What is the essence of following Jesus and being a disciple of Him?

A comparison of three books on discipleship written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Rowan Williams and Pope Francis
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1. A description of being a disciple by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. 1) Following Jesus provides and demands a changed life that undertakes the despised suffering in Christ for Christ. There is no cheap mercy. "Only the believer is obedient – only the obedient believes." 2) A half-Jesus cannot be accepted. Following Jesus is not following or interpreting rules but it is a total reliance with absolute confidence on that Christ, our Lord depicts Himself in us. We can find the Father in praying through Jesus. The Holy Trinity itself has harbored in Christians. At this point we do not interpret and live our lives from our viewpoints any more but in Christ for Christ. Discipleship (nevertheless) is the totality of freedom and joy. 3) Although it is the decision of each individual to follow Jesus but it cannot be kept away from the community of the disciples and the church. 4) Following Jesus separates us from the world ("There is not an own road leading from man to man. ... Christ stands between us as an obstacle. The only road to neighbors leads through Him"), but at the same time it links us to all people in the universality of love. 5) Following Jesus is not that broad way in which the crowd go. That is why, with the spreading strength of our whole lives spent in Jesus, we have to witness about our Lord at all times until He comes again. The intensity of the lines of "The Cost of Discipleship" makes it obvious that the writer does not present an intellectual or literary feat but his own, innermost self transformed in Christ – together with all its consequences. (If you would like to know more about this, please read my essay here.)

 

2. A description of being disciples by Rowan Williams. What were the most important statements of the book "Being disciples" to me? 1.) Discipleship is such a state of being in which you are silent and listening all the time; you just let Jesus’ act (and indirectly the Father’s act) happen by you. For we can hear God, silence is needed. It is in God’s hands who I am. We are the objects of eternal enjoyment. 2) The essence of discipleship is a fusion with the Holy Trinity’s life. Believing is faith that the truth is able to possess me and it keeps me even if I myself cannot hold on any longer. Discipleship is growth and joy. 3) The disciple is together with those (the poor and the excluded of the world), whom Jesus would like to accompany. We have to be such places where people are given time and space to meet the eternal love. Saints create joy around themselves and show the world in a new light. Others recognize in their presence that God is working in the world. You can see God in them instead of themselves.(If you would like to know more about this, please read my essay here.)

 

3. A description of being disciples by Pope Francis. What were the most significant statements of Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation "Rejoice and Be Glad" to me? 1) Holiness means that we are dying and resurrecting together with Christ continuously; its measure is determined by how large Christ’s counterpart is in us. Let the Holy Spirit transform you allowing this to happen. It is not life that has a mission, but life is the mission itself. In holiness you arrive to the point where you become the one whom the Father meant you to be when He created you. Dependence on Him is liberation from slavery. Being Christian is a joy in the Holy Spirit. 2) A trustful prayer is the answer of the heart opening to God calling Him „thou”, in which all words end allowing the Lord’s sweet voice to become audible in the silence. In this silence, in the Spirit’s light you can recognize the paths of holiness that are shown by the Lord. Otherwise our decisions are just "decorations" that, instead of implementing the Gospel in our lives, hide and strangle it. 3) Holiness does not mean that our eyes sparkle in an anticipated ecstasy. If we really start with observing Christ, we have to recognize Him on those people’s (the poor’s and the sufferers’) faces whom He wanted to identify with. Mercy is the vault that supports the church’s life. Humility can take roots in the heart only through experiencing indignity. 4) Nobody is redeemed alone, isolated, one by one. Keeping an eye on the net of human relationships, God attracts us to Himself. The community of believers is for creating the divine space in which the resurrected Lord’s mysterious presence can be experienced. (If you would like to know more about this, please read my essay here.)

 

4. A comparison of the three descriptions of discipleship. The three descriptions of discipleship contain a numerous significant similarities. There is a twofold reason for the high level of matches. On the one hand the three books contain the description of discipleship’s realization and do not deal with the dogmatically founded reasons of discipleship. On the other hand all three authors are theologists of the cross and not the glory regarding their personalities and attitudes. Jesus depicted in us (though He is depicted differently in everyone) is the same Jesus according to the essence of these three witnesses’ wordings. Though we are all blind and touch the very different parts of the elephant, still the very same elephant has to appear from the fragmented pictures as our life experiences are put together. Beside my own inner certainty of this, it has been a pleasure to experience a "common certainty" during reading and comparing these three excellent books. (If you would like to know more about this, please read my essay here.)

 


 

Introduction. In the past three years there were three books that gave me quite a lot and made me think deeply on interpreting the call of Jesus to discipleship. Looking back, it is very telling that I considered the works of the "contemporary" emblematic figures of the Evangelical and Catholic Churches and the one "in-between", the Reformation-born Anglican Church. These three key figures were Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Pope Francis and Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. This "rich immersion", that had nothing to do with me (all the three books had been recommended to me for reading by different close friends of mine), inspired me to compare the main messages of these three writings for me.

 

1. A description of being a disciple by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

 

As an introductory note let me start with that the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer concluded to martyrdom puts a stamp of serving Christ consistently till the final decisions on all what he had created. We cannot (and we are not allowed to) read his lines devoid of his own life example’s context. In opposition to the imperial church (the Reichskirche) supported by Hitler personally, Bonhoeffer had interest in what would it mean to follow Jesus Christ in that situation. To me the most important messages of his book "The Cost of Discipleship" can be summarized as follows. 1) Following Jesus provides and demands a changed life that undertakes the despised suffering in Christ for Christ. There is no cheap mercy. "Only the believer is obedient – only the obedient believes." 2) A half-Jesus cannot be accepted. Following Jesus is not following or interpreting rules but it is a total reliance with absolute confidence on that Christ, our Lord depicts Himself in us. We can find the Father in praying through Jesus. The Holy Trinity itself has harbored in Christians. At this point we do not interpret and live our lives from our viewpoints any more but in Christ for Christ. Discipleship (nevertheless) is the totality of freedom and joy. 3) Although it is the decision of each individual to follow Jesus but it cannot be kept away from the community of the disciples and the church. 4) Following Jesus separates us from the world ("There is not an own road leading from man to man. ... Christ stands between us as an obstacle. The only road to neighbors leads through Him"), but at the same time it links us to all people in the universality of love. 5) Following Jesus is not that broad way in which the crowd go. That is why, with the spreading strength of our whole lives spent in Jesus, we have to witness about our Lord at all times until He comes again. I cannot write about Bonhoeffer’s writings without emphasizing his personally thrilling, intensive, passionate and (at the same time) intimate tone. It would be "unscientific" (and blasphemous) to play with the idea whether the destiny of the writer could be felt reading his words if we did not know it... Although regardless of all these considerations, the intensity of the lines makes it obvious that the writer does not present an intellectual or literary feat but his own, innermost self transformed in Christ – together with all its consequences.

 


 

2. A description of being disciples by Rowan Williams

 

Rowan Williams’ book "Being disciples" is a very different artwork than that of Bonhoeffer. It is not a written explanation of the word of God but a lecture series put down on paper. This is a much lighter genre which, nevertheless, presents the essence of the author’s Christ experience. What were the most important statements of the book to me? 1.) Discipleship is such a state of being in which you are silent and listening all the time; you just let Jesus’ act (and indirectly the Father’s act) happen by you. For we can hear God, silence is needed. It is in God’s hands who I am. We are the objects of eternal enjoyment. 2) The essence of discipleship is a fusion with the Holy Trinity’s life. Believing is faith that the truth is able to possess me and it keeps me even if I myself cannot hold on any longer. Discipleship is growth and joy. 3) The disciple is together with those (the poor and the excluded of the world), whom Jesus would like to accompany. We have to be such places where people are given time and space to meet the eternal love. Saints create joy around themselves and show the world in a new light. Others recognize in their presence that God is working in the world. You can see God in them instead of themselves.

 


 

3. A description of being disciples by Pope Francis

 

Pope Francis writes the following in the preface of His apostolic exhortation "Rejoice and Be Glad": "What follows is not meant to be a discussion of the various means of sanctification.  (...) My modest goal is to repropose the call to holiness (...) For the Lord has chosen each one of us »to be holy and blameless before him in love« (Eph 1:4)". What were the most significant statements of this book to me? 1) Holiness means that we are dying and resurrecting together with Christ continuously; its measure is determined by how large Christ’s counterpart is in us. Let the Holy Spirit transform you allowing this to happen. It is not life that has a mission, but life is the mission itself. In holiness you arrive to the point where you become the one whom the Father meant you to be when He created you. Dependence on Him is liberation from slavery. Being Christian is a joy in the Holy Spirit. 2) A trustful prayer is the answer of the heart opening to God calling Him „thou”, in which all words end allowing the Lord’s sweet voice to become audible in the silence. In this silence, in the Spirit’s light you can recognize the paths of holiness that are shown by the Lord. Otherwise our decisions are just "decorations" that, instead of implementing the Gospel in our lives, hide and strangle it. 3) Holiness does not mean that our eyes sparkle in an anticipated ecstasy. If we really start with observing Christ, we have to recognize Him on those people’s (the poor’s and the sufferers’) faces whom He wanted to identify with. Mercy is the vault that supports the church’s life. Humility can take roots in the heart only through experiencing indignity. 4) Nobody is redeemed alone, isolated, one by one. Keeping an eye on the net of human relationships, God attracts us to Himself. The community of believers is for creating the divine space in which the resurrected Lord’s mysterious presence can be experienced. In his lines, the humility of the Catholic Church’s head was exemplary to me. Just like the way he judged the idea as a heresy that anyone could be justified by their deeds instead of mercy.

 


 

4. A comparison of the three descriptions of discipleship

 

The three descriptions of discipleship contain a numerous significant similarities. These similarities do not mean that the teachings of the three churches about discipleship would be identical. There is a twofold reason for the high level of matches. On the one hand the three books contain the description of discipleship’s realization and do not deal with the dogmatically founded reasons of discipleship. On the other hand all three authors are theologists of the cross and not the glory regarding their personalities and attitudes. This has much further increased the similarities coming from the above attitude. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer became a martyr. The Catholic Church’s resistance against Pope Francis’ Gospel attitude is well-known. Rowan Williams has met a very similar resistance in his own Anglican Church.) Let me emphasize that for me the most surprising and joyful moral of re-reading the three books in parallel was the quite big extent of their match. With all this I would not like to be a spokesman of some "intra-Christian syncretism". Although I consider it very important to underline that Jesus depicted in us (though He is depicted differently in everyone) is the same Jesus according to the essence of these three witnesses’ wordings. In case the "depicting ones" are authentic, it cannot be in any other way because "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever" (Jews 13:8). Or putting it in another way: though we are all blind and touch the very different parts of the elephant, still the very same elephant has to appear from the fragmented pictures as our life experiences are put together. Beside my own inner certainty of this, it has been a pleasure to experience a "common certainty" during reading and comparing these three excellent books.

 

 

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