Counting the Cost of Discipleship
Note: Due to being on Sabbatical this fall, I will be limiting my weekly lectionary reflections to the reading from the Gospel.
When I read this passage from the Gospel of Luke, my first inclination is to reach for Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Discipleship (Cost of Discipleship). For those of us who have read Bonhoeffer’s celebrated book, we know how he stresses the way of the cross and challenges those who preach cheap grace. To follow Jesus is an extraordinarily difficult calling. Writing as he did from within a context wherein evil had taken hold not only of a nation but a church. Even before Hitler rose to power there was this desire to connect the church to the service of German nationalism. In the midst of this cauldron, Bonhoeffer took hold of Jesus’ message of the cross and laid it out as the foundation of the Christian life. To illustrate the radicalness of this vision, I need only lift up that phrase that is burned into my memory: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die” (the more recent translation reads: “Whenever Christ calls us, it leads to death” – not as memorable, but it still makes the point). [Discipleship (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 4), p. 87). Bonhoeffer may not be referring to the text at hand at this point in his book, but we can see the connection. If you’re going to follow Jesus, you had better sit down and count the costs. As my father-in-law would say about buying a car – put pen to paper first.
When Bonhoeffer deals specifically with this passage, he makes the point that when it comes to discipleship we must each make the decision for ourselves. It may not sound quite as radical as Jesus’ statement about hating family and friends in order to follow Jesus, but even if muted there is wisdom in Bonhoeffer’s reading of Jesus’ point:
Each is called alone. Each must follow alone. Out of fear of such aloneness, a human being seeks safety in the people and things around them. Individuals suddenly discover all their responsibilities and cling to them. . . . Christ intends to make the human being lonely. As individuals they should see nothing except him who called them. (DBW, 4:92).
Reading Jesus’ words in light of Bonhoeffer’s interpretation, my thoughts go to Genesis 2, and God’s observation that it is not good for human beings to be alone. To follow Jesus involves death, yes, but perhaps loneliness is a worse reality. And yet, it seems as if this is Jesus’ call.
This is an important passage because it uncovers the lukewarmness with which most of us approach our faith. I think you could call me devout – but no one would call me a fanatic about my faith. I have sat down, and I have counted the cost, and I have concluded that I can only go so far. In this, I don’t think I’m alone. But we want to embrace this calling. We want to be Jesus’ disciples. We want to live in relationship with him. But there has to be a softer way of saying this, one that allows us to maintain our allegiances to family and friends. We can pledge allegiance to our nation and still maintain our allegiance to Jesus – am I not correct?
I have turned to Bonhoeffer as a touchstone for this reflection, but since I’ve just finished reading a study of Karl Barth's Emergency Homiletic – his preaching class taught during the winter and summer of 1932-1933 – I must mention Barth’s own attempts to wrestle with this same question. Barth faced the same force of evil that Bonhoeffer – and in a somewhat different fashion offered a means of counteracting the force that had taken hold of the nation – including much of the church’s leadership. Yes, the message that was embraced by the vast majority of his colleagues across the nation, and students as well, was that the church stood in service to the Volk, the People. It was the Volk and the state that would determine the gospel message. For Barth this was simply wrong-headed and thus he sought to help his students listen to the Word of God that comes not from the state but through the mediation of Scripture so that they could speak a word of truth to their time.
We dare not compare our own time to that of 1930s Germany, but are we not faced with a similar dilemma. The message that we are encouraged to give is one that is comfortable and in line with our culture. God is love, so relax. But Jesus turns this back at us, calling on us to count the cost. Jesus points to kings who count the cost before they go to war. We read this and wonder what our leaders would do if they were to ever sit down and count the cost before they send young women and men into harm’s way. If we are to follow Jesus on the road of discipleship, shouldn’t we consider the cost? Are we willing to face the cost? I’m not sure I am. I have a house payment, a child in college, a wife to support. Can’t all this wait? And Jesus says – no, this is the way of discipleship. And I walk away disappointed! Don’t you? Well, no, we don’t do that – we just say – Jesus didn’t really mean that! But, is that true?