In January, 1935 Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote to his brother Karl-Friedrick “The restoration of the church will surely come only from a new type of monasticism which has nothing in common with the old but a complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ. I think it is time to gather people together to do this…”
This letter was written less than a year after the Barmen Declaration and four months after Adolf Hitler had assumed complete dictatorial control of the German state. It came four years before the beginning of the most devastating war in human history resulting in the deaths of 50-70 million people.
In light of that context Bonhoeffer’s proposal to begin forming a “new type of monasticism” seems like a counsel of despair, withdrawal, and perhaps even irresponsibility. It has been argued that Bonhoeffer later repented of this project and joined the assassination plot against Hitler as a better alternative. I do not want to argue that here. What I do want to investigate is what might have led someone as insightful, brave, and devout as Dietrich Bonhoeffer to turn towards the Sermon on the Mount and the practice of communal discipleship as the appropriate initiative for engaged Christians in a time of global crisis. What did Bonhoeffer see in Jesus’ sermon for such a time as that? What might we still see for such a time as ours?
Bonhoeffer saw in the Sermon on the Mount the resources for responding to the German crisis in at least three ways. First, he saw that the Sermon contained the resources for resistance to National Socialism, German patriotism, and the war. Resistance would be practiced not just in subversive anti-government actions, but also in the formation of a church that could not be seduced by the false promises of blood and soil. Crucial to the practice of cultural resistance was the formation of a Christian people, a confessing church, trained in and practicing the Sermon on the Mount without compromise.
Second, Bonhoeffer saw that the Sermon and the founding of a “new type of monasticism” would lay the foundations for a new social order after the war was over. It did not matter whether Germany won this war or not (and it was clear through Bonhoeffer’s efforts that he hoped for Germany’s defeat); what mattered was establishing centers for renewal where a new type of recovery could begin and a new type of society be established. These were in reality communities of and for the future, not communities trying to preserve or recreate an idyllic past.
Finally, Bonhoeffer saw that the Sermon on the Mount was the key resource for the restoration and renewal of the church and the church’s capacity to recover her voice as God’s people. The Barmen Declaration had unmasked the false religion of the established church for the idolatry that it was. A renewed church where Christians were catechized in the Sermon on the Mount would not look like the mainline churches that had been so susceptible to the appeal of National Socialism. It would be a church founded upon and shaped by Christ alone.
Utilizing Bonhoeffer’s example what might we see in our own time of global crisis? I want to briefly suggest ten things that summarize the Sermon in language that is suggestive for our contemporary situation as radical disciples of Jesus. These may not relate well to you at all, but they have related well to others with whom I have shared them; and they reflect my own continuing attempts to understand the revolutionary potential that the Sermon contains for “a life lived . . . in the discipleship of Christ.”
- This life is for those who hunger for justice and peacemaking (5:6,9)
Bonhoeffer certainly did not see the Sermon as an alternative to justice-seeking and conflict transformation. Although addressed to disciples only, it was not for disciples only. On the contrary, it was by means of a disciplined spiritual formation that a broader justice and peace would be furthered.
- This life is an oppositional, countercultural way of life (5:10-11)
However, the way of peace is not a peaceful way. Clearly, this community will not seek to always stay out of trouble, keep its beliefs to itself, living quietly in the land. It is important that opposition come for the right reasons (“for the sake of justice”), but the absence of outer conflict is not a sign of inner faithfulness – and may in fact indicate just the opposite!
- This life leads us into public ministry and the social performance of the gospel (5:14-16)
The Sermon on the Mount forms a public church. This church does not reside in the public square, nor do public concerns control its agenda. But it does not confine its witness to the byways or out-of-ways, but brings it’s message out to front street where everyone can see and evaluate it.
- This life is a creative, improvisatory style of life (5:21-48)
Jesus contradicts the Mosaic law not to impose an alternative law, but to propose the practice of grace. A life lived by the practice of grace is going to have an unpredictable, nonconforming aspect to it. Many of the central concerns of human society (the rule of law, the sanctity of life, sexual relations, contracts, conflict) are reevaluated and transformed by the way of Christ. It is not a blueprint, but a trajectory – a way, a practice, a discipline.
- This life draws upon a hidden religiosity, a deep spirit (6:1-18)
Just at the time when the outer crises increase our confusion and fear we are called to go deeper, be quieter, and to seek out the hidden way of a spiritual discipline of sharing, fasting, and prayer.
- This life is sometimes iconoclastic and polarizing (6:19-24)
Perhaps the icons of our day are no longer the statues and relics in our places of worship, but the “mammon” that seeks our ultimate allegiance in place of God. The Sermon does not allow for a posture of toleration towards that which would redirect the way of Christ.
- This life requires boldness, courage, and radical trust (6:25-34)
Fear is the enemy of faith and rather than selling fear we should be nurturing faith; doubting our doubts and entrusting ourselves to the God who can still surprise us with the specificity of God’s care.
- This life demands on-going transformation and growth (7:1-6)
And then with enemies all around we are reminded that it’s not about them it’s about us. We are the ones called to change. We are the ones called to repentance. We are the ones God keeps waiting for.
- This life is an adventurous but challenging way (7:7-20)
It will not be boring! You will be called to do things in new ways, never certain of the means, yet never doubting your provision. There will be dangers, mistakes, wrong turns, deceptions, and disappointments along the way. But in the end your faithfulness will “bear fruit”.
- This life is for the long haul and is sustainable and enduring (7:24-27)
This is the most important passage in the entire Sermon. Jesus is not forming a people around a single issue or a common cause or a movement. This is “full catastrophe” living, which can survive any and all crises. No one would embark upon such a journey without a promise like this. We work not for ourselves or even for our children, but for our great grand children. God’s dream is the work of generations.
Perhaps, the Sermon on the Mount and the formation of discipleship communities seeking to live out that Sermon without compromise is still the place for us to begin addressing all the crises that stimulate our addictions, capture our fears, and inflame our anxieties. Perhaps it continues to be the time to “gather the people together to do this.”