In his book The Cost of Discipleship, the German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes about what he calls Cheap Grace:
“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.”
In many 21st century churches, we have forgotten that the call to discipleship is costly and comes with great responsibility. For some, we have turned discipleship into church membership, and we require extraordinarily little in the fear that people will not join; in other words, will not put their donation in the collection plate each week. Now, I am a realist and understand that we need money to function, but let’s put that aside.
As we continue our look at the United Church of Christ Statement of Faith, we turn our attention to the sixth declaration, which lays out some requirements.
“You call us into your church to accept that cost and joy of discipleship, to be your servants in the service of others, to proclaim the gospel to all the world and resist the powers of evil. To share in Christ’s baptism and eat at his table, to join him in his passion and victory.”
For now, we will lay aside the question of baptism and Communion as we will address those in a future sermon, but for now, we turn our attention to this idea of discipleship and the cost, and the joy associated with it.
Many churches spend too much time being church and not enough time doing church. What this pandemic has shown us is that we do not need a building to be the church. Sure, it’s nice to have a space to come together and worship, but we continue to worship God even though the building is closed. We continue to be the church even though the physical manifestation of that church is not available. We can no longer hide behind the four walls of the building; we are church out in the open just as it was for those Christians of the first century.
In his book, Confessing our Faith Roger Shinn writes about what the role of the church is in light of the sixth declaration. “God calls the church to a mission in the world. The covenant community is a mission community. The word mission comes from a Latin verb that means “send.” To have mission is to be sent.” (Shinn pg 85)
But before we can be sent, we must be prepared.
The stories of Jesus calling his first disciples are short. For some, he simply said, “Follow me,” For others, the invitation was a little more elaborate, but the call is only the first step. Jesus taught his disciples first by his example, the example of love and compassion for all, and then he taught them how to pray.
The great monastic founder Benedict wrote in his rule for monasteries that the day should be evenly divided between work and prayer. He desired his monks to learned people but also people of prayer. They studied the Scriptures and other writings and spent half the day in prayer, some of it silent and some of it spoken. If we are to be disciples, then we must be learners and prayers; if we are neither, then we are not disciples, we are just going through the motions.
Going back to the Bonhoeffer quote above, what is the cost of discipleship? Well, for starters, there must be a cost and not a financial cost, but a cost. We understand that God forgives, but do we seek that forgiveness? Do we seek penance? Do we seek reconciliation? All of these are directed toward God as they are to our fellow human beings.
There is a double dimension to sin, the part the separates us from God and the part that separates us from our fellow human being. The ancients believed that before someone partook of Communion, they had to be “of the right spirit.” They had to be reconciled with God and with their fellow human. Many ancients wrote about leaving your offering in the church, going, and seeking out the brother or sister that you are in a disagreement with, reconciling with them, and then coming back and taking Communion. How many of us willing partake of the elements on Communion Sunday knowing that we are not reconciled to others?
The sixth declaration continues; “to be servants in the service of others.” A servant is not a word that most of us like. A servant is somebody who does a job for somebody else.
I am a big fan of the Television program, Downton Abbey. In the program, we see a definite line between those upstairs and those downstairs. The Lord and Lady do not even know the names of most of the people that wait on them, and even though the Butler and Housekeep interact daily with them, they are still servants. We must be servants in the service of others.
In biblical times a servant might be either a slave or a hired worker; the language used does not always distinguish between those two terms. But the word carries with it a special meaning.
The Book of Isaiah uses the image of the Suffering Servant, and we Christians equate that Jesus. Jesus’s followers recognized him as the Messiah who was supposed to be a heroic king, but we know that he dies on the cross, and this was contrary to what the belief was of the Messiah. Being a servant requires humility; God humbled God’s self to become human. Jesus humbled himself to die on the cross. We must humble ourselves to serve others, even those that don’t look like us, act like us, and believe like us.
Quoting Shinn again:
“The Statement of Faith declares that we, following Christ, are called to be God’s servants in the service of others. The mission of the church is not seek honor and authority for itself; it is to enter into the suffering of human life, to work for justice among the nations, to bring healing and forgiveness to a sinful humankind.” (Shinn pg 88)
Everything we do as “church” needs to be with this in mind. Each decision we make as “church” needs to be with this in mind. We need to be servants to humanity, or we are nothing more than a club.
But it all starts with our preparation, education, and understanding of our mission in the world. I challenge each of you to begin a discipline of Scripture study, prayer, and an understanding of what is necessary in the world to “enter into the suffering of human life, work for justice among the nations, and bringing healing to a sinful humankind.”
Discipleship means more than church membership, and it must cost us something. Let us pray that we can take the time to truly understand what this means for us in our world today.