The Cost of Discipleship: Bonhoeffer's Confirmation Class for Zionskirche Parish

In 1932 Bonhoeffer had ascended to the heights of German academic theology. He was a rising star. Already possessing a doctorate degree at the young age of 26, Bonhoeffer had already begun teaching theology at Berlin University, Ground Zero of the theological world.

But Bonhoeffer also had a passion for the church and was ordained in 1931. In fact, he was torn between the two worlds, an academic career versus serving as a pastor. All this was before the fateful year of 1933, when Hitler took power and pushed Bonhoeffer's life in a very different direction.

In 1932, as a requirement of his ordination, Bonhoeffer was asked to take on a confirmation class for the Zion Church parish in the poor Wedding district of Berlin. The group of fifty boys Bonhoeffer was to teach had been terrorizing their teacher, an aged minister who died a few weeks after he handed the class over to Bonhoeffer. According to Bonhoeffer, the boys so bullied the man he had "more or less literally been harassed to death."

As the minister and Bonhoeffer first climbed the stairs in the school where the classes were to be held, the boys, on the landings above, threw things down upon them. Once they arrived at the classroom, the minister informed the boys that a new teacher was taking over. His name was Bonhoeffer. Hearing this, the boys started screaming and chanting louder and louder "Bon! Bon! Bon!" The harried minister beat a hasty retreat, abandoning Bonhoeffer to the chaos.

Facing the storm, Bonhoeffer stood silently, leaning against the wall with his hands in his pockets. Minutes passed. The boys quieted some, and then Bonhoeffer began speaking.

He spoke in a quiet voice. Only the boys in the front row could hear him. Silence soon fell across the room.

Bonhoeffer told a story about this time in Harlem. The boys stayed quiet, listening intently.

When he finished, Bonhoeffer said that if they wanted to hear more stories he would tell more next time. Then he dismissed the class.

And that was the end of all the behavior problems.

Bonhoeffer took the class of boys all the way to confirmation, eventually moving out of his parent's house and taking a room in the Wedding neighborhood. He shifted his time away from lecturing at Berlin University to care for these boys. Once, when one of the boys needed him because of a medical operation, Bonhoeffer made his Berlin theology students wait in the lecture hall. All of Bonhoeffer's free evenings were devoted to his confirmation candidates, who had permission to drop by his apartment. Time talking systematic theology at Berlin University was exchanged for games of chess and camping trips with the Wedding confirmands. Academic theology was given up for being a youth pastor.

As I mentioned yesterday, this is one of my favorite parts of Bonhoeffer's life, his confirmation class for Zionskirche. Bonhoeffer was brilliant, and was a new and upcoming star at Berlin University. And what did he do? He put all that academic stuff on hold to pour himself into the children of the poor.

When talk about about "the cost of discipleship" in the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer we generally tell the heroic story of his resistance to Hitler and his martyrdom. But for me, do you know what I find heroic about the faith of Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

This: His confirmation class at Zionskirche.

When I think about "the cost of discipleship" in the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer I think of this:

I think of brilliant, ambitious theology students waiting impatiently in a Berlin University lecture hall because their professor is by the bedside of one of his Wedding boys.

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