Based on Jeremiah 18:1-11, Philemon 1-21, Luke 14:25-33
There are few sermon topics in the life of a minister of the Word that are more difficult to discern and deliver than the one before us today. Our scriptures offer us, in stark relief, the essence of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus the Christ. To prepare for this sermon, I have spent the week immersed in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s, “The Cost of Discipleship”. In this book, written more than 80 years ago during a time of expanding and all-consuming evil in Germany, Bonhoeffer details what he saw as the weakness in the witness of the Church in general and the German Church specifically. He saw that since the time of the Emperor Constantine, the institutional Church had offered primarily “cheap grace” to its people instead of the more costly grace of discipleship demanded by Jesus.
By “cheap grace” Bonhoeffer means “…the grace which amounts to justification of sin without the justification of the repentant sinner who departs from sin and from whom sin departs. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without [corporate] confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ – living and incarnate….”
Our scriptures today are leading us into a deeper encounter with “costly grace”. This is the grace of discipleship which is shown to the prophet Jeremiah at the potter’s house where God is always reworking us into a new creation as seems good and useful to God. It is the new world where slave is the same as slave holder once they both are baptized into the Body of Christ. It is the new reality which calls us to give up every bit of our allegiance and devotion to worldly possessions in order that we might free ourselves to be able to carry the cross and follow Jesus. As it says in the Gospel of Luke, this is not a decision to be made without due consideration. Let us therefore go to God in prayer before we consider the cost of discipleship…
Jesus continues to teach after telling two parables about how to throw a dinner party and how to be a good guest. In today’s reading from Luke, He shocks the crowd gathered around by asking them to consider the cost of following Him. He tells them that they must hate their close relatives and their very lives; in other words that all worldly things in their lives must become secondary to their allegiance to the Christ. They must pick up and carry the cross that He will one day carry in order to follow Him. He tells them that they must tally up the considerable cost associated with discipleship – one that will leave them with no attachments to earthly possessions.
Paul is writing to Philemon about his slave Onesimus. Onesimus ran away from Philemon and somehow ended up with Paul. Onesimus has been baptized by Paul and has become, in Paul’s words, “…useful both to you and to me….” Therefore, Paul is sending him back so that in Christian love, Philemon can receive him and then send him back to Paul in order that Onesimus can be in service to Paul in place of Philemon. Paul reminds Philemon that the latter owes him “even his own self” and so Paul is certain that Philemon will do right by Onesimus. Paul ends his letter by stating that he is, “…Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say….” Whether or not Onesimus is still enslaved, Paul is clear in his letter that in terms of his baptism, he no longer is possessed by Philemon – rather he has become enslaved to Christ Himself. Philemon must consider the cost of following the Christ versus following worldly economics and societal norms.
To make a point to the prophet Jeremiah about the ownership of the “house of Israel”, God’s word sends the prophet to the potter’s house. Jeremiah watches as the potter’s initial work was “spoiled”, so the potter reworked it “into another vessel, as seemed good to him”. God tells the prophet to tell Israel that God can do the same thing to them. God uses plain language saying, “…Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings….” The people of Israel respond in verse 12: “…We will follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of our evil will….” Which is costlier, do you think…discipleship or the coming Exile?
It should be clear that being a disciple of Jesus is an endeavor not to be entered into lightly. Clarence Jordan, is the author of “Cotton Patch” (a New Testament translation) and founder of the interracial Koinonia farm in Americus, Georgia. One day he was getting a full tour of another minister’s church. With pride the minister pointed to the rich, imported pews and luxurious decoration. As they stepped outside, darkness was falling, and a spotlight shone on a huge cross atop the steeple. “That cross alone cost us ten thousand dollars,” the minister said with a satisfied smile. “You got cheated,” said Jordan. “Times were when Christians could get them for free.” Truth be told, we are currently living in times where in certain places in the world, following the Christ will get you imprisoned, tortured and possibly martyred.
In a similar vein of thought to Mr. Jordan, the theologian Soren Kierkegaard has this quote attributed to him about the 19th century Danish Church: “…I went into church and sat on the velvet pew. I watched as the sun came shining through the stained-glass windows. The minister, dressed in a velvet robe opened the golden gilded Bible, marked it with a silk bookmark and said, ‘If any man will be my disciple, said Jesus, let him deny himself, take up his cross, sell what he has, give it to the poor, and follow me.’ And I looked around and no one was laughing…” Certainly, the irony of being called to follow an impoverished, itinerant rabbi “who had no place to lay his head” should make us all critical of the worldly riches held by the institutional Church in relation to the call of Jesus to share its blessings with those less fortunate. One can make the assertion that the Church might be “spoiled” and in need of being reworked by the potter into another vessel as seemed good!
Good people, the costly grace of discipleship is the treasure in the field, the pearl of great value, the call of Jesus which makes Levi leave his counting house and Peter, James and John their nets to follow Him. Bonhoeffer writes that, “…Costly grace is the good news [sic gospel] which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which we all [sic a man] must knock….” He continues, “…Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs us all [sic a man] our lives, and it is grace because it gives us all [sic a man] the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of God’s [sic his] Son…and grace because God did not reckon the [sic his] Son too dear a price to pay for our life,…”
Thus, the costliness of our discipleship is contained in our considered response to the call that God through Jesus the Christ puts on our lives. What will our response be as both a Church and as individual disciples? We can continue to choose to experience the cost of the “cheap grace” which was detailed so pointedly by Rev. Bonhoeffer and continue to sin without repentance. This is what has yielded the current situation in the Church and our larger society. Alternatively, we can consider the cost of being truly forgiven and made right with God through the costly grace that requires our repentance and avoidance of sin. We can choose to truly follow Jesus with all that we have and all that we are – just like Peter did following the Resurrection. What is absolutely true is that we can no longer have divided loyalties to worldly possessions and persons to the exclusion of our full allegiance to the Christ. It is way past time to allow ourselves to be reworked into something that God finds useful. The bottom line is that complete Christian discipleship is costly – it is costly because it costs us all our lives, and it is grace because it gives us all the only true life. Will you choose to make the investment and follow Jesus? May the words of my mouth and the consideration of our hearts lead us all to deeper discipleship and eternal life! Amen.