The following is a recent sermon given by Rev. Aaron Linville on Mark 8:31-9:1.
One of the more well known and more quoted theologians of the 20th century is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is as well known for what he did, as what he wrote. Even before Hitler took over Germany, Bonhoeffer saw the writing on the wall. He knew that the Church in Germany was in trouble of loosing itself to the pressures of society. His fears were confirmed when the German Church did not protest any of Hitler’s anti-Semitic, anti-gypsy, pro-true-German policies.
Bonhoeffer is famous for writing about the need for the church to practice discipleship rather than just believe the right doctrine. He is famous for living out his belief that Christian practice is just as important as Christian belief. In his life, this manifested itself painfully in the fact that he could have remained in the United States teaching, but instead returned to his brothers and sisters in Germany in 1939. He returned because that is where the Good News was needed, and it is where God called him to be. While he was in Germany, he ran an underground seminary until it was shut down. He was imprisoned and spent the rest of the war in concentration camps. Just a handful of days before Flossenborg was liberated, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed, a martyr of the Christian Faith.
His most famous book is called The Cost of Discipleship. In it, he looks at several scriptural passages where people tried to follow Jesus-to be his disciple. He points out that while there is free grace in all those encounters, discipleship is not free. He talks about cheap grace- receiving forgiveness without really changing our lives. Cheap grace is still grace, but Bonhoeffer finds it to be shameful. For Bonhoeffer, followers of Christ are to be about costly grace.
Costly grace requires that the person receiving grace changes her/his life. Costly grace is what the disciples experienced when Jesus said, “follow me and I will make you fish for people” – and they followed him at the cost of their jobs, their income, their livelihood. Costly grace is the grace that the rich ruler faced when Jesus said, “One thing you lack. Sell everything you have and give it to the poor and come follow me,” and the man left full of sorrow because he had great wealth.
For Bonhoeffer, grace is free, but it should never be cheap or easy. It should compel us to change our lives. The most well known line in The Cost of Discipleship says, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Our inclination is to take that metaphorically- to say that Christ calls us to die to our selfish desires and whims, to give a few things up and to throw money at a project or two. Our tendency is to clean it up and give that bold and difficult statement a “G” or “PG” rating. It does include those things, but we must remember that Bonhoeffer did die for the call of Christ. Bonhoeffer actually meant it when he said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow
me.” Like the Bonhoeffer quote, our tendency here is to give what Jesus said a “PG” rating. Jesus is certainly not calling us to die for him, especially not here in the United States in the 21st century. There is no need for that. Jesus just meant to put others before yourself, and maybe sacrifice here and there for his sake. That’s all. But what if Jesus meant what he said?
You see, we are in the same boat as Peter when he said, “Surely not Jesus. You ‘do not need to undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes and be killed. You should stop talking that nonsense.’” We say “Surely not Jesus. You do not really call us to die. You want us to live and do your ministry for as many years as possible. And besides, there is nothing that is going to cause our death here in America unless we nobly sacrifice ourselves pushing someone else out of the way of a speeding car.” And Jesus says, “Get behind me Satan.”
Jesus’ words here are harsh. There is no getting around that. I read this week that some people think that Jesus’ strong rebuke of Peter is appropriate given the way Peter openly and blatantly contradicted his teacher, but I disagree. Maybe Peter’s rebuke did merit a strong statement from Jesus, but “Get behind me, Satan” is a bit much no matter how you look at it. The strength of this statement, the gravity of Jesus’ rebuke, gives greater weight to what Jesus says on either side of it. It makes us really pay attention to what Jesus is trying to teach his disciples.
And Jesus is trying to teach them that suffering and unpleasantness is a part of following him. That is not all there is to discipleship- for there is joy and happiness and laughter and love in discipleship, but we must not ignore that sometimes, discipleship is messy, dirty, and painful. Sometimes grace is costly to us.
One reason it is easy for us to make this statement “PG” is that we hear Jesus say “take up your cross and follow me” knowing about the resurrection. It is easy for us go down that route, but we must remember that Jesus said these words before his crucifixion, before his disciples knew about the resurrection. It is almost impossible for us to imagine how they must have felt when Jesus said this. We hear this statement with hope, for we know about the resurrection. For us the cross is a symbol of life as much as it is death. This was not the case when Jesus said it. Jesus said, “to follow me, you must deny, forget, disregard your own rights, your own life, and walk with me to your execution.”
That takes any sense of commonplaceness, any sense of ordinariness out of following Jesus, and in truth, there is nothing ordinary about following someone who has come back from the dead. But as Bonhoeffer indicates, there is a difference between following and becoming a disciple. Anyone can follow. The cross affects every living soul on this earth, so anyone can follow, and grace is there, but discipleship is for those who have seen their Maker’s face, who have seen the cost of their grace in his eyes, and who see in grace a reason to do things that do not make sense simply.
This part of this county and the surrounding area is the worst place in the nation for food insecurity. It does not make sense for anyone to donate food for strangers to consume. It makes much more sense for us to take care of us and ours and let nature sort out the rest. Yet because of the face of Jesus, people all over this county come together to help cover the basic necessities for others.
The blood in our veins is essential for our lives, and even though it is unpleasant and takes a chunk of time, the Red Cross will take your blood and give it to a stranger in need- a little discomfort and a little loss of time can help save up to three lives. I doubt this is what Jesus meant when he said “there is no greater love than to lay down your life for someone else” but isn’t that exactly what giving blood is? For various reasons, some people cannot give blood, but we can still go and be a comforting and calm presence for someone else who is scared of needles, who struggles with the physical side of giving blood, but desperately wants to do their part. It does not make sense for us to let our blood leave our bodies, but we do, and I know several people who do it, and can only do it, because Jesus said “take up your cross and follow me.”
We know that a full night’s rest is exceptionally important for good health. Chronic sleep deprivation can lead to decreases in your ability to get things done, memory impairment, heart attacks, strokes, obesity, and can cause several other issues with our health. It makes no sense for anyone to sacrifice sleep for another person unless it is in the name of caring for someone who is sick or tending to an infant- but dozens and dozens of people have done so every night this winter for our unhoused brothers and sisters in this county simply because Jesus said to take care of them.
Jesus said “If anyone want to become my followers, let them deny themselves…” What if we denied ourselves the next time we voted? What if we voted not for which candidate would help our wallet, would increase our bottom line, would help take care of me and mine, but instead voted based on which candidate has the courage and ability to do what is right and just for the most vulnerable among us- even if it means we take a hit, even a big hit?
I know it’s a cliche, but what if we gave until it hurt? What if the next time we went grocery shopping we bought two of everything on our list, and gave it away? Or even if we gave away a tenth of what we purchased? What if we gave up a portion of a meal or two every couple of days, or fasted, and gave that food away? What if we did any of that just because Jesus said “deny yourself.”
Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the
kingdom of God has come with power.” Picking up the cross, denying ourselves, even though neither makes sense, is where the Kingdom of God has come with power. We glimpse the nearness of the kingdom of God during Holy Communion. We glimpse it because we all come to the table as equals. Not equals in wealth, not equals in social status, not equals in abilities and gifts, but equals in that each come to the table because of grace, and in experiencing that grace, that forgiveness, we are able to return it to everyone else who partakes as well.
We glimpse the Kingdom of God just as much when we pick up our cross and deny ourselves for the sake of another whom Jesus loves not for the recognition or the ego boost or the pat on the back, but simply because Jesus asked us to do so. We glimpse the Utopia of God’s Kingdom when we seriously and intentionally deny ourselves and pick up a cross in costly ways to follow Jesus. Maybe that’s what he meant when he told the disciples all those years ago, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until the see that the Kingdom of God has come with power.” That is just as true today as it was then, if we but take Jesus seriously and deny ourselves in order to become his disciples.
The Rev. Aaron Linville is pastor of Rural Hall Moravian Church.