I recently read the results of a major survey on preaching during the past year of 2020. What the survey showed is that the three leading sermon topics were COVID, politics and racism. This news prompted me to think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his work as a preacher and teacher of preachers during the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler. Unlike much preaching in our time, for Bonhoeffer the call of Christ to the way of discipleship informed everything related to the life and work of preachers. Soon after the Gestapo located and shuttered Finkenwalde, the underground seminary of the Confessing Church in Germany, Bonhoeffer published a book on the way of simple obedience to Christ, the living Word of God, based on the Sermon on the Mount. Discipleship, or The Cost of Discipleship, as it is widely known, is Bonhoeffer’s most popular book and rightly described as a “devotional classic.” What is forgotten, however, are the circumstances of its publication. The content of Discipleship is largely derived from Bonhoeffer’s lectures to preachers preparing for pastoral ministry in a church which was fighting for the survival of its faith and life. They found themselves immersed in a struggle to proclaim and obey the claims of Christ as Lord while resisting Hitler’s National Socialism and its totalizing conscription of the German people, including the church.
Discipleship is a handbook of theological, spiritual and homiletical wisdom, a manual for preachers that weaves together hearing, proclaiming and obeying the call of Christ. Based on Bonhoeffer’s reading of the Gospel of Matthew, particularly the Sermon on the Mount, Discipleship provided a subversive, counter-narrative to the false “gospel” promoted by Hitler’s National Socialist ideology. Moreover, there is a profound theology of preaching embedded in Bonhoeffer’s exposition of Christ’s call and commands that begins with a remembrance of Scripture’s significance in times of church renewal. Bonhoeffer perceived behind the church struggle a deeper concern for Jesus, a desire to hear the Lord addressing his church in the present. “When we go to hear a sermon, his own word is what we want to hear.” However, according to Bonhoeffer, Jesus was not being heard, and, if he were actually present among churches in their preaching, a quite different group of people would be present and a different set of people would turn away. He perceived the call to preach the gospel in Germany had been overwhelmed by many dissonant sounds, conflicting views, false hopes and deceptive promises which obscured speaking and hearing the Word of God.
Discipleship addressed challenges to preaching the gospel in Germany. Some preaching was too harsh and difficult, weighted down with incomprehensible concepts and formulations. Bonhoeffer considered such criticism of preaching as valid. He believed many people sincerely desired to hear the word of Jesus, but found listening too difficult, in that much preaching consisted of social commentary, institutional defensiveness or was too doctrinaire. There was also the problem of formulaic preaching, excessive repetition, and preaching which was overly contextualized, in other words, more “German” than Christian. On the other hand, there was preaching which was unable to speak to life because it was too abstract. He saw the problem as much deeper than simply a matter of homiletical method or style. Rather, Christ himself was either crowded out of sermons by preachers’ opinions, agendas and plans, or by the weight of moralistic rules and principles that displaced the gospel as the center of preaching.
Bonhoeffer’s Christological interpretation of discipleship conveys a depth of practical wisdom which still warrants attention. He notes the call of Christ must not be muted by preaching which effectively drives people away, but must be proclaimed as a compelling story and attractive way of life that consists of following Jesus. Becoming a preacher, then, entails having one’s whole being and life reoriented “to the word and call of Jesus Christ himself.” Discipleship thus aimed to call preachers back to the source of their calling, “Away from the poverty and narrowness of our own conviction and questions; here is where we seek the breadth and riches which are bestowed on us in Jesus.” To proclaim the call to follow Jesus is not a heavy burden, a set of rules, the inducement of guilt, a “spiritual reign of terror” or the exercise of tyranny, shame and condemnation or violent abuse of people. Proclaiming the call of Jesus is the announcement of freedom, release and strength for the joyful obedience of faith in him. An essential part of preaching, then, is pastoral, which requires reflecting on what the call to follow Jesus means concretely for Christians who live and work in the world as a witness to the gospel.
Bonhoeffer acknowledges that while all people are called by grace, the call to follow Jesus is a path known only by him, “…a path full of mercy beyond measure, a path which is joy.” According to Bonhoeffer, to be called by Christ and to proclaim Christ is the joy of preaching. Although following Christ is not an easy way, it is the narrow path which leads to Christ’s great love of all people, particularly the weak and godless. The paradox of preaching is that Christ’s narrow way opens up to the wideness of God’s patient mercy and loving-kindness.
Almost 85 years after the publication of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer’s wisdom is a source of encouragement and hope to us as we seek to proclaim Jesus Christ in a most challenging and uncertain time for the church: “May God grant us joy in all seriousness and discipleship, affirmation of sinners and all rejection of sin, and the overflowing and living word of the gospel in all defense against our, enemies.” For Bonhoeffer, Christian preaching is Jesus Christ: the incarnate, crucified and risen Lord, who in the Spirit is present communicating himself and his call to the way of discipleship through the words of Scripture and sermons.
Michael Pasquarello III is the Methodist Chair of Divinity and the director of the Robert Smith Jr. Preaching Institute and Doctor of Ministry program at Beeson Divinity School. This post was originally published in the Robert Smith Jr. Preaching Institute's monthly e-newsletter. To receive monthly encouragement in your inbox like this post, subscribe.