2023-09-03 Pentecost 14
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen!
Once there was a German Lutheran Pastor by the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was quite the man! His father was a prominent Psychiatrist and his Mother was a home maker who home-schooled the children. Instead of following in his father’s footsteps, Dietrich chose to take up studying theology. He became a theologian and later a Pastor. It’s not that overly exciting. I mean we’ve all known more than a few Lutheran Pastors over the years. But one of the more interesting and exciting parts of Bonhoeffer’s life was his involvement in opposing Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. He was a member of the Abwehr – German Military Intelligence Office and was involved in plots to assassinate Hitler. Unfortunately, he was arrested in March of 1943, imprisoned and eventually executed by hanging.
Bonhoeffer left a legacy of theological writings, especially on the topic of “discipleship.” But what does this mean? What is discipleship? I guess we should start with “what is a disciple?” It is a “disciplined” one. It is one who follows. Bonhoeffer wrote at length about this in his book appropriately entitled “The Cost of Discipleship.” Everywhere he looked he saw people who came to church, but they were people who didn’t live their lives like Christian people. He saw “Sunday” Christians, those who act “churchy” and “christian-like” only one day, or one hour a week. During the rest of the week, church, spirituality and faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God, never crossed their minds. We could appropriately call this hypocrisy. He looked out and saw Christian people who figured that because God is a God of mercy and grace, they could live like pagans, do what they want to do, and God will simply forgive anyways, so what did it matter?! In his introduction he wrote this:
“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
Bonhoeffer wrote against turning the grace of God into something so meaningless and watered down that we don’t even comprehend or fathom what it means in this day and age to be a disciple of Jesus. Bonhoeffer’s goal was not to turn the grace of God into a new legalism, a Pharisee type of “shape up and fly right” creedo. Instead, he writes that we might hear about the “consequences of grace.” As Lutherans, we’re used to talking about the consequences of sin, how all people have fallen short of the glory of God and justly deserve nothing but His wrath and eternal punishment. Yet what about the consequences of grace? What are the consequences for us and for all Christian people who have been baptized and who now follow the risen Lord?
“Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” This is a big “if” isn’t it? Not too many questions in life are this weighty! Deny ourselves? Take up our own cross? Follow Jesus? That’s it. That’s discipleship in a nutshell. It sounds pretty easy on the outset, I guess. But it’s not easy. It is not easy to deny ourselves, because ourselves are sinful! We like to be first. We like to be number one. We like to indulge. We like to be in control. We like to make plans that suit us. From the time we are conceived, we are like this. Sin and it’s temptations are there and they never leave us. This is why Baptism is so important. It helps drown that old sinful self and suppress all of those sinful desires. It gives us the gift of faith and salvation. It helps us deny ourselves as we are marked with the cross of Christ. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
Like many disciples and followers of our Lord during His earthly ministry, we are quick to say that we love the Lord and show how deeply committed we are to God. But, when it comes time to making sacrifices of discipleship, our true colors of commitment come shining through! It’s like the farmer who wrote to his girlfriend in town: “My dearest Abigail, no mountain is too high, no sea is too wide to keep me from your side. I would walk barefooted on broken glass just to catch a glimpse of you! Love your dearest Henry. PS. If it don’t rain Saturday night, I’ll try to drop by and say hello!” We are quick to love our Lord and be committed to Him – when it’s convenient for us! When things are peachy and rosy, being a Christian and coming to church is swell! But when things aren’t so good, what then?
Psalm 23. It’s loved and revered by most people. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Everybody knows that Psalm. It’s so nice and caring and comfy! But what about that part about the valley of the shadow of death? You know the line. It’s that deep dark part that talks about real-life in our sinful world, with all of it’s pain and hardship and sorrow and sadness. That one line hits us like a phone booth and reminds us about the reality of this sinful place. It’s just like when you cross the Alberta border and come back into sweet ol’ Saskatchewan. The roads immediately get worse and infinitely rougher! Yet another reminder that life won’t always be a fresh, smooth, level, black-top experience! It wasn’t for our Lord - and it won’t be for those who wish to follow Him either. The cross must come before the crown.
But if we had it our way, we would skip over the valley of the shadow of death completely! We would pass “go,” collect our $200.00 and live happily ever after in a penthouse sweet on one of our numerous Boardwalk hotels. But God may have other plans for us. In fact, we might face sickness, difficulties, and economic hardship in this life. Our kids are going to make stupid choices and you might have to choose between staying faithful to our Lord instead of accepting their stupid choices. It might take these things to humble us out of our self seeking pride. It might take these things to help us learn what it means to take up our cross and follow the Lord of Life. It may not be a pleasant experience at times, and we might wonder just what good our troubles could possibly serve! But to answer that question, we only need to look to the cross.
The old rugged cross. That emblem of suffering and shame. In the midst of misery, humiliation, suffering and death we see our hope. It is there that we see our joy. For there we see God’s plan of forgiveness, life and salvation. When our hardships come, when the valley of the shadow of death comes, when pain and troubles come and we wonder “why?!” and “what good could this possibly do?” we can gaze at the cross and see how much God can do in the midst of sorrow and misery! It is in the cross where we see the love of God, the same love of God that is applied to us in our Baptism, the same love of God that rejoices when one sinner repents and comes to faith! The same love of God that graciously forgives in the bread and in the wine of Holy Communion.
Discipleship, then, seeks the will of God and His Kingdom above all else. It submits and bows the knee only to the Lord and giver of life who has what is best for us in mind, even when we can’t see it. Discipleship rejoices in the grace of God because it removes our sins from us as far as the east is from the west. Discipleship picks up our own cross and follows Jesus, through the bumpy roads of life and into the eternal glory. It is only in the losing of the worldly, temporal things that we gain the unimaginable riches of eternity. And the beauty of this faith and discipleship is that we never follow alone. We walk together with the communion of saints in the forgiveness of sins – all of the faithful baptized believers who have come before us, are here with us now and those who are to come. We all have the same mission. We all walk the same road. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Amen!