The Cost of Discipleship

The 12th Sunday of Trinity

Luke 14;25-43

Looking at Luke’s Gospel passage for the first Sunday of September, just days after our NCC conference in Norway had ended, I realised both shared the same theme of “discipleship and counting its cost”. Jesus said, “whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple” [Luke 14;27] and “whoever does not forsake all that he has (including family loyalties) cannot be My disciple” [v. 35].

We gathered in Norway from many countries to pick up the threads of our quest for unity with other likeminded Christians. This started years before Covid 19 had brought everything to a halt. Some guests were able to travel to Oslo including an Anglican bishop from South Sudan who spoke about his experiences as a child, orphaned by Islamists and taken into slavery as a boy soldier. Injured he escaped becoming a baptised Christian. His subsequent story of persecution and suffering as a priest and bishop from all quarters including the Church and State continues even today for him and his family, forced to live in a refugee camp in another country. We were listening to a real example among many others who are paying a great cost as disciples and in the way the Lord Jesus Christ had in his sharp and uncompromising language proclaimed to the multitudes in the reading.

Deisis with chosen saints, anonymous Russian icon painter (before 1917)
Public domain image (according to PD-RusEmpire), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This theme of the “cost of true discipleship” is a constant message of the entire New Testament underlining the Lord’s teaching to follow him in the narrow way or the words of St. John the Elder to Laodicea and the seven lukewarm Churches of Asia Minor, “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth”. [Revelation 3;15-16]

The Cost of Discipleship was the title of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book in 1937 written as he saw the capitulation of German Churches to totalitarianism of the State. The first words of the book are, “cheap grace is the deadly enemy of the Church.” Faith that is not prepared to count the cost is a denial of Christ and of his sacred word. Cheap grace was an expression Bonhoeffer heard used by the preacher of an African Baptist Church in Harlem New York. It meant, being easy disciples who adopt compromise and the pain free path to heaven. Just as Bonhoeffer and his friends had seen that the Christian faith must continually face enemies and cannot survive without a willingness to embrace the absolute cost of discipleship, so too the participants who gathered in Norway were looking at a similar predicament all over the world in our time and how easy discipleship is no longer possible. Clergy and church goers fifty years ago were regarded as well meaning and trustworthy, but now they are not trusted and looked upon as enemies of the progressive world. We can no longer think of a post Christian but a post church world under the surveillance of police more ready to stamp down on free speech which has become a secular blasphemy in the eyes of a new ideology.

The demands of discipleship are even more difficult because Western churches have gradually accepted a redefinition of the faith into something nice and comfortable, not giving offense, emotionally rewarding rather than having to think about the cost that Jesus predicted. How frequently people draw back from taking up positions in church life because of resistance within the family? “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. [Luke 14;26]

We Christians can no longer countenance the luxury of a lukewarm or mediocre Christian life which bears no relation to the image of Christ and so this lesson will increasingly apply directly to us who as disciples are to be made in his likeness and “therefore as beloved children imitators of God”.

Fr. Geoffrey Neal

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