June 30, 2019
At first flush, our gospel readings looks like a call to discipleship that requires us to forgo everything in our world that we know and understand; a call to give up family and friends and life as we know it. Jesus tells three would-be followers that perhaps they don't understand what true discipleship looks like. When one said he'd follow, Jesus explained that following would mean homelessness. The second asked to bury his father first and Jesus gave what seems like a harsh reply, "Let the dead bury their own dead." And the third wanted to return home for a proper farewell, but Jesus quashed that idea as well. I want to take a look at each situation and each response and see if we can't find meaning for our discipleship today.
This little phrase, the cost of discipleship, is the title of one of the more famous Christian books of the twentieth century. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a pastor in Germany and he was a leader in the public opposition to Adolf Hitler. He paid for that opposition with his life, being put to death shortly before the war ended. His most influential writings were found in his book The Cost of Discipleship. This book defined for much of the world the difference between what he called cheap grace and costly grace. Cheap grace is when we claim God's grace with no repentance, no change in our lives. Cheap grace is claiming God's gift without understanding the cost of the cross; without the life changing touch of Jesus. He describes it as getting just enough of Jesus to prevent us from getting the real thing. We miss out on the personal relationship with Jesus that changes us from the inside out. Costly grace is the grace of true discipleship. It is costly because following Jesus, truly following, requires more than just a word of affirmation. It is costly because it comes with the realization of the cost of our sin. Jesus paid a very high price. In one sense, Jesus is making clear that following him is costly... he paid the ransom for our sin, but grace also calls for obedience and sacrifice on our part.
In chapter two of his book Bonhoeffer uses today's gospel passage to expound on the call to discipleship. He wrote that that first disciple was warned of the costs and that Jesus reminded that no one chooses the life of discipleship for themselves. No on can call themselves; Jesus does the calling.
The second disciple wanted to bury his father before going with Jesus. Bonhoeffer's take is that the law demands burial, and often times man-made laws create a barrier between Jesus and the one who would follow. If this man was truly called by Jesus, it was a critical moment when nothing, not even the sacred law, should come between Jesus and the person called.
There is another take on this second disciple I'd like to share. Jewish law calls for burial of a body within 24 hours. There are lot of preparations to be made. Chances are that anybody whose father had just died would be too busy to go see an itinerant preacher. If that was the case, perhaps wha this man was really trying to do was postpone following Jesus indefinitely. If his father was not yet dead, his request to bury his father meant that he would be with his father until his death, whenever that might be. And so it was his way of delaying the commitment Jesus was calling for. Another possible explanation, we don't fully understand the motivations in this story.
Bonhoeffer writes that for the third disciple, “following Christ means he must make the offer on his own initiative, as if it were a career he had mapped out for himself.” He was going to get his house in order, then make this discipleship thing a part of his planned out life. But true discipleship does not follow our plans; following Jesus means being ready to go places, do things, help people in ways we don't have written in our daily planner.
Bonhoeffer is clear, discipleship means giving up our right to decide the next step. He is also clear and remains adamant that it is not our discipleship that saves us. Justification is by faith and not works. But he is also clear that faith requires obedience, the two cannot be separated in a true disciple. He goes on to say that faith is real only when we obey. And that can cost us our comfort, our pre-made plans, our control over our lives. Grace, but not cheap grace.
This track is also laid out by Minneapolis pastor Debbie Blue. She suggests that we need to guard against making this about works, about being the prefect little Christian. She says too often we pastors preach this passage like this: “If you want to follow Jesus you must do so wholeheartedly. There is no middle ground. You cannot proclaim the good news unless you’ve left everything to live it.” For her, it is not good news if being a faithful disciple, “depends on us becoming “good,” or practicing flawless nonattachment.” Those three would-be disciples each had their flaws, but they are not rejected for them. Blue sees the weaknesses and failures that we followers live with everyday. So she writes, “Maybe the point isn’t so much 'you’re not good enough, go away you pathetic failure,' but rather that the kingdom of God is so radically alive that anything that has to do with death distracts from it—anything that has to do with hopelessness: lifeless systems, merciless constructs, rigid, graceless standards of purity. The point is the scandalously redemptive, unmanageably living grace of God.”
Kind of two sides of the same calling; we are called to follow Jesus with our heart, soul, body and mind... but we are so weak and imperfect that we can never do it perfectly. It brings us back to the root of the good news; God's grace is greater than our sin, but it also greater than any accomplishment or works we may be tempted to claim as our worthiness.
We don't know anything about what happened to those three recruits. Were they discouraged at the remarks of Jesus, and gave up the idea of discipleship? Did one or two of them see beyond the tough words of Jesus and follow with a vision of the glorious kingdom that Jesus introduced. Did they put things in order and then follow? Did they follow until things got tough and then bail? Where would you put yourself on this scale of discipleship?
It an interesting combination of New Testament readings today. In many ways, the gospel warns us of the difficulties of following Jesus. Elijah and Elisha prove faithful to God and to each other to the very end. Truly living out the faithful life is not always easy. But we are not called to easy... we are called to follow Jesus. And by the power of the Holy Spirit, Paul in his letter to the Galatians tells us how we ought to live. He tells us that as followers of Jesus we are supposed to be bearing fruit. The fruit we are called to bear is a familiar list starting with love of which he wrote, “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself.": The full list is on our banner, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. And I'm always surprised that Paul doesn't make this plural—its not fruits of the spirit--but fruit. That means that every one of us as followers of Jesus Christ have within us the power to produce all of these characteristics. (Read again) Most of us don't... because most of us are not fully connected to Jesus. Lives are busy, time with God is hard to come by, our priorities get messed up by the world's agenda, we are lazy, we are tired, we get depressed...what we need is to be connected to the branch, Jesus Christ. That doesn't just happen. There needs to be a real relationship with our Lord and Savior. A commitment, an understanding of what Lordship means. Cheap grace says we affirm Jesus on Sunday morning and live any way we like the rest of the week. Costly grace means we are connected and bearing fruit; loving God and neighbor, obeying God and sacrificing our selfish desires to serve others. To follow Jesus in this way means we need to be nourished spiritually through a connection with Jesus. Prayer, worship, the sacraments, bible reading, quiet time, sharing in worship services are all ways we connect to the Lord.
You are here today because you have decided to follow Jesus; to be a disciple. But following Jesus is not a one size fits all. Every one of our journey looks different from every other journey. But what should look the same is living out the love of Christ in our lives. The last line of our hymn tells the story, God gives and we respond. “O God who gave yourself to us in Jesus Christ your son, help us to give ourselves each day until life's work is done.” The gift is given by grace; but that gift is not cheap. It cost the life of Jesus and it costs us our obedience. But as Paul explains in Galatians, the free gift sets us free to serve others: “For freedom Christ has set us free... only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.” We see again the great contrast in God's kingdom; here our freedom is slavery-to one another. Here, redemption is free because the cost has been paid on our behalf. Here we choose to follow, not because we know where God's path will lead, but because we trust God. God does not promise it will be a life of ease. It means our first loyalty is to God. And it means that we don't look back, but we look ahead to a life of service and love; and eternal life with our Lord and Savior. May we follow wholeheartedly as God leads, forgives and loves us. Amen.
Hymn: As Those of Old Their First Fruits Brought 414 PH