“If anyone would come after me, he or she must deny themselves, take up a cross and follow me” (Mark 8: 34, author’s paraphrase).
“When God calls a man, he bids him come and die”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Cost of Discipleship). (In what follows have been primarily guided by Eric Metaxes, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet Spy (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 504-534).
This past Wednesday was the sixty-ninth anniversary of the death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Easter Sunday 1945 came on April 1st. By April 1945, World War II was nearing its end. East of Berlin, the Russian Army was beginning its final thrust. To the West, Allied armies had crossed the Rhine River and were barreling towards the Elbe River, which was their final strategic objective. At Buchenwald Prison, the thunder of American artillery could be heard in the distance. The war could not last much longer. If only the prisoners could hold out a little longer, they would live. Some time that day, it was announced that certain prisoners, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, would be leaving. Two days later, sixteen people left in a wood-fed van. Smoke filled the back of the van, nearly suffocating those on the journey. In Berlin, the diaries of Admiral Carnaris were discovered on April 4th. The diaries contained information implicating Bonhoeffer in the conspiracy of high-ranking German intelligence personnel to kill Hitler and make peace. Hitler was incensed, and set in motion the events that resulted in Bonhoeffer’s death.
On April 8th, the Sunday after Easter, Bonhoeffer led the little band of prisoners in a worship service from the Isaiah 53, As Bonhoeffer finished the service a Gestapo officer entered with the words, “Prisoner Bonhoeffer, get ready to come with us.” These words always meant an execution. He said goodbye to his fellow travelers with a final word, “This is the end. For me, the beginning.” He was executed the next day at Flossenburg Prison. He was thirty-nine years old at the time of his death.
Years earlier, Bonhoeffer wrote a book entitled, The Cost of Discipleship. In it, he coined the phrase, “When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die.” In April 1945 that phrase came true for the young man who had returned to Germany years earlier to share the suffering of the German people and work for the overthrow of the evil regime of Adolph Hitler.
Bonhoeffer’s life and death are a testimony to the unfortunate truth that the blood of martyrs nurtures the church’s life. At the time he died Bonhoeffer was a promising young theologian with a brilliant future ahead of him. World War II interrupted that brilliant future. His friends knew that he was more than a brilliant theologian. They saw a man of exceptional faith and character who had returned to Germany to share in the suffering of the German people, despite the fact that he had been taken from Germany because he was in danger as a perceived enemy of the Nazi Party. Had Bonhoeffer not returned to Germany, fought the Nazi’s party, been imprisoned, and died, he would today be remembered as a brilliant, little read, German theologian. His courage and willingness to suffer made him a martyr to the Christian faith and a person of international, intergenerational influence among Christians and others.
In The Cost of Discipleship when Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, “When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die,” he means that the cross is the place where we die to ourselves, our agendas, our plans, our hopes, our dreams, our needs, our wants, in order that the world in which we live and work may be given new life. We die to ourselves when we begin to live for others. We are crucified when we begin to sacrifice our own plans, programs, ideas, needs, etc. for the plans, programs, ideas, and needs of others.
When Bonhoeffer speaks of cross bearing, he makes an important point: God never forces us to carry a cross. Cross carrying is different from the consequences we suffer for mistakes or because of the evil others do to us. These things are not cross bearing. They are the results of the fact that we live in a fallen world. Cross bearing comes when we voluntarily put to death our personal desires and agendas in order to do the will of God. Here is how Bonhoeffer describes this moment of decision: “When the disciples are half-way along the road of discipleship, they come to another cross-roads. Once more they are left free to choose for themselves. Nothing is expected of them, nothing forced upon them. So crucial is the demand of the present hour that the disciples must be left free to make their own choice…..” (Bonhoeffer, Cost of Discipleship).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer had a choice whether he would return to Germany where he was already seen as an enemy of the Nazi government. He had a choice as to whether he would continue to speak out against Hitler. He had a choice whether he would work for German intelligence carrying messages to the West from the German resistance. Each of those choices entailed an increasing risk of the death he eventually suffered. He chose to bear the Cross of Christ in Nazi Germany. God did not force him to do it. Nor will he force us.
Copyright 2014, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved