This is the third post in a nine-part series for Spectrum’s 2014 Summer Reading Group. Each post will be drawn from chapters of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. You can view the reading/posting schedule here.
Be perfect. This call at the conclusion of Matthew chapter 5 is certainly extraordinary. But, what does it mean, perfectly sinless, perfectly able, perfectly immovable, perfectly knowing, perfectly loving? Matthew qualifies this call to perfection with, “As your heavenly Father is perfect.”But, since none of us has seen the Father, we must look to the One who showed us the Father. Fortunately, this is his sermon.
Other than Matthew 5, the most memorable sermon I ever heard was delivered by David Gates at my 10 year alumni reunion. Gates made an extraordinarily bold prediction that Jesus would return in the next five years which is unfortunately now more than five years past due. But, for me the truly memorable portion of his sermon was a deeply troubling and oddly inspiring illustration.
Heaven he said is like the Olympics. Just as only the most elite athletes who set themselves apart for serious training are able to compete in the games, only those who have completely dedicated their lives to prayer and study, purified their theology, and overcome sin so that they are ready for the soon coming final judgement will make it into Heaven. Sure, he affirmed that we are ultimately saved by grace. But, just as chance favors the prepared, grace he suggested is only effective for the few, the elite, the perfect.
This is not what Jesus means by perfection according to Bonhoeffer. He writes, “The perfect are none other than those who, in the Beatitudes, are called blessed.”1Connecting the end of Matthew 5 with the beginning in this way shifts the focus off of the disciples and onto the call and the One who has called the disciples. Sure, the disciples are few in number; but, they aren’t exclusive and they certainly aren’t elite. They are those who are poor in spirit, mourn, are meek, hunger and thirst for righteousness, show mercy, are pure in heart, make peace, and face persecution.
Bonhoeffer understands these so-called Beatitudes as increasingly radical calls which separate the disciples from the crowd and make them peculiar, even extraordinary. But, what is truly extraordinary about their calling is that rather than forming an elite, exclusive sect ready for Kingdom come, the purpose of the call to discipleship is to bless the world like salt and light. As such, disciples make the world a better more just place to live, help everyone to taste and see that the Kingdom of God is here, and invite everyone to become disciples. We are not called to become salt and light through spiritual discipline so that we can enter God’s kingdom. Rather, our calling is into the present Kingdom of God which makes us already salt and light.2
Bonhoeffer has an uncanny ability to speak to all of the diverse disciples invited into the Kingdom of God through this open invitation. His focus on Jesus and keeping the entire law should appeal to conservative Christians.3 When he claims that Jesus made no distinction between the 10 commandments and the rest of the law he will raise the eyebrows and possibly the hackles of traditional Adventists.4 The way he prioritizes selfless love for the marginalized will capture the imagination of liberal Christians.5 His discussion on the exclusivity of Jesus standing between his disciples and the law not to release them from fulfilling the law but to enforce his demand that the law be fulfilled may confuse progressive Adventists.6 And, his impassioned discussion on nonviolence and what it means to love one’s enemies will equally challenge and convict everyone.
He even speaks prophetically regarding his own future when he writes with apocalyptic foreboding, “The time is coming when Christians, for the sake of their confession, will be excluded from ‘human society,’as it is called, hounded from place to place, subjected to physical attack, abused, and under some circumstances even killed.”7
The trials and tribulations of this prediction reinforce that the call to discipleship is not to exclusive honor and prestige but to inclusive humility and service—even service unto death. In a powerful statement about the way we mistreat our brothers and sisters with whom we disagree, Bonhoeffer writes, “The angry words bursting out of us, which we take so lightly, reveal that we do not respect the other person, that we view ourselves to be superior, and that we thus value our own lives more than the other’s…. That is murder.”8
Bonhoeffer’s fearlessness in speaking truth in all situations and his ability to bridge the widening chasm between the left and right, the progressive and traditional in the Christian world was recognized by his film biographer Martin Doblmeier. “What is extraordinary,”he says, “is how Bonhoeffer’s appeal seems to cross over the divisions, finding wide acceptance on both sides. Conservative Christians are attracted to Bonhoeffer because he is so Christ-and Bible-based. The progressive wing is attracted to Bonhoeffer’s commitment to social justice. It is not that the two sides should be in any opposition, it is simply the fact that too often they are and Bonhoeffer is a unifying figure, not a divisive one.”9
In his memorable sermon, David Gates railed against progressive Adventists who compromise with worldly pleasures and science. He didn’t seem to know or care that he was seated next to a progressive Adventist. As I rose from my seat to offer the benediction after his sermon, a thought crossed my mind. Perhaps the Kingdom of God is like the Olympics after all, only more like the Special Olympics.
Each of us is called to run the race no matter our skill level or disability, conservative or liberal personality, introverted or extroverted nature, male or female physiology, first world or third world nationality, straight or gay orientation, or even diverse religious tradition. Everyone from the first to finish to those at the very end of the procession are all included, all encouraged, all celebrated and most of all loved. It is not because of our knowledge, ability or sinlessness but in Christ as we respond to God’s call that we are perfect—made perfect together in love.
Brenton Reading is a pediatric interventional radiologist practicing at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri.
1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 4: Discipleship, ed. Geffrey B. Kelly and John D. Godsey (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2001), 145.
2. “The disciples are given no choice whether they want to be salt or not. No appeal is made to them to become salt of the earth. Rather they just are salt…You are the salt—not, “you have the salt.” It would diminish the meaning to equate the disciples’message with salt, as the reformers did.”(Ibid., 111).
3. “Christ puts the law of the Old Covenant into force.”(Ibid., 116).
4. “Jesus does not elevate the Ten Commandments above other Old Testament commandments as we once did.”(Ibid., 135).
5. “Here is undivided love for one’s enemies, loving those who love no one and whom no one loves.”(Ibid., 144).
6. “This means that Jesus Christ and only he fulfills the law, because he alone lives in perfect communion with God. The himself steps between his disciples and the law…. But if Jesus stands between his disciples and the law, it is not to release them from fulfilling the law. Instead, it is to enforce his demand that the law be fulfilled.” (Ibid., 119).
7. Ibid., 146.
8. Ibid., 122.
9. Martin Doblmeier, An Interview With Filmmaker Martin Doblmeier (http://www.pbs.org/bonhoeffer/interview.html). Accessed July 23, 2014.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6144