At one point in working on this sermon I threw up my hands and thought, “Oh what the heck, just read King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” But the statement, “Come and see”, Jesus’ greeting to Simon, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas (which is translated Peter).” And knowing Peter’s story as told in the Gospel of John and the other gospels drew me to discipleship, what it means and how it is done.
Discipleship, as defined by the Episcopal Dictionary of the Church states, “A follower or pupil of a great master. A disciple is a learner who follows a movement or teacher and helps to spread the master’s teaching. The term is used in various senses and contexts in the NT to indicate the followers of Jesus.” It is a term that was eventually replaced by the word “Christian”, “However the concept of discipleship (being a Christian disciple) continues to be an important part of the Christian Life.” 1
The focus of discipleship is one of “supreme devotion to Jesus through the acceptance of his lofty demands. Commitment to him must come before all other attachments.”2 And as we have observed throughout the gospels, it is Jesus who invites, who calls the people to become disciples,“Discipleship is not an offer man makes to Christ.” 3 By responding to “the call” these disciples of the New Testament are taking radical action-- an action that will affect their whole existence. If you think about it, those we witness being called throughout the gospels are actively employed, and by answering the call to “Follow me”, “Come and see” they are leaving jobs, homes and families to enter into the discipleship and community of Jesus.
Reading The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian and martyr of the Nazi regime, I found a corollary between his work and that of Martin Luther King, Jr., for them the ethics of Christianity were the ethics of responsibility. For them discipleship is an active role not a passive role; it involves faith and obedience, obedience to Jesus in responding to his call, a call to participate with Jesus in bringing into being the kingdom of God.
To be a disciple involves the move away from “cheap grace”, “the grace we bestow on ourselves in order to live the Christian life as effortlessly as possible” to a “costly grace”, the grace which cannot be self-bestowed, Bonhoeffer states, “Costly grace is the sanctuary of God...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.”4
Bonhoeffer contends “Religious” people tend toward individualism (concern for saving one’s own soul for another world), metaphysics (using a concept of “God” to fill gaps in knowledge or to solve personal problems), parochialism (relegating God to only a part of life), or arrogance (thinking God favors them over others). These “religious” views, wrote Bonhoeffer, are anachronistic in a modern, “religionless” world. And they do not accord with the Bible: "In Jesus Christ, God lives and suffers with humans in the mist of everyday life. God becomes weak in the world in order that we might become strong and mature. Like Jesus, we are to be there for others in the joys and sorrows of mundane life.”5 Costly grace means that we live fully in this world and we follow Jesus’ example of being God’s agent in the world, we witness to suffering of the poor, the helpless and the oppressed as we bring God’s justice, mercy and compassion into the world.
Martin Luther King, Jr., also addresses cheap grace in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail:
“In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, 'Those are social issues which the gospel has nothing to do with,' and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which made a strange distinction between bodies and souls, the sacred and the secular."
"...There was a time when the church was very powerful. It was during that period that the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was the thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being 'disturbers of the peace' and 'outside agitators.' But they went on with the conviction that they were 'a colony of heaven' and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be 'astronomically intimidated.' They brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contest.
Things are different now. The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's often vocal sanction of things as they are. But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. I meet young people every day whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust.”6
What both of these men wrote in mid 20th century is still of value today, and through their lives we learn the cost of discipleship as both of these men were martyred. Being a disciple of Jesus today is no easier now than it was when Bonhoeffer and King were writing or when Jesus called his first disciples; and while we are not required to leave a job, a home or family physically we do need to respond to these attachments in a different way, a way that acknowledges our commitment to being a disciple of Jesus, discipleship first.
So what does being a disciple of Jesus look like now, in the 21st century?
We, of course, have the Scriptures, Jesus’ teachings to follow. Matthew 25 especially speaks to me because it defines my ministry as a Deacon. As with most of Jesus’ teachings it first seems so simple, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, give water to those who thirst, but then the hard part shows up, you have to go out to the naked, to the hungry, to the thirsty, to those in prisons and in hospitals.
In our Book of Common Prayer, our Baptismal covenant entreats us to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ”, “to seek and serve Christ in all persons” and to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being,” 7 and our Catechism lays out our behavior as disciples of Jesus, as “we are part of God’s creation, made in the image of God”8 therefore we must accept that “all people are worthy of respect and honor, because [they] all are created in the image of God and all can respond to the love of God”9 and it is our duty “to love our neighbors as ourselves and to do to other people as we wish them to do to us” 10 we are “to work and pray for peace; to bear no malice, prejudice, or hatred in our hearts;...to be honest and fair in our dealings; to seek justice, freedom, and the necessities of life for all people.”11
Again, all of this is so much easier said than done, but then cheap grace is so much easier to live with than costly grace, although the relationship with Jesus will be superficial; for it is through costly grace we willingly follow Jesus’ call to discipleship, to live a life radically transformed through our witness to the suffering of God’s people, and our willingness to heal, to feed, to clothe and to spread the Good News of the coming of the kingdom of God and to die to self as we “Come and see”.
1 Don S. Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum, editors, An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church (Church Publishing Corporation: 2000), 147.
2 David Noel Freedman, editor-in-chief, Eerdmans Biblical Dictionary (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: 2000), 349.
3 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (Touchstone Books: 1959), 63.
4 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (Touchstone Books: 1959), 45.
5 John D. Godsey, “Bonhoeffer’s Costly Theology”, Christianity Today http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-32/bonhoeffers-costly-theology.html
6 Martin Luther King, Jr. Letter from a Birmingham Jail, The Atlantic Monthly; August 1963; The Negro is Your Brother; Volume 212, No. 2: pages 78-88.