Friday, September 6, 2019

The Cost of Discipleship

Luke 14:25-35 When I was in college I read a book that changed my life because it changed how I understood my Christian faith.  That book was “The Cost of Discipleship” by the Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was put to death in a Nazi prison camp.
The great unifying theme of this book can be summarized in one very famous sentence:  “When Christ calls a man to come to him—he bids him come and die.”
Bonhoeffer contrasts what he calls “cheap grace” with “costly grace.”  Even if you’ve never read the book, you know what cheap grace is:  forgiveness without real repentance—discipleship without real sacrifice—is church membership without real commitment.  Cheap grace is not unique to any particular moment in the church’s history—either ours or Bonhoeffer’s—it is found in every place and time. 
The Apostle Paul had to face it in his day with those who thought that forgiveness meant freedom to live how they wanted-- rather than freedom to serve God and neighbor.  Even those who followed Jesus during his earthly ministry succumbed to the temptation of cheap grace.  Jesus healed their diseases—he fed them when they were hungry—their physical needs were met-- and for many of them that is where their commitment to Jesus ended.  But then and now—“cheap grace” is a terrible distortion of Christianity.
True Christianity is a religion of costly grace.  God is gracious to us ONLY because of the bloody death of his Son Jesus Christ on the cross.  Sacrifice and suffering was the cost of:  our forgiveness—our salvation—and our life with God.  And our lives as Jesus’ disciples cannot help but take on that same costly shape. 
We are baptized into his death.  We are fed with his broken body and shed blood.  We are called upon by Christ to die to sin—to die to thinking of the world—to die to self.  The costliness of our salvation cannot help but translate into a costly life of discipleship.   When Christ calls a man to come to him—he bids him come and die.  Today we hear our Lord Jesus Christ tell us just exactly what it means to be his disciple—what the cost of discipleship really is.  The Bible says that:
Great crowds accompanied Jesus, and he turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”
            There was not one moment in his life where Jesus ever failed -in the least- to love his heavenly Father and love his neighbor as the Law demands of each of us.  And so Jesus’ words about hating those closest to us—and hating our own life--seem like a contradiction of everything that his life of love was about.  And so what is going on here?
            Jesus is using a figure of speech to powerfully illustrate how great our love for God must be-- so great that every other love:  love for our spouse, love for our children, love for even our own life--looks like hate in comparison. 
These words are intended by Jesus to work a radical re-ordering of what comes first in our lives and what comes first in our hearts:  love for God above all.
But we cannot help but ask ourselves:  If God comes first in every decision that I make and every word that I speak and every thing that I do—won’t this rob those I love, of the love that they need from me?  And the answer to that is “no”! 
It is a great mystery of the Christian life of discipleship that ONLY when we love God above all things and all people-- can we then truly begin to love those around us as we ought.  Only when our love of God is first-- is our love for others rightly ordered. 
And yet we know about ourselves how often our love is disordered and misdirected—which is why Jesus came in the first place—because God loves us, and wanted to make a way back for us to our first love.  Jesus says:
Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.
            Jesus told his disciples that he was going to Jerusalem where he would be persecuted by the religious leaders of the Jews—put to death on a cross—and rise again.  And that is what he did. 
The love of God for a world full of sinners who did not love him above all else is what sent Jesus into the world—and his death upon the cross—is the ultimate sign of God’s love for us.
Jesus did not withhold anything from his heavenly Father and he did not withhold anything from us—not even his own life—as he suffered and died upon a cross.  This was the love that got it right—this was the love that reconciled us to God.  And because of Jesus’ costly sacrifice, God’s love for us comes through the cross into our lives.  But only through the cross.
When we were baptized, the sign of the cross was made upon our foreheads and upon our breast to mark us as one of those redeemed by Jesus Christ—connected forever, by faith, to his death and resurrection. 
But it was also a visible sign that our lives would be marked by the cross—that we too would have a share in the suffering and sacrifice that comes to those who are his.
And so then, our own cross (that Jesus says we are to take up as his disciples) is not the suffering that all people endure as part of living in a broken world.  Rather, our cross is the extra hardships that come to us because we are disciples of Jesus. 
Jesus says that it is impossible to avoid our cross, and still find our life with God through his cross, and we should understand this up front and consider carefully the cost of following him as his disciple.  Jesus says:
Which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace.
            These illustrations of a tower being built and a battle being waged capture two different aspects of the Christian life of discipleship.  As Jesus’ disciples, we are to build a Christian life on the one hand and fight against evil on the other hand.
As for building a Christian life, the Bible says that we have been created in Christ Jesus to do good works—that we are to be zealous for good works—that we are to grow daily in Christ-likeness--that the fruits of the Spirit are to abound more and more in our lives--that we are to grow in the knowledge of the truth. 
As for fighting against evil, the Bible says that we are to crucify the flesh with its affection and lusts--that we are to resist the devil--and that we are to have nothing to do ways of the sinful world around us.
Building a Christian life and fighting against evil are costly endeavors and what we discover about ourselves is that there are a whole lot of half-finished towers and bitter defeats in our life of discipleship because we haven’t paid the price. 
And so why does the Lord tells us this?  Why does he give us such a painfully realistic assessment of the true cost of discipleship?  Is he trying to discourage us from becoming disciples?  Is he trying to keep us from even beginning? 
Not at all!  But he does want us to recognize- from the start- that our own resources are insufficient to accomplish what he wants from us as disciples.  That is why he says that:  Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.  This renunciation of all that we have certainly includes our sins.  It includes our misplaced priorities and disordered love.  It includes our material possessions and the right to decide for ourselves how we will live.  All of it is to be given over to Jesus.
But it also includes our own strength—our firm resolutions—our best efforts.  They too are to be given over to Jesus because all of it together is still insufficient to build a great Christian life and win the battle against evil. 
The life of discipleship requires resources outside of us—resources that only the Holy Spirit can give as he works in us through Word and Sacrament—forgiving us and strengthening us and encouraging us in our walk of faith—so that our lives become a powerful influence on those around us.  Jesus says: 
“Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is of no use either for the soil or for the manure pile. It is thrown away. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
            On several different occasions Jesus refered to his disciples as “salt”—meaning that our lives ought to have a wholesome, purifying effect on the world around us—that the world around us ought to be a better place because of our influence. 
But the “cheap grace” that denies the cost of discipleship ruins this influence.  When Christians are no different than unbelievers in how we liv--when we abandon our distinctive characteristic of Christ-likeness—when we have another purpose rather than glorifying God in what we say and do--we become as useless as salt that has lost its “saltiness”—good for nothing.
            Jesus wants us to hear this warning and take this message to heart: that there is a cost to discipleship.  And it cannot be otherwise.  He has laid down his life for us on the cross and as his disciples he calls us to bear our cross and follow him.  Amen.

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