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The Cost of Discipleship

A service from St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, reflecting on the wisdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The Rev Dr Sam Wells preaches, with music from the choir, directed by Andrew Earis.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor and leader of the Confessing Church that took a stand against Hitler in 1930s Germany. At three moments in his life he could have evaded danger and supported the anti-Nazi movement from afar. But on each occasion his faith led him to identify with those facing the terrifying cost of their commitment to the struggle.

Preacher: The Revd Dr Sam Wells
Led by: The Revd Katherine Hedderly
Director of Music: Andrew Earis
Producer: Clair Jaquiss.

38 minutes

Last on

Sun 21 Sep 2014 08:10


Please note:

This script cannot exactly reflect the transmission, as it was prepared before the service was broadcast. It may include editorial notes prepared by the producer, and minor spelling and other errors that were corrected before the radio broadcast.

It may contain gaps to be filled in at the time so that prayers may reflect the needs of the world, and changes may also be made at the last minute for timing reasons, or to reflect current events.

Sunday Worship 21 September 2014: The Cost of Discipleship

Radio 4 Opening Announcement:

BBC Radio 4. And time now for Sunday Worship which today comes from St Martin-in-the-Fields in London. The service is led by the Reverend Katherine Hedderly. The preacher is the Reverend Dr Sam Wells who reflects on The Cost of Discipleship. The service opens with the hymn, A mighty fortress is our God



Hymn: A mighty fortress is our God


Welcome to St Martin-in-the-Fields. We’ve just sung Martin Luther’s great hymn of faith in the midst of conflict, ‘A mighty fortress is our God.’ Luther wrote his hymn at the height of the Reformation. Germans and Lutherans have sung these words in times of trial ever since. One German Lutheran who found a safe stronghold in God in desperate times was the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Large numbers of Christians in Germany in the 1930s were being bowled over by Hitler’s fanaticism. Bonhoeffer spearheaded the Confessing Church, a gathering of Christians who refused to yield to the murderous direction Germany was taking. Bonhoeffer had several opportunities to step away from danger. On each occasion he chose to walk the path of discipleship, the way of the cross. John chapter 11 tells how Jesus faces the death of his friend Lazarus. It tells of three crucial moments where Jesus could have turned back. By setting up Bonhoeffer’s courage and witness alongside Jesus’ journey to the cross we can get a closer idea of what it means for each one of us to follow Jesus and face the challenges of our own lives without sentimentality, regret, or self-pity.


Katharine: Let us pray. Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer only found the courage to face the cost of discipleship because he believed he was walking alongside Jesus. This traditional spiritual reflects on what it means for Jesus to accompany us in our struggles and trials.

Anthem I want Jesus to walk with me

Reading 1: John 11. 1-8, edited

A reading from John chapter 11.

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God's glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ Then he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the people there were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’

Sam: We face moments in our lives when everything is telling us we should choose to be safe, take the comfortable route, avoid danger and find security; yet deep down we know that our duty and our true joy lie elsewhere.

That was where Dietrich Bonhoeffer stood in June 1939. He was in New York. He had a lot of friends there. He’d been invited to stay for three years to coordinate work among German refugees in the city. He pondered his situation for two weeks. And Jesus, when he heard his friend Lazarus was ill, waited a few days, for similar reasons. Jesus knew if he went to Judaea he’d most likely die. Bonhoeffer knew if he returned to Germany he’d either have to swear allegiance to Hitler and join the army, or join the resistance and face execution.

Bonhoeffer came to the same conclusion as Jesus. Jesus, knowing the likely consequences, travelled to Judaea. Bonhoeffer made a similar journey into a place of terrible danger. He said to his friend Reinhold Niebuhr, [‘I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I’ll have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I don’t share the trials of this time with my people.’]

Jesus’ journey to Judaea was like his coming among us in the first place. In becoming incarnate Jesus faced the risk that we would misunderstand, reject, betray, and kill him. In returning to Germany Bonhoeffer faced almost inevitable death. But Bonhoeffer knew he was a Christian and a German, and he was clear about what that required. He was called to be with the German people in their time of greatest crisis and challenge.

Here, in a setting by Philip Moore, is a prayer by Dietrich Bonhoeffer where he asks for strength to bear this burden and not be overcome by fear. And he says these extraordinary words of faith, ‘Whether I live or die, I am with Thee, and Thou art with me, my God.’

Anthem: Prayers in time of distress - Philip Moore (words: Bonhoeffer)

Reading: A reading from John chapter 11 beginning at verse 17

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Jesus said to Martha, "Your brother will rise again." Martha said to him, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day." Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" She said to him, "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world." Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him.

Sam: Now – a second moment of truth. We’ve already seen that discipleship means being with people even if it endangers your life. Now, as Jesus comes to Bethany, we see that if, and only if, you are willing to risk your life and well-being, you will see the resurrection.

For Bonhoeffer, a second defining moment came with the fall of France on June 17, 1940. Bonhoeffer and his friends had foolishly imagined that Hitler’s bombast would collapse when it first encountered serious military opposition. But now they had to face the truth that no one was going to get rid of Hitler for them. If they wanted Hitler gone, they would have to do it themselves. From then on Bonhoeffer became involved in the plot to kill Hitler. Bonhoeffer was a pacifist. But he was also deeply committed to the German people, and especially those who longed to claw the hope of a Christian society out of the mire of Nazi ideology. This commitment meant he could not keep aloof from the conspiracy. He joined the plot against Hitler not because he was sure it would work, but because he regarded such an action as representing the best in German character and spirit.

What Bonhoeffer was doing was interpreting in his own life the way of living that Jesus showed in bearing in his own body the sins of his people. He was living the logic for him of Christ’s incarnation. If you’re going to be like Jesus you have to live with your people. And you have to share their sufferings. That’s what Bonhoeffer committed himself to do.

As he put it in the words of his hymn: when we turn to God, we find that God turns to us. We turn to God when we are sorely pressed.

Hymn: We turn to God, when we are sorely pressed (t. Eventide). Words Bonhoeffer




Reading 3: John chapter 11 beginning at verse 38

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. Jesus said to Martha, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" So they took away the stone. And Jesus cried with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, "Unbind him, and let him go."

Address 3

Sam: The final threshold of the Lazarus story is when Jesus comes to the tomb. Jesus says, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha responds, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.’ Jesus insists, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ Martha wants there to be a way to redeem her brother that doesn’t involve the stench. Jesus asks if she’s serious about seeing the glory of God.

After the failure of the plot to kill Hitler Dietrich Bonhoeffer was arrested and kept in Tegel prison in Berlin from April 5, 1943, until October 1944. In the summer of 1944 he had the opportunity to escape. But he didn’t take it. That was his moment of facing the stench of the tomb, out of a deeper desire to see the glory of God.

Just days before Bonhoeffer’s planned escape, his brother and friends were arrested. Bonhoeffer realised that any escape would endanger and incriminate others. To us the stench of imprisonment and impending death may seem unbearable. But Bonhoeffer withstood that stench. He was concerned to see the glory of God. He knew that sooner or later he would stand before the divine judgment seat. And, like all of us, he would face the question, ‘Where are the others?’ If he was going to spend eternity with those others, he had to be prepared to remain with them now.

Jesus crosses three thresholds in the Lazarus story. He comes into Judaea, and so shows that to be with God’s people means to face the prospect of your own death. He crosses into Bethany, and so demonstrates that to be with God’s people means you have to share their sufferings and not vainly try to remain aloof from them. He comes to the tomb, and so makes clear that to be with God’s people you have to face their deepest horror and not run away.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer crossed three thresholds too. In June 1939 he returned to Germany when he could have stayed safe in New York, and so showed the cost of discipleship. In June 1940 he recognised he couldn’t keep aloof from the fact that all his friends were committed to the removal of Hitler as the least bad way of saving Germany from the abyss, and so discovered that the cost of discipleship may involve sacrificing some deeply-held principles. In October 1944 he turned down chance of escaping from prison and so demonstrated that solidarity with those you love sometimes means facing your own death.

Bonhoeffer’s return to Germany is like Jesus’ coming to earth. Bonhoeffer’s joining the resistance is like Jesus going to Jerusalem. Bonhoeffer’s refusal to escape from prison is like Jesus going to the cross. The closer we follow Christ, the more we share the horror of his crucifixion and the glory of his resurrection. In Bonhoeffer’s courage and faithfulness we realise what the cost of discipleship entails. It entails becoming like Jesus.

Katherine: We can become like Jesus because he meets us in our suffering. In this hymn written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer we imagine ourselves in the Garden of Gethsemane, singing the words, ‘And when this cup You give is filled to brimming With bitter suffering, hard to understand, We take it thankfully and without trembling, Out of so good and so beloved a hand.’


Hymn: By gracious powers - William Bradley Roberts

Intercessions next

Let us pray.

God our companion, in Jesus you came into a world that received you not. Give courage to those who face danger, hostility, and intimidation. Refine the wisdom of any who find themselves a long way from home, knowing that their family and friends are enduring hardship or great fear. Be close to all who live under oppressive regimes today, and empower your children who long for the day of justice to dawn.

Lord in your mercy

Hear our prayer

God our hope in times of trouble, send your Holy Spirit today on all who have an agonising decision to make. Strengthen any on whose shoulders rest the wellbeing of patients, soldiers, refugees or children. Give encouragement to those who live with the regret, and shame, and guilt, of believing they have made a terrible mistake or have caused widespread suffering; and reveal the promise of your resurrection.

Lord in your mercy

Hear our prayer

God our strength and refuge, in Jesus you faced the horror of the tomb. Inspire all who face the unknown today. Bless the people of Scotland in the aftermath of the referendum. Lift the hearts of any who face the prospect of illness, pain, or death. Raise up among us leaders and examples who embody faith in the face of fear and trust in the presence of mystery. And in times of trial, show us your glory.

Lord in your mercy

Hear our prayer prayer following the referendum in Scotland

We hear the Lord’s Prayer spoken in German in the translation by Martin Luther that Dietrich Bonhoeffer would have used on the day that he died.

Unser Vater inn dem himel. Deine name sey heylig. Dein reich kome. Deine wille geschehe auff erden wie im himel. Unser teglich brod gib uns heut und vergib uns unsere schulde wie wir unser schuldigern vergebe und fure uns nicht in versuchung sondern erlose uns vo dem ubel. Denn dein ist das reich und die krafft und die herligkeit in ewigkeit. Amen.

Vater unser in dem Himmel,

deine Name sei heilig;

dein Reich komme;

dein Wille geschehe,

auf Erden wie im Himmel.

Unser täglich Brot gib uns heute.

Und vergib uns unsere Schulde,

wie wir unsern Schuldigern vergeben;

und führe uns nicht in Versuchung,

sondern erlöse uns von dem Übel.

Denn dein ist das Reich und die Kraft

und die Herrlichkeit in Ewigkeit. Amen.




Music 'Into thy hands' - end of Philip Moore evening prayer

Katherine Dietrich Bonhoeffer had the courage he had because of his faith that he was walking with Christ, but also in the strength of the friends who walked with him. Through their partnership in the ecumenical movement in the 1920s, Bonhoeffer became close to George Bell, later Bishop of Chichester. It was Bell who helped Bonhoeffer resolve to return to Germany in 1939. George Bell was outspoken in criticising the blanket bombing of Dresden in 1945. He wrote of this as barbarism and believed that this sacrificed the Allies claim to have a moral superiority over Germany. This unpopular stand is widely thought to have cost Bell the possibility of his becoming Archbishop of Canterbury after the war. So Bell, too, in his own way, knew and faced the cost of discipleship. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote his final letter shortly before his execution by hanging in April 1945, just days before the end of the war. And he wrote it to George Bell. In recognition of the cost of discipleship, and in gratitude for companionship in faith and struggle, we sing now George Bell’s most famous hymn. Christ is the King, O friends rejoice.



Hymn Christ is the King, O friends rejoice - George Bell



Blessing God give you grace to follow the saints in faith and hope and love; and the blessing of God almighty, Father, Son and Holy Spirit be upon you and remain with you always. Amen.

Organ Voluntary

Radio 4 Closing Announcement:

Sunday Worship came live from St Martin-in-the-Fields in London. The service was led by the associate vicar, the Reverend Katherine Hedderly and the preacher was the vicar of St Martin’s, the Revd Dr Sam Wells. The choir was directed by Andrew Earis and the organist was Richard Moore. On the Eve of the Feast of Michael and All Angels, Sunday Worship next week explores the significance of God’s messengers - with the Bishop of Manchester David Walker and Canon Stephen Shipley.





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