the worship service with me. My wife was at home with our 6-month-old daughter trying to relax. This was only the second time that Sam had been in a worship service, and at our church parents typically do not start bringing their kids into the service until they are old enough, at age 4, to do children’s worship, when they leave halfway through the service to have their own worship experience.

So there I was leading the call to worship, Sam calmly sitting on the floor in front of the first row, next to our other pastor, and I thought, “This is perfect! He has a busy bag, with some crafts and crayons to distract him, and I can still be a pastor without him being too distracting to the rest of the congregation.” But by the end of the first hymn, Sam had scribbled over all of the papers and was on to the bag of beads. Then, he had the great idea to sort them on the floor and in the middle of the aisle. That’s when a member of our church came up to me, and kindly said, “Joel, you know my daughter, is working in the nursery tonight and would love to have Sam there.”

“Thank you,” I said. “I’ll keep that in mind,” nodding my head and forcing a smile to show my appreciation for his concern of my son.

As the service continued and our other pastor went up to preach, Sam began to stand on the chair and look behind him, where he found some familiar faces: close friends of ours, who were smart enough to have taken their 2-year-old son to the nursery. Thankfully, Sam did not have too many outbursts or throw any tantrums during the sermon. The worst thing he did was to hold up a handful of beads and say, in his normal speaking voice, “Dad. Daddy. Daddy. Put these here … and these here … and these here … ” as he gave me instructions on just how he wanted the beads to be organized by color and shape.

THIRTY PIECES OF BEAD

I have no clue today what the sermon was about, probably something to do with Jesus being in the Garden of Gethsemane. But once it was over, I looked down on the ground, and in the center aisle I saw that there were still 30 more beads scattered on the floor. I could just imagine one of our older members walking down the aisle to take communion and slipping and spilling the cup of grape juice as she attempted to catch herself, only to fall and break a hip. In order to prevent the potential catastrophe, I hastily sprang into action as our pastor began the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving for communion. Assuming that everyone’s eyes would be closed, I tried to gather up all the beads. In my haste, I neglected to put the beads in the order that Sam wanted them, even though they were all going into the same plastic Ziploc bag and would get mixed together anyway.

Naturally, Sam threw a tantrum and knocked out of my hand all of beads I had just picked up. Ironically, this happened just as the pastor was saying, “And as this grain has been gathered from many fields into one loaf, and these grapes form many hills into one cup, grant, O Lord, that your whole Church may soon be gathered from the ends of the earth into your kingdom. Even so, come, Lord Jesus. Amen.”

I had lost my chance! The prayer was over, everyone would be looking up now staring at the pastor as he gave the words of institution. I didn’t know what to do! In a few seconds I would be called up to help serve communion, and Sam was still angry with me.

But then, something happened. Sam no longer cared about the beads. All he could do was stare at the communion elements. It was as if he was in a trance. Intuitively, he knew that something different was going on here – that somehow this wasn’t just bread and juice but that he was experiencing deep within his being that Christ was actually present. Now he might not have been able to articulate it himself, but you could see in his eyes and on his face that he was witnessing something miraculous happen: Heaven and earth were meeting in the same place for him.

Although, for the first 52 minutes of the service I was distracted, frustrated and anxious, the moment I saw Sam’s face, I realized something: that as a church we had let him down. We had not held him up as a person but rather neglected some aspect of his personhood so that we could experience our own idea of what worship was supposed to be and in the midst of that lost out on opportunities of us experiencing Christ together.

THE CALL TO DISCIPLESHIP

In the last line of the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, we say, “grant, O Lord, that your whole Church may soon be gathered from the ends of the earth into your kingdom.” We typically think this refers to the worldwide Church or perhaps those saints who have gone before us and will come after us. We pray it with enthusiasm, hoping for that final day when the whole Church will be gathered together to worship God. However, we fail to see the hypocrisy of our actions as – for many churches – a large segment of our church community is either in the nursery or in another room singing, praying, reading and interpreting Scripture. We say with our lips, “grant, O Lord, that your whole church may soon be gathered” while at the same time worshiping in separate rooms in the same building, or at least on the same campus, but nevertheless not gathered together in the same worship space.

A few weeks ago, I was drinking coffee in the fellowship hall at the new church we attend. Some young parents were talking about how happy they were that they “could finally worship in peace,” because, “one kid was in Sunday school and the other was in the nursery.” During the summer, at this church, the nursery is open – but intentionally not staffed, because this community places a value on having children in worship. Finally, now that the fall has begun and the programming year is up and running, the nursery is staffed (by young people) and Sunday school is concurrent with the second service.

In hearing comments like this – and, if I am honest with myself, even coveting this same kind of peace in worship – I fear that worship turns into a commodity for our consumption. We exchange the idea of Christian faith in the experience of worship for the person of Jesus Christ. When this happens, worship becomes something to consume, like a concert or a baseball game. Root puts it like this: “When faith is turned into an idea, it can substantiate itself only in principles and programs. Principles and programs become consumable outlets that prove that we are loyal to the idea.”

In Discipleship Bonhoeffer urges us to make the shift from being loyal to the “idea of Christianity” to “following the personhood” of Jesus Christ. He says, “Discipleship is commitment to Christ. Because Christ exists, he must be followed. An idea about Christ, a doctrinal system, a general religious recognition of grace or forgiveness of sins does not require discipleship.” Instead, what we often buy into is what Bonhoeffer would call “cheap grace,” grace that requires little more from us than one hour a week on Sunday mornings in order to be a good consumer of the “idea” of Christianity.

Rather, Bonhoeffer calls us to recognize that grace is not cheap, but costly. In his book Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker: A Theological Vision for Discipleship and Life Together, Root summarizes Bonhoeffer’s argument:

Grace is costly, then, not because it is an idea; it is no principle, program or doctrine. Grace is costly because it is a person; it is the very Christ who calls us … Grace is costly because Jesus ministers to the world through his person, and to follow Jesus’ person is for us to be moved through our own person into ministry, into action.

HOW IT PLAYS OUT

So what might this look like?

In Acts 16, Paul and Silas find themselves in jail in Philippi. That night, while in jail, they hold an impromptu worship service. During the night a violent earthquake happens, and the walls of the jail come down and everyone’s chains fall off. Yet, Paul and Silas – and the other prisoners – remain where they are.

Meanwhile, the jailer begins to do the honorable thing by falling on his sword. He does this because he has bought into the idea of the “pax Romana,” or Roman peace. This idea has such a strong hold on him that it is worth taking his life for. It is in this desperate moment of despair that Paul shouts to him, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here!” The jailer calls for lights and, rushing in, falls down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he takes them outside and says, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They answer, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”

In this story, we see Paul and Silas coming to this man to minister to his person in his darkest moment. Or perhaps, as Root would put it, it is in his experience of the nothingness, that is, his near-death experience, that Paul and Silas come alongside him and help him to hear the call to follow Christ. When the man thinks all is lost, Paul and Silas minister to him out of their own call to follow Christ in action.

It is worth noting that Paul and Silas are not just interested in baptizing the jailer but include his whole family. All of them are now invited to hear the call of Christ to follow him as a family. It is also worth considering who it is that is actually free. It is not the jailer who is free – for he has been consumed by and made a prisoner of the Roman idea. Truthfully, it is Paul and Silas who are free. Even when they are imprisoned and bound in chains they are free, because they believe, not in an idea, but on the personhood of Jesus Christ. And it is out of this freedom that they are able to act and minister to the jailer and his family.

I wonder if as a church today we find ourselves imprisoned by our own individuality and desires for an “experience of God” and fail to hear the voice of Christ calling us to follow him. Instead of finding our freedom in Christ and following him into ministry through entering deeply into relationships with others, we allow our idea of what a worshipful experience should feel like to dictate what we do on Sunday mornings. What would it look like if we actually lived into that last line of the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving (“grant, O Lord, that your whole church may soon be gathered”)? What if we entered into the messy work of gathering our whole church around the table instead of scattering them around like beads on the floor, or organizing them according to size? What things would our children and youth point out to us? It might just be the living Christ coming to us and calling us to follow him.

Joel Van der Wal is pastor of children, youth and family at Incarnation Lutheran Church, Shoreview, Minnesota.

Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R0211-316 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 (CC BY-SA 3.0 de), via Wikimedia Commons