The other Sunday two teenagers, Hannah Whillis and Adam Blaikie joined Hilton Church in Inverness: baptised there as babies, they were now professing personal faith. In preparation the church’s excellent youth minister Jonathan Fraser led them through not a dry course in the implications of church membership, but what he called an ‘apprenticeship’ in following Jesus.
Adam Blaikie and Hannah Whillis
They committed over a ten week period to pray and study with Jonathan, and to get involved practically in acts of mercy, compassion, devotion, justice and worship: for example they helped at Highland Foodbank; talked about their faith with friends; Hannah wrote to prisoners; they both mentored Christians younger than themselves. At the end of the process, they had, Jonathan said, a template for following Jesus throughout the rest of their lives.
This month sees the 70th anniversary of the execution in a German prison camp of 39-year-old pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who resisted the Nazis, helped form a Nazi-free breakaway church, served as a double agent, and (though initially a pacifist) was implicated in plots to assassinate Hitler. He also wrote deep, searching theology, including The Cost of Discipleship, a challenge to follow Jesus in difficult times.
His life reminds us that walking the road of discipleship as Adam and Hannah are doing calls for discernment. The German people in general embraced Hitler as the saviour who would restore their nation after the catastrophe of World War I and the ensuring Depression. Some Christians saw him as a God-given deliverer. One pastor allegedly said ‘Christ is come to us through Adolf Hitler.’
But from the very first, just after Hitler was appointed Chancellor in 1933, Bonhoeffer spoke of the danger of a Feuhrer (leader) becoming a verfeuhrer (mis-leader). And yet in time the Lutheran Church to which Bonhoeffer belonged was taken over by Nazi sympathisers.
We protest that we wouldn’t have been so short-sighted. The sober truth is that most of us would. And so we must reflect on the leaders and ideas we set store by as Christians.
It’s easy in our fear to brush aside all new things, and cling to what we think we know. To do this is to risk rejecting Christ as he comes to us in new ideas and new perspectives. But it’s easy too to deludedly follow a verfeuhrer, welcoming ideas and embracing visionaries as coming from Christ when in fact he disowns them.
I’m concerned this election time at the bitterness of some social media posts about the campaign which latch on to certain leaders as saviours, and demonise the rest. Ultimately, only the grace of Christ can change the spirit of a nation. The most powerful among us are as children, confused and perplexed.
Bonhoeffer recognised that there were good people on both sides of the debate in German and in his book Ethics he writes to those perplexed about the ideas they should run with that ‘if a man asks humbly, God will give him certain knowledge of his will.’ (For all his clarity of thought he was a man of his time when it came to non-inclusive language!)
Discipleship, according to Bonhoeffer also requires engagement in all the areas Jonathan led Hannah and Adam through. And the extent of our obedience to God is a measure of the genuineness of our faith – ‘only he who is obedient believes’; ‘Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ.’
Faith must express itself, Bonhoeffer argues. If our faith is real we will not be content to corral it in our hearts and minds while the rest of our living is indistinguishable from those around us.
‘The church stands, not on the boundaries where human powers give out, but in the middle of the village.’ Not a last resort we turn to when we’ve run out of ideas, but in the very centre of the community modelling new ways of thinking and acting. In foodbanks and prisons and market squares, not just comforting victims of injustice and violence, but driving ‘a spoke into the wheel’ of unjust systems.
Speaking personally, the word ‘discipleship’ makes me cringe because of memories of books and courses and hoops to jump through. But the idea of loving, responding to, saying ‘Yes’ to Jesus and thus making my part of the world a better place: this, I gladly embrace.
Adam and Hannah are walking into an ever-changing future, but discipleship remains the same: openness to the living Jesus, God-given discernment, engagement with the world. Bonhoeffer warns humourously: ‘I fear that Christians who stand on earth on only one leg will stand in heaven on one leg too.’ Those who will embrace the world to come with the most joy are those who have, in this dimension, been at the very centre of the village.
(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 16th April 2015)