(This first appeared in the Faith column of the Sentinel-News in Shelbyville, KY on January 9, 2015)
Because I used to move around a lot, I have had the experience of looking for a new church several times. Sometimes I’ve slipped in the back five minutes after the service starts and left right at the moment of benediction. Other times, I’ve allowed the congregation to mob my family. “Oh! Are you new? Welcome!” I’ve been given gifts, cookies, hugs and handshakes. I’ve always been invited back to the next service. But I’ve never been stopped at the door and asked for a password, fee, or admission ticket. And I think that is a good thing. Churches generally like to think of themselves as hospitable, and folks typically bend over backwards to extend an invitation and make newcomers feel welcome.
“Come on in!” We church people say. “Join us! It doesn’t matter if you have questions, if you don’t have the Bible memorized, if you are rich, poor, young or old. Just join us. There is room in this sanctuary for all.”
But then what? If the cost of admittance is so affordable, then what about the cost of discipleship? It takes nothing to get in the door. What is the cost to actually follow Jesus? Well, if a church is honest and faithful, the answer is: “ever-rising.”
A few Sundays ago, I had a wonderful conversation with a friend after the worship service. I had made the claim in the sermon, almost as a side-note, that when we follow Jesus, we assure ourselves of inevitable rejection by the world. That comment struck a chord. She wanted to know, “Is that really true?” Certainly there are places in the world where to carry a Bible, wear a cross or call oneself a Christian is enough to get you killed. But the United States is not one of those places. Being a Christian doesn’t bring rejection here, does it?
The crux of my argument was to differentiate between proclaiming to be a Christian and actually following Jesus. While one would hope that these things would be the same thing, unfortunately they are not. In the United States, generally, one can claim Christianity without fear of death. This is a blessing we enjoy. But since the risk is low, we as believers (and preachers) must watch out for the danger of what German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” He wrote:
“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace 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.”
Bonhoeffer, by the way, was executed 70 years ago on April 9 by the Nazis. And there were plenty of Nazis in Germany who called themselves Christians. The official German Church even blessed the Third Reich. But brave followers of Jesus like Bonhoeffer recognized that following Jesus meant resisting evil at any cost, no matter how popular or socially acceptable that evil was, even in the official German Church. And that cost for Bonhoeffer was, like Jesus himself, his very life. Likewise, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. resisted the evil of systemic racism in this country barely a generation ago through nonviolence and acts of steadfast Christian love. He followed Jesus and he paid the high price of discipleship.
We see Matthew write in his gospel, “Then Jesus said unto His disciples, ‘If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me’” (16:24).
So getting back to the question, what does this mean to the follower of Jesus in America today? Will we be rejected like Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Jesus of Nazareth? That you will be killed for your faith walk is unlikely. And it is not because violence has been eradicated, but because the disciplined conviction of true martyrs is rare. Nonetheless, I think that disciples indeed pay a noticeable price. If you actively love the people who are supposed to be your enemies, I promise that you’ll make some new ones. Our society has identified all kinds of enemies, readymade for you to hate. Some are supposed to be for conservatives to hate and others for liberals. And others are identified as enemies to us all. Go and make an expression of reconciliation towards the most obnoxious person you can think of on the other side of the political spectrum. Watch how much scorn you will get from your own people. See how popular you will be. Read the Bible seriously and try following its commands. Sell your possessions and give all to the poor and dedicate your life to following a first century Galilean who was abandoned by his closest friends and nailed to a cross. Try forgiving someone the way God forgives humanity for torturing and murdering his only child. It’s so counter-cultural, it’s so antithetical to human power that rejection is a necessary response. But then again so is transformation.
And here’s the thing: none of us can emulate the perfection of Jesus’ life that landed him on a cross. But the spiritual maturity of discipleship means that you are at least pointed in the direction of Christ’s example and carry your cross towards it, one foot in front of the other. And though none of us can pay the ultimate price, we are compelled to trudge nonetheless, knowing that through God’s grace, it has already been paid for us.