The cost of discipleship; cheap or costly grace?


Scripture: Jeremiah 18: 1-11; Psalm 1; Luke 14: 25-33

What a rich collection of readings today! There’s Jeremiah and the potter’s wheel; Psalm 1; and the difficult Gospel reading which my Bible titles, “The cost of discipleship”. 

The cost of discipleship

In the Gospel passage, Jesus says that the mark of a true disciple is to accept that you may have to carry the cross when you follow him. It’s not important to know whether Jesus foresaw his likely execution, or whether Luke edited it in, knowing how Jesus’ life ended.  The message is what counts.

Jesus bracketed this message with sayings about hating (or giving up) family, friends, and possessions. We can rephrase Jesus’ words as a question. “How much would you give up or risk to be a disciple?”

The cost of discipleship is also the title of a book that the German theologian Dietrich Bonhöffer wrote in 1937. The English translation, from 1959, is a very difficult ‘read’ for both the theology and the turgid writing style. Bonhöffer criticized the shameful behaviour of most of his fellow Lutheran clergy. They had supported the Nazi state, calling themselves “German Christians”. Like Jesus, he knew that he risked death for his beliefs. The Nazis executed him in Flossenburg concentration camp in 1945.

Bonhöffer’s book picked up the message of today’s Gospel. He wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” So my inevitable thought was – what is the cost of discipleship for us, as parishioners of St. George’s? In many ways, the cost for us is negligible. The worst that we might get for saying that we are Christians might be scorn from militant atheists. That’s not true everywhere. We have all read accounts of Christians in Egypt, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka being blown up by militants when they attend church. They risk death for their call by Christ.

Should it be hard or easy to accept discipleship?

Jesus said, “Which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?” It’s a metaphor, not an engineering problem.  In the earliest days of the Christian era, baptism was very casual (e.g., Acts 8: 26-39). But by the 4th and 5th centuries, the Church deliberately made it difficult. Would-be Christians had a long period of instruction and preparation before they could receive baptism and Eucharist.  It was spiritually costly. They had to count the cost ahead of time, like the person building the tower.  Also, in the days before Rome favoured the Christian religion, they faced possible persecution or martyrdom.

Today, the Anglican Church’s stance is closer to the New Testament model.  We offer baptism to all who seek to follow Jesus, and we welcome everyone at the Communion Table. They are two different perspectives. I can’t say that one is right and the other wrong. But is the cost of discipleship now too low? There is no come-back if the candidates or their sponsors don’t take their baptismal promises seriously. 

Grace: cheap or costly?

For us, too. Do we make more than minor inconveniences to help our neighbours or protect the environment?  We all promise to do those things every time we recite our baptismal promises. Another example is to accept absolution without intending to change bad attitudes or behaviour. They illustrate what Bonhöffer called “cheap grace” – easy to bestow and easy to put aside. Cheap grace is not really grace at all. “Costly grace” is hard to earn, hard to live up to. That is why Jesus said, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

We should hardly choose persecution as a good recipe for filling the pews at St George’s. But today’s Gospel reminds us that the decision to follow Jesus is not something trivial, to undertake lightly. Jesus used the metaphor of the man reckoning the cost of building his tower before he starts construction.  Jesus reminds us that discipleship has costs, even for us. Did we count the cost of discipleship before we signed up? We do not always to come to church each week, because it’s nice to sleep in. Often we fail to seek and serve Christ in all persons. Other times, we do not respect the dignity of other people. This is not because we are miserable sinners. It’s because our baptismal promises are very hard to keep.

The imagery of Psalm 1

I have loved the psalms for many years, so I can’t resist saying something about Psalm 1. As an introduction to the book of psalms, Psalm 1 has wonderful imagery. It begins with a repetition that is typical of Hebrew poetry. “Happy is the man that hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stood in the way of sinners, and hath not sat in the seat of the scornful.” This person does not walk, or stand, or even sit with the wrong crowd. “His delight is in the law of the Lord …”

In a truly beautiful image, the psalmist compares the blessed person with a tree growing by the side of a river or a lake. In Israel, a desert country, the phrase “growing by the waterside” is even stronger than it is for most Canadians. The water that the tree draws from the soil blesses and sustains it. Likewise, the law of the Lord continually nourishes and sustains the blessed person. They are spiritually fruitful, like the tree that bears fruit “in due season”. The psalmist conflates the pictures of the fruitful tree, the prosperous person, and the lush foliage of the leaves that do not wither. Contrast the ungodly. “They are like the chaff, which the wind scattereth away from the face of the earth.”

Stir-up Sunday

We began today’s service with that well-known Collect for the first Sunday of the new year of work and school. “Stir up, O Lord, the wills of your faithful people …” This prayer was written by Thomas Cranmer for the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549. One of my images of stirring up is a memory from childhood. Every fall, my mother had us all stir up the Christmas pudding mixture in a large enamel bread box. It was a family tradition. Everyone stirred and made a wish. My mother said the stirring had to be done clockwise, even by my left-handed sister, otherwise the pudding would unstir itself. She persisted in this belief even in the face of direct experimentation!

Sewing the threads together

I began by saying that the metaphors of today’s readings are very rich. But luckily, we are not all Bonhöffers or Jesuses who will have to make the sacrifice of literally carrying the Cross. But what if we don’t try our best to keep our baptismal promises? Do they become cheap grace, not worth anything much, or like the chaff which the wind blows away? Hopefully not. For, as Jesus said, “No one, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God” [Luke 9: 62].  There is indeed a cost of discipleship.

Jeremiah’s story about the potter tells us that even when we mess up, God can recreate us into something better. But we all need spiritual stirring up from time to time. As I look forward to the fall season, I think of the wind blowing and stirring up the piles of carefully raked leaves. We get annoyed when the wind messes up our hard work. But perhaps stirring up is what our spiritual life and that of our parish needs from time to time.  We get annoyed when the Holy Spirit is the wind saying we are too comfortable.

I want to end with Thomas Cranmer’s original words for ‘Stir-up Sunday’. “Stir up, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people, that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruits of good works, may of thee, be plenteously rewarded, through Jesus Christ, our Lord.”