Proper 7 (June 19-25)
Texts: Mark 4:35-41;
2 Cor 6:1-13; Job 38:1-11
NOW IS THE TIME FOR THE COSTLY GRACE OF DISCIPLESHIP
Behold, now is the right time! Now is the day of salvation!
When was the last time you felt the kind of urgency conveyed by these words from St. Paul? Growing up as a Lutheran baptized at one-month-old, I don’t think I ever felt a sense of urgency attached to my salvation. I grew up with a sense of grace — that because I’m a baptized believer in Jesus I’ve felt secure and confident about being saved — but I’ve never felt an urgency that, “Behold, now is the right time! Now is the day of salvation!” Is there something wrong with me? Or, perhaps, is there something not quite right with the message of grace passed on to me? Over thirty-five years of ministry, I’ve increasingly challenged myself with this sort of question.
St. Paul begins this incredible passage, with this plea: “Companions as we are in this work with you, we beg you, don’t receive God’s grace cheaply.”1 Has there been something cheap about the way I’ve received God’s grace?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Lutheran pastor and teacher who was martyred by Hitler and the Nazis as World War II ended (April 9, 1945), wrote a book on Discipleship about ten years earlier, as Hitler and the Nazis were rising to power in Germany. There is definitely a sense of urgency in calling his fellow German Lutherans to stand up against the authoritarianism built on hatred of the Jews, hatred of others who aren’t white. In the very first chapter, there is an urgent call to discipleship based on what he calls the cheap grace vs. the costly grace of discipleship. Here are the opening words of Bonhoeffer’s book:
Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our church. Our struggle today is for costly grace.
Cheap grace means grace as bargain-basement goods, cut-rate forgiveness, cut-rate comfort, cut-rate sacrament. . . . It is grace without a price, without costs. . . .
Cheap grace means justification of sin but not of the sinner. Because grace alone does everything, everything can stay in its old ways. “Our action is in vain.” The world remains world and we remain sinners “even in the best of lives.” Thus, the Christian should live the same way the world does. In all things the Christian should go along with the world and not venture to live a different life under grace from that under sin! . . .
Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is baptism without the discipline of community. . . . Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ.
Costly grace is the hidden treasure in the field, for the sake of which people go and sell with joy everything they have. It is the call of Jesus Christ which causes a disciple to leave his nets and follow him. . . .
It is costly, because it calls to discipleship; it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly, because it costs people their lives; it is grace, because it thereby makes them live. It is costly, because it condemns sin; it is grace, because it justifies the sinner. Above all, grace is costly, because it was costly to God, because it costs God the life of God’s Son. . . .
Costly grace . . . comes to us as a gracious call to follow Jesus; it comes as a forgiving word to the fearful spirit and the broken heart.2
For Bonhoeffer, then, grace — and how do we normally think of grace? as going to heaven when we die? — grace for Bonhoeffer at this crucial moment in history is the call to discipleship. If the grace we receive doesn’t lead us into the costly venture of following Jesus, then it is cheap grace. And the sense of urgency was so clear. Cheap grace leads to just going along with the world, going along with someone like Hitler. Costly grace means standing up against evils like racism and anti-Semitism and forces that work to divide us one from another. It cost Jesus his life . . . Bonhoeffer his life . . . Martin Luther King, Jr. his life . . . and the lives of so many other martyrs through the centuries.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, dare we ask what receiving God’s grace is costing us? What might the cost of the grace of following Jesus in today’s world look like? We face multiple crises: a pandemic and its economic hardships; the storms and droughts due to climate change; divisiveness in our politics and institutions, especially with the continuing five hundred legacy of white supremacist racism; the rise of authoritarianism and the possible loss of our democracy. Do we feel any urgency yet that it might cost us something to follow Jesus today in a way of bringing people together instead of dividing them? Following in a way that stands up to powers of Satan casting out Satan so that the human household is perpetually divided against itself, as we heard in Jesus’ parable two weeks ago? What might the cost of following Jesus look like in this urgent historical moment?
There’s another kind of crisis we might consider for at least a moment: the crisis in the church of our shrinking congregations. Over the last ten years especially, many congregations are closing their doors, others are merging to ward-off extinction at least a little while longer. The vast majority of congregations are feeling the fear of just trying to survive — and COVID certainly hasn’t help. We’re still in the mode of trying to determine what’s left of our congregations after a year of meeting mostly online. Just this week I had another conversation with a faithful ELCA member in Racine who’s asking these questions about survival. And for most of us, like her, it has a personal dimension. She can’t get her son to come to church anymore. How many of our children and grandchildren and friends are now among the missing in church? This person asked me if I had any ideas about why so many people, especially young people, are leaving the church.
Here’s my idea: our message has become one of too much cheap grace instead of costly grace. In a world where our ability to face serious problems like pandemics and climate change is compromised by such divided politics, young people are looking for answers in places with a greater sense of urgency — that now is the right time, now is the day of salvation, to work together on huge challenges which face us. In such a broken and divided world, people are looking for something that might actually help us to survive — and perhaps even beyond surviving to thriving.
And so here’s the last piece of the Good News for us this morning: Jesus and the apostles like St. Paul came to give us exactly those kinds of answers. The time is right. The day of salvation is here. In a broken and divided world, they came to give us a ministry of reconciliation. In fact, those are the words that have immediately preceded this week’s passage from Paul. Just before urging the Corinthians not to receive God’s grace cheaply, he has spelled out clearly what their mission is:
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20So we are ambassadors for Christ. . . . (2 Cor 5:17-20)
Ambassadors for Christ to help heal a broken and divided world. Does that sound like a message that our friends and family could get on-board with? “Behold, now is the right time! Now is the day of salvation!”
Yes, if that also sounds like a costly grace, one that could get us in trouble with the powers of division in this world, it is. But costly grace is “good trouble,” as John Lewis used to say. Standing up against the powers of division, powers like that of white supremacist racism, is dangerous work. But we have been given a message that brings healing to a broken world and which also carries the promise that not even death can defeat us. That’s why Jesus is so frustrated with his disciples in this morning’s Gospel. He is trying to urgently train them for the discipleship of costly grace, a ministry of reconciliation in a broken world, and they are afraid of a storm. So he say, “Don’t you trust yet? Why are you being so cowardly?”
By the time Easter roles around, with the promise of victory over death, they will have faced much more danger than that of a storm. In fact, even the wind and sea listen to Jesus because he comes to bring healing to their world to. The promise of reconciliation is to be for the entire creation. God’s good creation is an ongoing project, and the first big step in bringing it to fulfillment and completion is to defeat death. As of Easter, that step is ticked off the list.
But the next big step is to get the children of God — we human beings who were created to help God care for the earth and for each other — the next big step is to pull us together to finally be human in the way God had planned for us. We are created in the image of God to care for the world in the way that God cares for it. To the extent that we have fallen for a message of cheap grace, we are failing that gracious call of discipleship. We’re going along too much with the world. But there’s still time. The time is right, in fact. The day of salvation is now! Let us not receive God’s grace cheaply, but join the fight to bring real peace to this world through the power of love and forgiveness that’s poured out on us through the Spirit. It will mean some trouble ahead, but it’s good trouble. The time of salvation is now! Amen
A video version can be found at: https://youtu.be/upVf3bK1FTs?t=360
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Lord of Life Lutheran Church,
Kenosha, WI, June 20, 2021
1. I offered my own translation this day of 2 Cor 6:1-13, with the crucial change being translating kenos, often translated as “empty” or “in vain,” as “cheaply.” So v. 1b, “don’t receive God’s grace cheaply.” To me Paul in much of the rest of the passage gives us a picture of costly grace — enduring hardships like beatings, imprisonment, riots, hunger, etc. So translating kenos as “cheaply” is an ideal fit for connecting this passage to Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship.
2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, vol. 4 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Fortress Press, 2001), pages 43-45.