07 March 2010

The Journey of the Cross: III. The Cost

Matthew 20: 17-28

Third Sunday in Lent/ 7th March 2010/ Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper

When we began this journey we saw that one way to understand the cross (and there are many) is to see it less as the goal of Jesus’ life, than as the consequence of him being faithful to his identity as God’s Son and his calling to preach the good news of God’s Kingdom. We saw last week that if the cross is the consequence, the price we pay for being faithful to our God-given identity and calling both as individuals and as the church of Jesus Christ, then don’t be surprised if we’re faced (like Jesus) with the temptation to run the other way, to take the less-painful, less risky, less faithful course.

The focus of this series is Jesus’ cross, but it’s really more about our own journey of the cross. What does it means for us today to bear the cross? What does it means for us to have a cross-shaped, life?

Being faithful to God to who we are as children of God with a God-given calling come with a price. There’s a cost.

This is worth remembering because there is a very powerful propensity in the history of the church to try to have it otherwise; that is, to have Christ, the Kingdom, and the Christian life without the cost. This is what H. Richard Niebuhr (1909-1945) was addressing in his classic text The Kingdom of God in America. Niebuhr, one of the wisest of American theologians, describes the American Protestant church of the late nineteenth, early twentieth-century, influenced by the social gospel movement. Liberal Protestantism at that time believed in the essential goodness of humanity and denied the reality of sin; it rejected anything supernatural about the faith and therefore jettisoned the importance of doctrines such as the Trinity, the Incarnation, the full divinity and humanity of Christ. It preferred to see Jesus as an exceptional human being, an extraordinary teacher who gave us an ethical ideal that we could achieve on our own, if we just put our hearts and minds to it, because we could do anything. Humanity could actually usher in the kingdom of God. They believed in a God who turned out – surprise, surprise – to be remarkably like themselves. They believed, “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” (1) They were so optimistic (some would say arrogant) to assume so much. They wanted to follow Christ into the kingdom, but on their terms. They wanted the kingdom without realizing it comes with a price.

There’s something of this attitude in the mother of James and John who asked for a special place of honor for her sons when the kingdom comes. She wants the glory, the status, authority, power for her sons when Jesus takes over Jerusalem, but she doesn’t understand what the kingdom is about and she doesn’t understand the way to the kingdom is difficult and not for the faint of heart. “You do not know what you’re asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” Do you not realize there’s a cost involved? For the Son of Man will be handed over, and condemned to death, then handed over to Rome to be mocked, flogged and crucified. We can’t blame her for not getting it. The disciples didn’t understand Jesus’ message. It was illusive at best. It was a shock to their system (it always is). For the Kingdom has nothing to do with business as usual, it has nothing to do with status, authority and power-politics; it has nothing to do with personal gain and wealth, fame or fortune. God’s Kingdom of justice and grace is the opposite way of the world. It’s the complete undoing, a topsy-turvy, overturning of the values of the world. “For whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” To accept Jesus’ Kingdom way, to live God’s way means giving up our way. The Kingdom is as free as God’s grace, but to accept it will mean giving up our control and an end to life as we know it. That’s the cost.

To follow Christ without a cross, without a cost, is to dally in what Bonhoeffer (1909-1945) famously called “cheap grace.” Indeed, it was cheap grace and its false-optimism of the 19th century that exploded, literally, with the Great War in 1914 on the fields of France and Belgium. So much for sinless humanity. Many of the leading German theologians at the time actually signed a document supporting the Kaiser’s War. That act eventually led Bonhoeffer to write between the wars that “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church.” (2)

What is cheap grace? Cheap grace is when we turn Jesus and the faith into a set of ideas or beliefs, doctrines, even morals that we “hold,” but do not “hold” us, that we use for our own purposes instead of the purposes of God. Cheap grace is keeping Christ at a distance and not participating in his life. When we’re not personally, existentially committed to him., it doesn’t cost anything. “Cheap grace,” Bonhoeffer said, “is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, …. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” Cheap grace has been the ruin of more Christians than probably anything else. (3)

In contrast, costly grace, Bonhoeffer wrote, here referring to Jesus’ parables of the kingdom, “is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him….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 cost a man his life, and it is grace because it gives 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] Son: ‘ye were bought at a price [1 Cor. 6:20],’ and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us.” (4) Bonhoeffer believed this; he also lived it personally, existentially, and became a martyr in 1945, assassinated by the Nazis, thus fulfilling his own prescient statement from 1937, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” (5)

Rare is the person called down Bonhoeffer’s path of discipleship. Nevertheless, walking with Christ means living a cross-shaped life. Perhaps for many of us the greatest cost in following him is associated with what we value the most – our egos, our selfish pride, our self-centeredness. How often do we say we want to follow Jesus, but do so on our terms? We say, yes, I want to be Christian, but in our own way, which usually means with as little inconvenience as possible. We say we, yes, we want to be part of the church, but to get from it only what we want when we want it, failing to see what it asks of us.

But to yield to Christ, to drink from his cup, to give our lives in service to God’s kingdom, yes, it comes with a cost, but it’s worth it because we are invited to give our lives over to something larger than ourselves, to something more important than fame or fortune or honor, to something, indeed, someone in whom we will lose ourselves, only to truly find ourselves (Matthew 16:25). The One who invites us to share in the feast of the Kingdom of God, to know him and to be known by him in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:35).

1. H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (New York: Harper & Row, 1959[1937]), 193.
2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Collier Books, 1963[1937]), 45.
3. Bonhoeffer, 47, 59.
4. Bonhoeffer, 47.
5. Bonhoeffer, 99. Bonhoeffer was condemned to death on April 8, 1945, at a drumhead court-martial without witnesses, records of proceedings or a defense in Flossenbürg concentration camp. He was executed there by hanging at dawn on April 9, 1945, just three weeks before the Soviet capture of Berlin and a month before the capitulation of Nazi Germany.

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