“It’s Costly…” – Gospel and Sermon for Sunday September 4, 2022

And here’s the transcript for the sermon for today:

CS Lewis is quoted as saying – “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy.  I always knew a bottle of Port would do that.  If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”

Thus, we have the readings for this Sunday that can only be summarized as the antithesis of the popular recommendations on how to grow a church.  

Deuteronomy makes it pretty clear – obey or suffer the consequences.  Good luck with that message in modern day America.  That might work in some settings, but it doesn’t sound like Good News that sets us free.  Sounds more like a message of fire and brimstone.  A message of compulsion.  A message that can be abused by humans who want to control people and guess what – that’s exactly how passages like this have been used far too often.  But listen to the message itself.  It is a costly message.  The core of the message is give up what you want to do, and follow God’s ways.  Or don’t and suffer the consequences.  That’s costly.  

The letter to Philemon is a short letter from Paul, sent while he is in prison.  Sent to Philemon.  And Onesimus is carrying the letter.   Onesimus is a runaway slave from Philemon’s house, who, by the way, took some valuable items with him when he went.  He ended up linked up with Paul for some time and did ministry with him.  And now Paul is sending Onesimus back to his owner.  Paul is risking Onesimus’ life with this.  If that isn’t costly, I don’t know what is.  It could go really bad for Onesimus.  Onesimus especially, but also Philemon, is being asked to give up what they want to do and follow a different path.  A costly path.  

And then you have the Gospel – Jesus saying to hate your family, to hate your very life.  To embrace the cross – the symbol of death – and do that every day.  To give up all you have.  All in order to follow Jesus.  All of that is costly.  Really costly.  

Carolyn Sharp of Yale Divinity School had this to say in commentary on the Gospel – “Would-be disciples must acknowledge at the outset that following Jesus will cost them everything, and they cannot know what lies ahead until they take up the cross and follow their Lord.”

In other words, you aren’t going to be in control.  And it will cost you everything.  Great sales pitch, huh?  

Following Jesus costs us everything.  It costs us our desire to be in control.  Our need to know what is going to happen.  Relationships.  Plans for the future.  Money. Possessions.  Everything.  All of these are secondary to following Jesus. It can’t be said enough – Following Jesus is costly.  Which sounds crazy and foolish.  

Paul wrote another letter at another time to the church in Corinth where he said – “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” (1 Cor. 1:25) Paul writes this letter to a church in Corinth that is divided and struggling.  They think it is foolish to set aside all these divisions.  What guarantees do they have?  Only what Jesus promised them.  The question is, do they believe what Jesus said?  Or is he the fool?  Are they willing to pay the price?  Because giving it all up would be costly if Jesus is wrong.  

In Deuteronomy Israel is not unified.  They have been whining and complaining for 40 years of wandering in the wilderness.  Fighting amongst themselves.  Fighting about nostalgia and going back to Egypt.  Fighting about false idols and golden calves.  Fighting over food.  The previous two chapters of Deuteronomy have Moses declaring curses and the cost of not listening to God as well as the blessings promised by putting their own preferences aside to follow God.   This is a constant battle in their lives and the lives of the nation.  And really what this is about is simple – all these things that they are holding onto, that they are making more important than God, are actually quite costly.  They are costing something far greater by holding onto them.  

Paul’s letter to Philemon is being sent to a house divided – do they accept Onesimus back to the house?  Or do they punish him, possibly kill him, because he ran away and took items of value with him – Onesimus cost Philemon’s house greatly.  They could make him pay.  Or do they do as Paul says and welcome him back as more than a slave, but rather as a brother.  Don’t get me wrong here, there are problems with this.  Paul is sending an escaped slave back to his master – and potentially death – all with the hope that Philemon will do the right thing because Paul is asking him to.  This is a costly letter for Onesimus.  A costly way of following Paul’s lead.  It might cost Onesimus everything.  Talk about picking up your cross to follow.  But really what is more costly, getting revenge and instituting punishment or never really living into the core of what you claim to believe?  That’s the costly question Philemon faced.  

And in the Gospel, there’s a crowd.  Throughout Luke we hear about crowds continually following Jesus – astounded by the miracles he is doing and the great works and his words and teaching.  But are they there to truly follow Jesus in a new way of living, or just be amazed at the spectacle, like he’s an entertainer?  

Watching doesn’t cost much.  Living it costs everything.  But really, isn’t just passively watching Jesus and his way the more costly thing.  It costs us a relationship with Jesus when all we do is watch.  It costs us being transformed and living a transformed life when we don’t pay the price and follow Jesus.  It costs us truly knowing what it means to live into life, death, and resurrection.  That’s costly.  

It is in this context that Jesus presents his message.  Telling the crowd that following him will cost you everything.  Because everything that we hold up as more valuable and more important than following him actually costs us a great deal.  

So the real question is this – why would anyone pay the price?  Why would anyone put Jesus first above all else – above family, possessions, and even life itself?  Why would anyone willingly pick up the cross, the symbol that represents how we die to ourselves?  Why would anyone pay this kind of price?  

In his book “The Cost of Discipleship,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about cheap and costly grace.  And he would live it.  He paid the full price of discipleship.  Following Jesus cost Dietrich his life.  Here’s what he wrote.  

Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace.

Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjack’s wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! …

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.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods…

Costly grace is the Gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner.

Above all, it is costly because it costs God the life of His Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon His Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered Him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.

Costly grace is the sanctuary of God; it has to be protected from the world, and not thrown to the dogs…

–Dietrich Bonhoeffer (February 4, 1906-April 9, 1945)

So, what’s the good news in this?  What could possibly be good about something so costly.  

I’m willing to bet that you’ve gone through something that has been very costly to you.  Something that may have been very painful.  Something that required you to make it a priority.  Something that you were willing to give up everything else for.  

Why would you do this?  I imagine that the answer defies words.  I imagine that whatever it is that you were willing to give up everything for, even your very life, that what you saw was something far more valuable.  Far more worthwhile.  Something that meant more to you than anything else.  

This is how we talk about when our child is in great pain and suffering – we’d willingly trade places with them.  This is how we talk when we speak about our spouse or another person who is so very dear to us – we would do anything for them.  This is how we talk when we speak about something that is at the core of who we are – something that touches our very identity and when we do that thing, and when we are true to it, it gives us the fullest sense of what it means to be alive.  

The great actress Audrey Hepburn was quoted as saying “nothing is more important than empathy for another human being’s suffering. Nothing. Not a career, not wealth, not intelligence, certainly not status. We have to feel for one another if we’re going to survive with dignity.”

This starts to get to the heart of what is this is all about.  

Following Jesus is costly because of all the other stuff that gets in the way of following him.  Most people are going to hear this question today – Are you willing to pay the price?  Wrong question.  There’s no Good News in that question.  Because the reality is that we won’t on our own.  

The far better questions are these – what would Jesus give up in order to show you what love is really all about?  Jesus is willing to pay the price.  It’s costly.  To what lengths will Jesus go to encounter you, especially in the midst of the worst of possible times of your life just so you are not alone?  Jesus is willing to pay the price.  It’s costly.  How far is Jesus willing to go to forgive you and mend your brokenness?  That’s costly.  How far will Jesus reach out to you and pull you into his embrace even when we keep trying to push him away and make excuses for why we can’t follow him?  It’s very costly.  And yet, the price is worth it.  

Following Jesus is costly.  Jesus knows this very well.  He knows we can’t do it on our own.  He doesn’t expect us to do this on our own.  It’s too costly.  And it’s because of this cost that he does it for us and then does the unthinkable – he invites us to follow him and his costly way.  Usually when something costs a great deal and is so valuable, it is hidden away and protected.  Instead, Jesus just gives it to us.  To know the cost first-hand, but more importantly, to know how transformative it is to follow him.  Because anything that is worthwhile and impactful comes with a cost.  He invites us to follow him and his costly way.  To know what real love is and how costly it is and because of that cost, it is so amazing and beautiful.  It’s worth more than anything else.  

Following Jesus is costly.  Read the stories of martyrs.  They knew the cost.  Talk with people who have suffered actual persecution.  They know the cost too.  Talk with someone who has given it all.  They know the cost.  And they know the worth of it too.  They wouldn’t trade it in for anything.  Because nothing is as valuable.  It’s not about if we have it in us to follow Jesus.  It’s seeing that Jesus has paid the price and invited us to follow him.  And he’s removing the costly things that get in the way of following him.  Because those things that get in the way are costing us a whole lot.  They are costing us transformation.  They are costing us sight that allows us to see the image of God in others and the unfolding of the Kingdom of God in our midst.  They are costing us love of our neighbor and enemies.  They are costing of life.  And for Jesus, that’s just far too costly for us to miss out on.  Thanks be to God.  

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