Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (1Corinthians 12:27 ESV)
When I read the story of Matthew being called to become a disciple how am I supposed to respond? Do I walk away from my workplace to follow Jesus? If I did that, what would I do and where would I go? Or is my situation more like the paralytic who is told to pick up his mat and go home? Bonhoeffer’s point in this section is that we can ask many questions and paralyze ourselves with confusion. How do I know what Jesus wants me to do?
His word remains one and the same, whether it was spoken during this earthly life or today, whether it was addressed to the disciples or to the paralytic. Then and now, it is the gracious call to enter his kingdom and to submit to his rule. – The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Believers since Jesus’ ascension have explored many options for answering this question. Early on there was emphasis on the guidance of the Holy Spirit as there were no written words of Jesus. This seems to have worked for the apostles most of the time, but not all the time. When it came to the question of circumcision in Acts 15 it was necessary for leaders to gather and talk with each other. There have been a few times in my life when I could clearly distinguish the voice of the Holy Spirit from my own thoughts. These times have been the exception. Your experience may be different, but I would be hesitant to try to follow Jesus based on trying to discern the voice of the Spirit through my thoughts alone. Most of us are far too self-centered to have this approach work.
Eventually, the words of Jesus and instructions from the apostles were written down. We take for granted how significant this is. Even though we have the Bible we have the same challenge with objectivity. We know from our own experience and thousands of years of history how differently Jesus’ words have been interpreted. The challenge that Bonhoeffer struggles with is directly related to the question of how to interpret scripture. We know that we can’t take Jesus’ call to Matthew as His direct call to us in exactly the same way. Jesus has called me to follow Him. There is much that I do understand. The commands to love God, love others, and make disciples are very clear. Beyond that Jesus seems to offer a diverse range of options regarding what following looks like.
It is within the church that Jesus Christ calls through his word and sacrament. The preaching and sacrament of the church is the place where Jesus Christ is present. – The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
There is a third source for discerning the will of Jesus. Bonhoeffer argues that it is His physical body present today in the gathering of believers. He specifically focuses on the preaching and sacramental aspects of the gathering. Small groups as we know them probably didn’t exist in Germany in 1937. I agree with Bonhoeffer that the church still has a physical body. The community of believers is the body of Christ. Is this all I need? Should I just follow my local congregation wherever it goes? I don’t think so, but I cannot ignore the input of the community and especially the leaders of the community that I belong to. One of the most concerning trends in today’s world is the growth in the number of people who have left community to rely on other options for spiritual guidance.
I don’t think that any one of these sources of guidance is sufficient by itself. Claiming to depend solely on the guidance of the Holy Spirit, many have been deceived into sinful lives and an attitude of self-righteousness. Claiming to have the right interpretation of the Bible has led to war and the killing of brothers and sisters in Christ. Assuming that it is sufficient to follow the leaders of a Christian community can lead to good, but has often led to great evil.
Paul goes beyond the three options I’ve discussed and presents his answer in the book of Ephesians. We need to be listening to multiple voices with hearts and minds that are willing to submit to the guidance that God provides. This is why it is so important that leaders within local gatherings of Christians work hard to model how to follow Jesus.
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. (Ephesians 4:11-14 ESV)