By Fr Chris Hayden
One of the most famous martyrs of modern times was the Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Born in 1906, he was hanged only two weeks before the Allies liberated the Nazi camp in which he was being held, and just three weeks before the suicide of Adolf Hitler.
Bonhoeffer was a clergyman and an eminent theologian. He had been imprisoned for criticizing Hitler’s euthanasia programme and his persecution – his genocide – of the Jews. It was also alleged that Bonhoeffer had been involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer used to say that it wasn’t only his task to look after the victims of madmen who drove a car in a crowded street, but to do everything in his power to stop them driving – to get the murderous lunatics out of the driving seat.
Bonhoeffer was also critical of the Christian churches of his time; he was concerned that increasingly, believers were being offered what he called ‘cheap grace.’ The kind of ‘bargain-basement’ religion he criticized, he described as ‘grace without discipleship, grace without the cross.’
This man wasn’t a monk; nor was he any kind of religious extremist; he had a large circle of friends; he enjoyed a good social life; he hoped to get married once the war was over. But long before the noose tightened around his neck, he had seen very clearly that an appeal to easy discipleship, discipleship without the Cross, was a noose around the neck of authentic Christian faith.
If Bonhoeffer were around today, I think he’d still find reason for concern about cheap grace, bargain-basement discipleship. There’s always a demand for an easier form of Christianity, yet Christianity has always had the Cross right at its centre.
We’re well aware of failings in the Church, and in some ways we continue to carry the burden of failings. It is sometimes said that a post-scandal Church has no right to preach a demanding Gospel, no right to state the moral requirements of faith, no right to insist that being a Christian comes with a cost.
We need to hear the voices of heroes like Dietrich Bonhoeffer; people who knew all about cost, all about scandalous cowardice in the churches, all about heroic perseverance. Bonhoeffer would remind us that the real cost of discipleship was paid by Christ on the Cross – and the cost was his blood. And if we seek bargain-basement, low-cost discipleship, it’s not Christ we’re following. If we seek to justify ourselves rather than seek to be converted, it’s not the Gospel we’re responding to – it’s something else.
The second reading at this Mass is taken from the oldest surviving Christian writing: St Paul’s first letter to the Christians in the Greek city of Thessalonica. The people to whom Paul wrote were our earliest example of costly discipleship. As the followers of Christ, they were a tiny minority in a pagan culture. They had turned away from idolatry to the God of Jesus Christ; they had rejected the free and easy sexual practices of their surrounding culture; they had put their hope in the justice of God rather than in the power of empire.
And they were widely resisted and misunderstood. They weren’t being persecuted just yet, but there were straws in the wind. In the reading we’ve just heard, St Paul compliments them on being joyful ‘in spite of the great opposition all around [them].’
We could draw all kinds of parallels between our situation and theirs, but instead, let’s pose a set of questions, questions that take their authority from fine, humane, intelligent, courageous disciples like the Lutheran martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
· Do we want cheap grace, bargain-basement, low-cost discipleship?
· Or are we willing to pay a price for our beliefs?
· Do we look for ways of defending ourselves against the demands of our faith?
· Do we want to go with the flow?
· Or are we willing to resist, to go against the current?
These are good questions, important questions. We should allow them to niggle us when we hear voices calling for easier discipleship.