The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (C)
September 8, 2019
Sermon Text: Luke 14:25-35
In our Gospel lesson this morning Christ calls us to costly grace. This may sound like a contradiction. After all, we always speak of grace as being God’s free offer of forgiveness, of eternal life, of His love, of His very self, all freely given to us because Christ has done all the work for us, He and He alone has paid the full price upon the cross. We cannot work our way to God’s love and forgiveness and we can earn nothing from Him. It is all free, on account of Christ.
And yet, grace is costly. This is not a contradiction. The exact opposite is true. Grace is costly precisely because it is grace. This is where sinful pride and ego enter in. It is an offense to our pride to receive something without having to earn it. Consider, for example, what is often our first reaction when someone gives us a gift. Someone you know just walks up to you and gives you something. Our very first thought often is, “What’s the catch?” Just as often, our second thought is probably about what we can give to them to return the favor. I don’t like being given something for free. I like to think that I have earned everything that I have. So if you give me something, something in me cries out, “I’ll get even with you by giving you something back.” That way, I don’t owe anything to anyone. No one has the power to hold anything over me by reminding me that they have given me something that I didn’t earn. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, and we like it that way. Human pride loves to glory in what it has earned for itself, not in what it has been freely given. The person who is the hardest down on his luck is also the most likely person in the world to cry out, “I don’t want your charity” when someone else tries to help.
Love must make the painful sacrifice of its pride and ego. The setting aside of pride and ego is the first way in which grace is costly. Consider the deepest human love relationship: marriage. Most people enter into marriage with the thought that their spouse loves them because they are handsome or beautiful or a good person or a lot of fun or because of this or that other thing about them. In the most subtle of ways, we think that we have done something to earn the love of our spouse. But let the years go by, let all the warts start to show, let all the ups and downs come and go, and you eventually get to a point where your spouse knows all about you better than anyone else does. You have nothing left to hide and you are a completely open book to them. And you find out that they still love you, maybe even more than ever. And then you can say, “You love me, and that says more about you than it does about me. You know me well enough to know that I’m not always so lovable, and yet you love me still, because of the person that you are.” Pride and ego have been put aside, and that is a painful sacrifice that some people just can’t make. There is a cost to love. Grace the free gift is costly because it rips away from us the idea that we have earned the most important thing that we have – love.
Marriage is a picture of the mature love relationship between the Lord and His people, and so it is. We are all different, we are all unique, we each have our own relationship with Jesus that we work out over the years. So this may not apply to everyone, but most of us start out our walk with Christ thinking that we have earned or can earn something from Him. “He saved me because I’m one of the savable ones.” Or, “Now that I’m saved, I’m going to show Jesus that He hasn’t wasted His investment in me. Now’s the time for me to really earn my place in the family.” But the years go by and we make no pilgrim’s progress. Sometimes we get worse. We have our ups and downs, just like we do in marriage. And as our sins seem to deepen and widen, and especially as our sense of the depth of our own sin grows, one thing slowly becomes more and more obvious to us. Christ loves us, and that says much more about Him than it does about us. Christ doesn’t love you because you’ve been good, because you haven’t been good. Christ doesn’t love you because you’re in church each week, because half the time you sit in church you’re having sinful thoughts, anyway. Christ doesn’t love you because you’re improving, because you haven’t been improving. You’re barely holding on by your fingernails. Christ loves you not because of who or what you are. Christ loves you because of Who He is. He is the very incarnation of Love itself. To admit that we have never brought anything to His table and never can bring anything to His table except to bring our sins to be forgiven, that is the destruction of our pride and ego. That is the deepest cut that we could ever receive. That’s why grace, true grace rightly understood, is costly grace. It has to be costly in order to be grace. It can be no other.
There is something that happens inside of us when grace calls us in this way. By the time grace has laid hold on us, it has convinced us that nothing else we have or are can ever amount to anything. When grace works its way into us, it pushes out pride and ego and self-centeredness and everything else and leaves us only God’s love to live for. Nothing else matters anymore. It can and must be all left in the dust behind us. And this, too, is why grace is costly. Be the time it is done with us, it has cost us everything else.
That is why Christ speaks the way He does in our Gospel lesson about the cost of discipleship. He tells us that we must hate even our own family members and even our own life in order to be His disciples. He does not mean by this what we usually mean when we say the word “hate.” What He means by this is that we must count these things as nothing next to Him, because they are nothing next to Him. By the time His grace is done with us, Christ is all there is for us. Our lives do not consist of Christ plus other good things in our life. To speak this way is to assign Christ to a small box in our life that we won’t let Him get out of. That is not discipleship. Discipleship speaks of our lives consisting of Christ alone. He is all there is. And anything that gets in the way of that must go. And that includes family members and even your very own life.
Most of us have been blessed to worship with our families and have them included in our walk of faith. And so there is no conflict. But there are those, for example those from Moslem or Orthodox Jewish families, who are disowned by their family members when they confess their faith in Christ. And so they are left with a choice: renounce Christ, or leave their families behind. For them, the cost of discipleship means abandoning the only family that they have ever known their entire lives in order to follow Jesus only. The grace which calls them to find all of their life in Christ calls them to leave these families behind.
And most of us have been blessed to live happy lives where we worship and follow Christ and also pursue our earthly dreams and there has not been any conflict between the two pursuits. But not everyone is like that. There were, for example, Christians living in Europe during World War 2 who would have been able to duck and cover and survive and go on with their lives after the war. But many of them saw what was happening to Jews around them and they felt the call to get involved and help and by doing so they put themselves directly in harm’s way and they would up sacrificing their earthly hopes and dreams and finally even their lives because they had to love their neighbor as they loved themselves. That was the cost of discipleship for them.
The cost of discipleship is such that we literally lose ourselves in Christ and surrender to what He alone wills. Sin at its core is self-centered and self-seeking. Sin is “I, I, I.” Grace at its core is the exact opposite. It compels us to literally forget about self and focus on Christ alone. The call comes from Christ to do something specific – to help someone in need, to speak up to defend someone’s reputation, to admit a wrong and make confession of a sin, to step up and do something necessary for your church – and we just do it without even considering the consequences for ourselves.
Dostoyevsky wrote a great novel entitled The Idiot. It is about someone in the Russian Orthodox tradition of the Holy Fool. The Holy Fools were people who just oozed goodness. They always thought about what was right. They were consumed by thoughts of what others around them needed. They seldom thought about themselves, and when they did catch themselves focused on self they were immediately very ashamed of it. They always spoke and acted without a thought about how it would all look to those around them, because they just didn’t care how they looked to others, it just never even occurred to them to even consider it, and as a result they often looked weird to those around them, like they were idiots; hence the term, Holy Fool. The irony in the novel is that this so-called idiot is often in a room full of people, who are all to a greater or lesser extent absorbed with self the way sinful humans are, and they’re all concerned with how they look to others, and so they all look normal to those around them and they think that he’s the one idiot in the room. But the truth is that the Idiot is the only person in the room who is really alive. He’s the one who is full of God’s wisdom. He’s the real disciple of Christ, because it never even occurs to him to consider how he might get hurt doing the right thing; he just always just goes ahead and does the right thing, because it’s the thing that the Lord calls him to do right here and now.
Grace is costly because it calls us to live like that. Forget about what doing the right thing will cost you. Forget about how you appear before others. Forget about self. Focus on Christ and follow closely, no matter what, even if it means marching right to the place where someone will cut off your head with a sword because you will not renounce Christ.
Christ is ours to focus upon because He is the one for Whom grace is truly costly. Grace is costly most of all because it cost Christ His life upon the cross; and it also cost Him His life while He was in the world. He had the power to live an easy, pain-free life; yet He denied Himself that because the Father was calling Him to something else. To hunger and thirst in the wilderness for 40 days; to endure the mockery and the plotting of those religious leaders who were bitterly against Him; to endure the misunderstanding and mockery of His own family; to endure the betrayal of one of His own dear disciples; to endure a humiliating arrest by the temple guards and trial by the Romans when He had legions of angels ready to save Him at a moment’s notice; to endure the scourging and the crucifixion; to suffer the judgment of God the Father for sins He had not committed; to finally breath His last and lay down His life as a free gift to us; that is the true cost of God’s grace to Jesus Christ the perfect and sinless Son of God.
And Christ rose again on the third day to live again for us and to give us His grace. Each day His mercies are new and refreshed; each and every day His love for you is in full force, a free gift to you not because of who you are or because of anything that you have done; but because of Who He is and because of what He has done for us. And His grace, His free gift of His love and Himself, compels us to believe in Him and abandon everything else that we have and are as a complete loss for Him and for the cross that He gives each of us to carry in this life. Even this cross that He gives each of us – our own particular weaknesses and temptations and struggles and sufferings – even this cross is a gift to each of us, because it is part of His stamp of ownership of us. And there is nothing greater than to be stamped as Christ’s own treasured possession. It is a stamp that was placed upon each of us in our baptism, a stamp that calls us to confess our sins and receive His Holy Absolution, a stamp that draws us to feast upon His true body given for us and His true blood shed for us in the Lord’s Supper.
We live the holiest of callings. We are not the smartest of people. We are not the most talented of people. We are not the best of people. We are at our core evil and faithless and double-minded and selfish and self-centered. We are the worst of sinners. But Christ through His cross has reached out to each of us with His grace, grace that is costly because it takes us out of ourselves and focuses us entirely on Christ our Savior. There is a cost; it can be no other way because it is grace. It may cost you family members, it may cost you your dreams, it may cost you your earthly wealth, it may cost you friends, it may cost you your reputation on earth, it may even cost you your life someday. But all of these things are loss; they all really count as nothing. Christ is everything, and we find all our life in His grace. Thank Christ for His calling to us to be His disciples. Amen.
“Costly Grace,” 9/9/19, Rev. Richard Bellas