The Cost of Discipleship

In 1937, the great German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a book which has long been considered a classic of Christian thought. It was entitled “the Cost of Discipleship.” Bonhoeffer certainly knew something about “the cost of discipleship” and he was eventually martyred  in Nazi Germany for his faith and resistance to Adolph Hitler. In his book, he makes a distinction between what he calls “cheap grace” and “costly grace.”

“Cheap grace,” he says, “is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross; grace without Jesus Christ.”

Cheap grace is to hear the Gospel preached like this: “Of course you’ve sinned, but now everything is forgiven, so you can stay as you are and enjoy the consolations of forgiveness.” On the contrary –Bonhoeffer’s book makes clear –the real Gospel is about “costly grace. He writes:

“Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus. It comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels (one) to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says, ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light!”

Costly grace is exactly what Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel reading when he says, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14) Now, of course, Jesus didn’t mean that literally. Jesus loved his family; and he loved life!

What he was doing there was employing the old Middle Eastern rhetorical device of “exaggeration to make a point!” What he did mean, now that he had their attention, was contained in the next line: “Whoever does not carry the cross… and follow me… cannot be my disciple.” That would have been crystal clear to those original disciples. Crucifixion was a common form of capital punishment reserved by the Romans for political prisoners.

It was a dramatic and public way of warning anyone about challenging the authority of Rome, and Jesus and his disciples would have seen countless unfortunate souls carrying the cross beam of their instruments of execution along the Via Dolorosa and up the hill to Calvary or to the outskirts of Jerusalem. Those disciples knew on that day – beyond the shadow of a doubt – that Jesus was challenging them to follow him to death, if need be. Costly grace indeed!

They could not have been too surprised about all this though. The history of the people of Israel was filled with prophets and sages who had been willing to face imprisonment, torture and even death as a result of remaining faithful and loyal to their God. Our First Lesson today from Jeremiah was written by a prophet who was threatened with those things more than once – from his own people – when he warned them about the consequences of their disobedience:

“Just like the clay in the potter’s hand,” (says the Lord) “ so are you in my hand, O house of Israel…I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.” (Jeremiah 18)

And Jesus’ original followers got that message. Most of the Twelve Apostles were martyred for their faith. St. Paul wrote the Epistle we read today  from his prison cell, and he was asking his dear friend, Philemon, to defy the custom of his day and to take back his runaway slave, Onesimus, “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother” since the former slave had recently become a Christian. Costly grace indeed was being asked for.

Well, what about us, dear friends? How can we tell if we are following a false gospel of “cheap grace” or the real and authentic gospel of “costly grace?” How can we tell if we are paying “the cost of discipleship?” Well, the simplest way I know of is to use the outline we call “the Baptismal Covenant” as a kind of checklist on yourself:

1.       Do you put your whole trust in the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?

2.       Do you worship that God every Sunday here in church thereby “continuing in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?”

3.       Do you try to resist evil and, when you do fall into sin, “repent and return to the Lord?”

4.       Do you share your faith – in your words and in your deeds – with your family and friends and neighbors and all with whom you come in contact?

5.       Do you look for Christ in other people – especially in those persons where it might prove difficult to find him – so that you can begin to “love your neighbor as yourself”?

6.       And do you do your part to work for justice and peace in this world – treating other people as God would treat them and practicing non-violence (which is the only way to “respect the dignity of every…human…being?”)

Costly grace? Or cheap grace? Grace which leads to discipleship? Or grace which is taken for granted? Well, Dietrich Bonhoeffer gives us a word of encouragement along these lines. Remember he said that costly grace was “costly” because it challenges us to carry the yoke of Christ. But that it was “grace” because that yoke is easy and its burden is light. I never understood that exactly until I learned that, when two oxen are yoked together, usually one of them is stronger than the other and so he becomes “the lead ox,” he actually pulls much more than his share of the load and so makes it easier on his partner!

In our case, baptism and participation in the Church means that we are yoked to Jesus, and he becomes our “lead ox!” He carries the lion’s share of the load if we will only let him. Let’s join with those who are being received into our fellowship today by making those baptismal promises right along with them and, in so doing, re-commit ourselves to the God to whom we prayed in the words of this morning’s Collect:

“Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts; for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord….Amen!”

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