Maundy Thursday Ruminations about Jesus’ vocation and ours with help from Dietrich Bonhoeffer


The Passion narrative is “thick,” and no day in the church year has more going on in it than today.

First of all we have the Lord’s Supper, which I believe, along with many scholars, contains authentic words of Jesus, in which he tries to give his disciples an interpretive framework for understanding the meaning of his upcoming death.

Luke describes that immediately after the Supper “a dispute also arose among them about who would be the greatest,” which suggests that Jesus’ interpretive framework had gone right over their heads. (Luke 22:24)  This is neither the first nor the last time that the church didn’t get it.

Then, Luke tells us, they all left the Supper and took a postprandial stroll to the Mount of Olives, where Jesus goes off by himself, a “stone’s throw away” and prays to the Father, “If you are willing, remove this cup from me, yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke  22:42)

When the church later came to assert the doctrine of the two natures of Christ, that he was “truly human and truly divine,” few episodes in the Gospels show his human nature better than this small episode.

We have seen throughout this Gospel (Luke) how Jesus has been steadfastly intent on his vocation to go to Jerusalem and die.  At one point in the story (Luke 9: 51) we are told that, “he set his face toward Jerusalem,” a quote loosely based on Isaiah 50:7, where the Psalmist says he has set his face “like a flint.”  That’s a pretty strong image of determination.

Yet here, in this prayer, he ponders in prayer to the Father if there might be some way to get out of his calling.  It is not a long moment, for immediately he says, “yet not my will, but yours be done.”

It may not be a long moment, but it is a significant one, because it seems to me that no Christian vocation, and I don’t mean merely that of the ordained, is without the temptation to find a shortcut, an easier way, certainly a way that avoids a cross, either, as in this case, literally, or in most of our cases, metaphorically.

Dietrich Bonhoefffer, one of our modern saints and martyrs, wrestled mightily with his conscience about his decision to participate in a plot to kill Adolph Hitler.  The plot failed, and he was executed by the Nazis for his part in it just days before the war ended.  Whether you support his decision (many Christian pacifists, for example, do not) you must admit the integrity and courage of his act.  It was, as well, an obedient act, as was Jesus’ decision for the cross.  This is at the heart of Christian vocation, where Jesus calls each and every Christian to, “Take up your cross and follow me.”

But how do we know how to do that?  Where are we called to be, and what are we called to do? After all, the word vocation means calling.  And where are we to find our particular cross to take up?

Bonhoeffer himself provides a template.  He once wrote, “Either I determine the place in which I will find God, or I allow God to determine the place where he will be found.  If it is I who say where God will be, I will always find there a God who in some way corresponds to me, is agreeable to me, fits in with my nature.  But if it is God who says where He will be, then that will truly be a place which at first is not agreeable at all, which does not fit so well with me.  That place is the cross of Christ.” (Meditating on the Word,  p 44–45).

There is much more still to take place in the story on this Holy Thursday, but in this small anguished moment of hesitation,  we get a glimpse of the human struggle to be faithful to the hard road of Christian vocation, what Bonhoeffer called the “The Cost of Discipleship.” The alternative to vocation, I think, is self-deception.

(Picture: The Agony in the Gardenby El Greco)

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