Part 2 of the sermon series “This We Believe”
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
March 4, 2012
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-17; Mark 8:29-38
Mark 8:31–38 • Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.
In the 1930’s a God-fearing Christian nation went gleefully off to war. It would not be the first time this happened, nor, sadly, the last. This was after years of neglecting justice, of allowing the vulnerable to be marginalized and victimized, and a dangerous confusion of national identity with Christian identity.
Indeed, one had become so intertwined with the other that a dangerous state of affairs had taken place. The churches, having themselves equated national identity with Christian identity, allowed the national identity to dominate at a dangerous cost to the Gospel.
In the middle of this state of affairs, a number of pastors formed a movement called the Confessing Movement, that sought to resist the co-opting of the church by the state and the loss of the Gospel message.
Among these pastors was a young pastor named Dietrich Bonhöffer. He was a vocal critic of the state and its idolatry and an even more vocal critic of the church which had failed altogether to retain its power and character. When the Second World War began, he was spirited out of Germany by some American friends, but soon realized that his heart was in Germany, with the persecuted and the oppressed. In a letter to American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr before departing the U.S., he wrote:
I shall have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in German after the war if I do not share in the trials of this time with my people… Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must chose; but I cannot make this choice in security.”
What was it that sent Bonhöffer back to the middle of Nazi Germany? Why did he risk everything; a risk that would ultimately cost him his life in the Dachau Concentration Camp? Could he have not continued to preach and teach, even broadcasting on the radio, from the relative safety of England or America? Why did he return to the Lion’s Den?
II. THE TEXT
That had everything to do with who Bonhöffer was following.
In tonight’s Gospel lesson, we come upon Jesus and his disciples just after he has asked them the central question of the Gospel of Mark: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”
Jesus then proceeds to teach them:
that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly.
Peter then take him aside and begins to rebuke him. Mark doesn’t give us his words but we can imagine what he might have said: “Whoa, Jesus, I think you’ve got it all wrong. That’s not the way it’s supposed to happen. The Messiah is supposed to be victorious, not suffer. For this, Jesus rebukes Peter in front of all the disciples saying, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Indeed, it appears that a suffering Messiah was not just a scandal to the Jews (as Paul argues), but also to the church itself. Bonhöffer noted that “That is not the kind of Lord [the Church] wants, and as the Church of Christ it does not like to have the law of suffering imposed on it by its Lord.”
That is, to share in the suffering and rejection that Christ shared in is the calling of the disciple of Jesus. The Christian is required to give allegiance first and foremost to Christ, an allegiance that will bring with it suffering Bonhöffer would write that the ‘cross is laid on every Christian and the first suffering that every Christian must experience is the “call to abandon the attachments of this world.”
For Bonhöffer, following Christ was something that required the willingness to suffer for the sake of that allegiance.
III. CHEAP GRACE
Failing to recognize the essential nature of Christ’s messiahship is a failure to understand the grace by which we are saved through Christ. Bonhöffer referred to this understanding of grace as “cheap grace”–the grace freely given that requires nothing in return. It was grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, “grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
That is, there is a confusion between the concept of grace, which is offered without price, and the cost of that grace. The grace was not cheap; the cross is the proof of that. Because it is given to us freely, we often conclude that that’s all there is to it. Church becomes merely the place where we are reminded that everything is taken care of and that we’re alright. It is a system that assumes that Jesus has done all the work, and therefore we don’t have to. But it is a grace that fails to understand the nature of the one who has offered the grace.
Jesus offers grace irrespective of all legalism and law. We are called by Jesus based on no merit of our own. It matters not our station, our skill, our piety, or any of the other things that we imagine religion to be about. Jesus calls us, the righteous and the unrighteous. But that calling is not without price.
Thus there is an inherent connection between grace and discipleship. Between God’s free offer of salvation and the consequences that that entails. It is a connection that raises an important question, important in Bonhöffer’s day and important in ours: how can we llive the Christian life in the modern world?
In our modern world today, there are many of us who speak of the persecution of Christians. But when we do so, we’re not talking about the Keren Christians of Burma or the Iranian pastor sentenced to death. More often we speak of our own country. We imagine that our country has fallen from a prior, better state as a Christian nation into a nation that is hostile to Christians. We speak of the removal of prayer from the schools and want to hang the Ten Commandments in every office building. We lament major retailers not wishing us a ‘Merry Christmas’ when we shop there.
But dare I say it, this is not persecution. This is a loss of privilege. Christians in America now find it no easier to be a Christian than it is to be a Jew or a Muslim or a Hindu. It has become less possible to be a Christian simply by being an American. Time was all you had to do was be an American and your Christian life was taken care of: businesses were closed on your holy day, public schools provided free concerts of your holiday music, the culture at large gave lip service to your faith; you didn’t have to do anything except go to church. We should be glad for that loss of privilege. We should be glad that we can no longer be comfortable in a system built around cheap grace. A system, in which, as Bonhöffer said our only duty as Christians is to “leave the world for an hour or so on a Sunday morning and go to church to be assured that [our] sins are all forgiven.” We should be glad that that entanglement between our national identity and our religious identity is coming to an end. It will allow us to be more authentic to our Christian identity unaffected by the needs of the body politic.
In the Wesleyan understanding, the free offer of grace results in our justification–our being declared righteous before God, and an assurance of Salvation. But Wesley understood that the work of salvation was not complete without our Sanctification. Wesley saw God’s grace as continuing to operate in the believer to grow them in discipleship. Works of mercy and piety, of personal and social holiness were attendant upon this life of faith. This growth in holiness, too, was the free gift of grace, but it did not come without cost. For when one grows in discipleship, one comes to know the costs of grace.
Being a Christian often brings us into a necessary conflict with the world. When our allegiance is to Christ, we can no longer be comfortable associating easily with the systems of the world and there can be cost. It’s why versions of faith that focus on the spiritual and solely on obtaining salvation after death are so appealing: they don’t require engagement with the world and they are very comfortable with empire.
But the Gospel is the enemy of Empire; indeed Jesus was crucified at the hands of Empire. Witnessing to the Gospel and being a follower of Jesus will often put us at odds with the structures of the world we live in.
Sometimes Christians wish for a handy set of rules to guide Christian life, but the truth is, we have those guides. It just turns out that they’re a lot more difficult and a lot more costly than simple rules about what foods to eat or clothing to wear.
The gospel tells us that we cannot serve both God and money. We know from faith that trusting in material things is idolatry. But how many of us would be willing to say that our money should be given to the poor and needy instead of invested in the markets or used to buy consumer goods to keep the economy moving?
A disciple of Jesus refrains from violence as he did; but the world we live in solves its problems through force all the time.
A disciple of Jesus reaches out to the stranger and the outcast to invite them in as he did; but the world we live in seeks to build higher and higher fences to keep them out.
A disciple of Jesus eats with the wicked and the sinners as he did; but the world we live in is a world of judgment and moralizing
A disciple of Jesus seeks to live out the command to hunger and thirst for righteousness; but the world is not interested in justice and righteousness, only in power.
This we believe: discipleship is costly. The gift of grace is free but the willingness to accept that grace carries with it a cost that is often heavy.
But it is not a weight we bear alone. For while we bear the cross, we bear it with the One who bore it first. Who stands with us, who loves us, and who invites us to follow him.