A Sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 18 – Year C – 8 September 2013
John Edward Miller, Rector
Now large crowds were traveling with Jesus; and he turned and said to them, “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. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For 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? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
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, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Luke tells us that Jesus was attracting attention. Crowds were beginning to gather whenever he spoke. They were curious about his message, and wanted to hear him. But Jesus turned toward the seekers and said bluntly, “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. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple . . . So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
His words strike us as harsh, if not impossible to comprehend. They sound like the demands of an extremist, rather than the comforting counsel of the one who gave us the parables that celebrate unconditional acceptance, mercy, and compassion – in families and in the wider human community. Hating the primary relationships that nurture and sustain us, and give us our identity, is counterintuitive. To loathe one’s life is to reject it as the fundamental gift given to us by our Creator. Casting aside these basic elements of existence, and giving away everything we possess, would amount to the loss of life as we know it. And maybe that was Jesus’ point. Life – as beautiful and meaningful as it is – is not final; there is something that transcends this existence, and that is love.
One of the ways that the followers of Jesus understood the meaning of love is summarized in a text that Martin Luther called “the gospel in miniature.” Its message is simple, but enormously important: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Love like that is not a feeling, it is an expression of God’s will to save us no matter what it takes. That is good news – the greatest news ever published. It is the final truth about God, and about us, the people that he loves so completely. But it is expensive news; for such love comes at a painful price.
The cross is love’s symbol. The cross of Christ expresses in stark terms the costliness of love. It was the place where God lost his son in order that we might gain our redemption. That’s why we reverence the cross, stand when it enters the space it makes sacred, and keep it as our central focus in worship. That’s why we bear the indelible sign of the cross on our foreheads. At baptism we are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. In him our identity is transformed for love’s sake.
Jesus was not a zealot; his revolution was of the heart and soul. So his hard-edged saying was not intended as a nihilist manifesto or a political protest. It was a proclamation that becoming his disciple is serious business. A true follower of Jesus should know that there is a cost of discipleship. His stern words to the crowds that were traveling with him to Jerusalem were uttered in that spirit. Jesus wanted them to know what they were getting into, and he wants us to know that as well.
Following Jesus involves a transition, a change of expectations, values, and behavior. Our Prayer Book speaks of this in the exhortation to confession of our sin. It says, “Ye who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God and walking from henceforth in his holy ways: Draw near with faith, and make your humble confession to Almighty God, devoutly kneeling.” These words invite us to live into the godly love that transforms even the shadow of death into the morning.
Every transition in life has a cost. Or else it should. Otherwise there is no change, just status quo. At transitions like death and birth, the cost is apparent. There is loss, there is gain, and there is pain. But other transitions have costs too.
In marriage we leave our family of origin to create a new family. This process is joyous, but it is also difficult. Parents recognize the cost when their children leave the nest, bound for adult life, at college, or in the military. It is hard to see those little ones grow up and depart, but that separation is necessary for their wellbeing. When we graduate from school, and move to new locales, or leave old friendships, hoping that they will last at long distance, there is anxiety and sadness together with the excitement of anticipating new adventures. Job changes, retirement, shift of religious affiliation, health crises, the death of family members, and of friends, are weighty transitions. We are all-too-familiar with the costs involved in these things.
But there is a major transition that is easy for us to take in stride, and for granted – namely, that of becoming a disciple of Jesus. In our culture “Christian” is just one of many adjectives to describe people like us. When this label is applied it often appears in an obituary. Church affiliation is listed alongside membership in various social clubs, alumni associations, boards, honorary societies, and fraternal organizations. However, it is rare to have it publicly stated that one is a follower of Jesus. In certain segments of society, it’s simply assumed that being baptized and/or confirmed is all one needs in the form of Christian credentials. But that isn’t true.
There’s an old saying that goes like this: “If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” The implication is that Christian identity ought to show. It is outward-bound, transparent, and obvious. Paul gives a great description of what would convict us of being disciples of Jesus. It’s his amazing summary of love in I Corinthians 13. He not only tells us what love isn’t – arrogant, rude, jealous, boastful, irritable, resentful, and so forth, but that its positive presence is manifest in bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all, things enduring all things, and in never ending. Love never ends. It doesn’t give up, or throw in the towel just because it’s costly or painful or inconvenient.
Love costs you your life – your old life, that is, the one that holds onto possessions and status and the importance and gratification of self above all other things. In order to become a follower of Jesus, one must humbly desire to lead a new life, and walk in the way of the cross. No one ever promised this would be easy.
There is a tradition practiced by bishops at confirmation that is disappearing in our time. After the confirmand receives the laying on of hands and the words of confirmation, the bishop gives the newly-confirmed something else – a ceremonial slap on the face. This startling gesture is supposed to be a reminder that it’s going to cost you to be a follower of Jesus. It may sound strange, but it was for the candidate’s good (in the sense that Good Friday was for our good).
Confirmation is a person’s opportunity to reaffirm and own the promises made for him by parents and others sponsors at baptism – especially the renunciation of evil in all its forms and the oath to follow Jesus as Lord and Savior. And we, the people of God, make similar promises in the baptismal covenant. The celebrant asks a series of powerful questions, calling us to recognize the implications of discipleship, and its costs:
Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
Assent to these requirements is our way of saying, “yes,” to a holy contract – a bond of faith and action between us and the God revealed in Jesus Christ. To answer, “I will with God’s help,” is to recognize that the life of love is difficult. But is also expects that God is always there to help us keep those big promises.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer followed Jesus, trusting that God’s grace would be sufficient to keep his steps on track and his eyes fixed on the cross. Bonhoeffer was a gifted pastor, theologian, and writer. He was also a servant leader of faithful German Christians during World War II. At a time when many in the church had been seduced into believing in their Fuhrer rather than their Lord, Bonhoeffer and others resisted and publicly taught and preached against the Nazis. His most widely known book, The Cost of Discipleship, called the church to rebuke Hitler and to re-embrace the lordship of Jesus. In that famous protest, Bonhoeffer counted the cost of becoming an authentic disciple, contrasting a lip-service faith with true devotion. He decried what he called “cheap grace,” and emphasized the costly grace of God in Christ Jesus. Bonhoeffer wrote:
Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace 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, living and incarnate.
Costly grace is the sanctuary of God; it has to be protected from the world, and not thrown to the dogs. It is therefore the living word, the Word of God, which he speaks as it pleases him. 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. Grace is costly because it compels a man 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.”
With words such as these Dietrich Bonhoeffer got the attention of the German people, and the Gestapo. He was banned from preaching in Berlin, harassed, and threatened. Although he had teaching opportunities in Britain and the United States, he walked away from those places of safety. He chose instead to remain in Germany, and to continue resisting the Nazis. Bonhoeffer knew that discipleship is costly, and for the sake of God’s love, he followed the way of the cross. Near war’s end, he was arrested by the Gestapo and convicted as a conspirator in the plots to assassinate Adolf Hitler. He was executed in 1945, two weeks before the Allies liberated his prison camp.
Jesus said, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” Bonhoeffer counted the cost, and he followed his Lord. He believed that love is stronger than death. He was right. And his witness is eternal – not because he was a man of courage, but because his conviction was the embodiment of love.
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.