Bonhoeffer writes, “Luther’s return from the cloister to the world was the worst blow the world had suffered since the days of early Christianity. The renunciation he made when he became a monk was child’s play compared with that which he had to make when he returned to the world. Now came the frontal assault. The only way to follow Jesus was by living in the world. Hitherto the Christian life had been the achievement of a few choice spirits under the exceptionally favourable conditions of monasticism; now it is a duty laid on every Christian living in the world. The commandment of Jesus must be accorded perfect obedience in one’s daily vocation of life. The conflict between the life of the Christian and the life of the world was thus thrown into the sharpest possible relief. It was a hand-to-hand conflict between the Christian and the world.
“…for Luther the Christian’s worldly calling registers the final, radical protest against the world. Only in so far as the Christian’s secular calling is exercised in the following of Jesus does it receive from the gospel new sanction and justification.” [Pages 51 – 52, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Macmillan, 1963 (paperback).]
Sikhs seem to have no problem letting people know they are Sikhs, and Muslims appear to be open about their practice of Islam, and many Jews do not hide their devotion to Torah and tradition; and yet hordes of professing Christians who huddle on Sunday mornings, when dispersed on Monday – Friday go underground, incognito, abdicating their identities as followers of Jesus Christ. It is as if Christians have dual citizenship, dual passports; one passport we use only occasionally, mainly on Sunday mornings; the other passport, the “normal” passport, we use in virtually all other travels and transactions. If we are following Jesus this cannot be; we cannot do this and follow Jesus
I do not write, “How can we do this if we are followers of Jesus?” I write, “We cannot do this and follow Jesus.” Our actions either affirm our profession or they give the lie to our profession.
I have previously shared the story of a hospice worker, a nurse, who would not share Jesus with the dying because it was against company policy; thankfully at some point she changed her mind and actions – too late for some patients but hopefully not for others.
Recently I listened to a man talk about a colleague dying of cancer; they had worked together for decades. He did not know if she knew Jesus but he did not want to offend her by broaching the subject. How can these two things be? How can we work with someone for decades and never share Jesus? How can we hesitate to share Jesus with the dying?
But following Jesus in the workplace is not just about verbal witness as we normally think about witness. It is foundationally about following Jesus in all aspects of vocation; our actions, our words, our ethics, our morality, our love for others, our service to others – as a package this is explicit witness, it is anything but clandestine.
Protestants have adopted the cloister mentality that Bonhoeffer explores in the chapter on Costly Grace. While few Protestant groups may actually have monasteries or convents, we effectively treat vocational ministers as the equivalent of monks and everyone else as the equivalent of those living outside the cloister. Those in the cloister are expected to follow Jesus 24/7; those outside the cloister must live in the practical and real world and we all understand that following Jesus just isn’t possible – it might cost us something.
Bonhoeffer will have none of this, Luther will have none of this, and come to think of it – Jesus isn’t going to buy it either.
“Hand-to-hand combat” is Bonhoeffer’s image for us following Jesus in the world. There is no form of combat as personal as hand-to-hand, no form as exhausting, no form as unrelenting. We are not called to disappear as chameleons into the world around us, assuming its colors and shapes and emitting its sounds; on the contrary we are to be distinguished from our surroundings as we follow Jesus. Paul writes, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect,” Romans 12:2.
Our minds cannot be renewed but by the Spirit of God and the Word of God; they certainly cannot be renewed via television or radio or the myriad images of this world; they cannot be renewed via the ethics and morals of this world – they can be crushed by these things of the world, they can be molded into the image of the world, but the world cannot renew us in the image of God in Christ. James warns his reads (James 4:4), “You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”
John warns those he loves (1 John 2:15 – 17), “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, in not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever.”
Jesus prays to the Father (John 17:15 – 17), “I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.”
I don’t think the problem with Christian witnessing is so much that people don’t know what to say, they don’t know who they are. If they see themselves as belonging to the world then they will have no sense of discipleship, no sense of being broken bread and poured out wine for others, no sense of willingness to suffer for Jesus and for others. On the other hand, if Christians see themselves as disciples of Jesus, as being citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20), as being salt and light to others; if Christians desperately seek renewed minds and transformed hearts, if they see the world for what it is – then “witness” is not an isolated action, it is a way of life in Christ. We learn to bear witness to Jesus Christ just as Jesus Christ bore witness to the Father.
After all, it is Jesus who says, “As the Father sent Me, so I send you.”
The cloister is child’s play – isn’t it time we start living for Jesus Christ?