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Terri Elton January 14, 2011 A Life of Joint Suffering: My Theology of Discipleship In Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s work The Cost of Discipleship, he writes, “When Christ calls a person, He calls them to come and die.”1 It may seem contradictory, or even nihilistic, to start a theology of discipleship with the acknowledgement that it will bring us to our death. However, because we’re Lutherans, we tend to look at these concepts in light of their opposite. Therefore, in this view, leading a church with a theology that highlights death, you are really calling people to life. If you are going to follow Jesus, you have to face death and all of its friends. Once you face the death inside of ourselves and inside of the world, we are then prepared to be in community with people in a much deeper way than if we come to the 9:30 service every Sunday and have a nice brunch afterward. Michael Foss writes about his six marks of discipleship for the changing face of congregations. Through a minor adaptation of these six marks, the framework is set for a theology of discipleship that seeks God in the places where it seems God is absent. It is through prayer, community and service that a community of disciples is formed in our context. If there were one overarching theme
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Discipleship.
2 of these four subdivisions, it is found in individuals in a congregation joining with each other in their suffering and god-forsakenness to go out and seek God in the world. Prayer I once worked at a church that was extremely focused on “outward-living”, as they called it. This was life that was entirely focused outward from themselves. Surely, this could not be a 24/7 kind of lifestyle shift, but with every decision they make in their daily lives they were encouraged to ask, “which decision could help my neighbor?” This program was called Outflow and used a four-tiered fountain as its main image. The idea was that we are fed from the source of the fountain (the pipe that traces up the center) and the water fills each tier in succession, from the center outward. The first tier is ourselves, the second is our family and friends, the third is our community and the fourth is the world. However, none of this even exists without the source giving water in the first place. It should come as no surprise that the source is a metaphor for God. And this is where all good discipleship starts, with an open line of communication with God. Realistically, I should be the last one to advocate the necessity of prayer in the life of discipleship because I simply just do not do it as often as most people. I have spent years of my life incredibly skeptical of it, however prayer has a power to encourage people and give them
3 hope beyond anything one could immediately think possible, and that is worth pursuing in a life of discipleship. Discipleship begins and ends with God’s action in the world through Jesus Christ. Disciples are the people whom God has sent through Jesus Christ to be a community that does not shy away from, but rather embraces the suffering and death that comes up as an everyday reality in the lives of the community. This is where the second focus of the life of a disciple comes in. The relationship with community is second only to the nature of the relationship with God. Community The importance of community is essential in the life of a disciple. We can see no better example of this than in the relationships that are at heart of God. It is inside the Trinity that the need for community is felt the most. In the deepest despair brought on by the cross, something in the Trinity substantially changed. The only begotten Son had perished and the Father then ceased to be a father. Inside the very heart of God was a mourning Father who had just lost his only Son. When the tomb was revealed empty on Sunday, the relationship had been restored. Life now trumped death and, as a result, everything that happened from there was different. When God, in Christ, came down to be human, he accepted that he would meet the same fate as all humans, death. God came down knowing God would die. However through death and resurrection, Christ was brought back into the heart
4 of the Trinity. His place was restored. Life triumphed. And in doing so, he brought us with him. Because Christ died in solidarity with all humanity, all humanity was then participating in the resurrection and restoration of the Trinity. However, it was not just one of us that were brought into the heart of God, it was all of us. Every single person throughout history was brought into the heart of God. While this incredible concept is quite cerebral and may seem to have little to do with day-to-day life for Christians in our world, the reality is quite the opposite. It is in this restored Trinity that we are invited to live our lives in community with one another on earth. This takes shape in many different ways that are all, in a manner, contextual. However, this triumph of life within the Trinity, while seemingly very hypothetical, has very real implications for the lives of disciples in congregations worldwide. Service Gerhard Forde once asked the wonderful question, “Now that we don’t have to do anything, what do we do?” That is to say, now that God has redeemed us through Jesus, what exactly are we to do with our life. His answer, thankfully, is discipleship. We are to live a life of service to God and neighbor. This is the final piece that sets up a theology of discipleship, the action. This action can, and should, take many forms that are largely dependent on the context of the ministry you are doing. The service element is so crucial to the life of a disciple
5 because it is the external expression of a relationship with God. If we follow the idea of the great commandment, we are to love God and love our neighbor. The prayer focuses exclusively on the relationship with God. The service element focuses on neighbor. And the notion of community binds the two together. These are the three main elements that I will consider the marks of discipleship for the congregations I will serve in the future. If we re-visit the model of the fountain that was first touched on back in the first section on prayer, the gifts of abundance that we get from God naturally flow over into our relationships and the broader world in which we live. Our primary role is to be good stewards of what God has given us in a way that actively serves others. In doing this we are living out the vocation given to us in the Great Commission and creating an environment that fosters a community of discipleship. Conclusions We have talked about our relationship with God through prayer as a first priority in discipleship. The second aspect was community that is centered in Christ both because Jesus calls us all to be disciples, and because through his death and resurrection all of humanity has been brought into the divine community. The third aspect of service gives a pragmatic shape to what the life of a disciple looks like on the ground. These three become integral as we look forward to the future of the church and its wider implications for society as a whole. It is
6 through these three lenses that we can truly hear the call Bonhoeffer describes in Discipleship as a call to come and die. Our shared suffering unites us with God in Jesus Christ and when we live into that community of suffering we are truly at the heart of discipleship.
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