Costly grace - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

Costly grace

Luke 14: 25-33

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25 And there went great multitudes with him: and he turned, and said unto them,

26 If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.

27 And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple.

28 For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it?

29 Lest haply, after he hath laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that behold it begin to mock him,

30 Saying, This man began to build, and was not able to finish.

31 Or what king, going to make war against another king, sitteth not down first, and consulteth whether he be able with ten thousand to meet him that cometh against him with twenty thousand?

32 Or else, while the other is yet a great way off, he sendeth an ambassage, and desireth conditions of peace.

33 So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple.

Reading today's Gospel, I was painfully reminded of an occasion when as a young teenager amongst a group of boys I claimed to hate my father.  It is of some consolation that this wasn't an honest declaration and I can recall feeling very uncomfortable about the whole conversation as an older boy boasted to a small group about the extent of his dislike for his dad.  Shamefully I followed suit - "Yeah, I hate my old man," I said - I can remember the exact words.  Incidentally, I realise that my father would have been much younger than I am now at the time.  My shame was almost immediately brought home to me when one of my friends, all credit to him, proceeded to tell us, "Oh I like my father, he's alright, we get on well!".  

It is shocking in today's Gospel to hear Jesus speak of the hate that he says his followers must feel.  We frequently proclaim that in Christ we are called to fullness of life but this Gospel reading doesn't look particularly life affirming, does it, so how are we to make sense of it? 

Last time I preached, a few weeks ago, it was on that Gospel passage where Jesus said that he came not to bring peace to the earth but rather division.  I reflected on the message that conflict will inevitably flow from a faithful witness to God's coming kingdom and any peace secured through our collusion with the powers, values and injustices of the world is not Christ's peace.  If that passage was one that can easily leave us confused, at least when we first hear it, as it seems to contradict our assumptions about Christ, today's Gospel goes even further.  Jesus speaks of hate of life itself and for those who are most often our closest loved ones - of father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters. 

It's never very sensible simply to detach a portion of scripture from the wider narrative.  When we look at Jesus' teaching throughout the Gospels we see that he frequently grabs his audience's attention with shockingly provocative statements.  He has the habit of jolting us out of our usual patterns of thought.

This Gospel passage challenges us to recognise the cost of discipleship and its implications for our lives.  It highlights for us inevitable tensions over our loyalties.  Jesus speaks of hate as a means of contrasting the importance of our earthly familial allegiances with our heavenly ones.  His hyperbole brings home the point that a genuine commitment to faith has to be at the very foundation of our lives if it is to be real.  If faith is simply part of the package of an identity that we seek to build for ourselves and for our families it is nothing more than a sham. We each treasure our connection with this place and its history but we are far more than individuals who happen to be associated with an historical institution.  We are brothers and sisters in the body of Christ.  We are individually and collectively on a journey of discipleship. 

Whilst the language Jesus employs in today's passage stands out, there is considerable continuity with his message elsewhere.  For example, Jesus said - whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it.  In doing so, Jesus presents us with the choice of a God-centred life and emphasises that that commitment is fundamental.  In the later portion of today's reading Jesus encourages us to clearly recognise the cost of that commitment - for which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand?

As Christians we aspire to live God-centred lives but we know that we all fall short of that mark; only in Christ has a human life been truly God-centred.  The aspiration is crucial though and it requires of us an openness to transformation and the sacrifice that that transformation might demand recognising that only in Christ are we redeemed. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer coined the term 'cheap grace' to describe the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession. Cheap grace he said is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ. Cheap grace, Bonhoeffer says, is to hear the gospel preached as follows: "Of course you have sinned, but now everything is forgiven, so you can stay as you are and enjoy the consolations of forgiveness." The main defect of such a proclamation is that it contains no demand for discipleship.  In contrast to cheap grace, 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.  It is costly because it compels us to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: "My yoke is easy and my burden is light."

Discipleship requires that we allow ourselves to be conformed to Christ, reshaped like the pot that we heard of in our Old Testament lesson.  God's love is not bound by allegiances and we are called to allow that same love to overflow in our lives and to reject any efforts to contain it.

Thinking back to that incident in my teenage years, I regret that I lacked the courage to show some loyalty to my father.  I recognise at the root of my response was a concern for how I appeared to my peers and this entirely blinded me to what might have been going on in that older boy's life.

Brothers and sisters, we are so easily absorbed in the minutiae of our lives, of our interests and those of the our families that we can overlook our allegiance to Jesus Christ.  We are invited to raise our gaze, to feel the consolation of his victory and to be channels of his love to our world.

To him be all glory now and to the ages of ages.

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