The Joy of Easter and the Cost of Discipleship

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Fifth Sunday of Easter + May 14, 2017

Readings: Acts 7:55-60; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14


What words or images come to mind when I say the word “Easter”?

I’m sure at least a few of you immediately thought, “Bunny!” — and that’s ok. But what else comes to mind? An empty tomb? A resurrected body? Joy and lilies and the promise of new life? Maybe that old song, “Victory in Jesus…”

I’ll hazard the guess that none of you quietly whispered, “Martyrdom,” or “Jesus’s last night on earth.” And yet, this morning, five weeks into the Easter season, in which we especially celebrate Jesus’s resurrection from the dead, these are the Bible readings we are given: the killing of the very first martyr, Stephen, and a brief sound bite from Jesus’s last words to his disciples before being arrested and executed. Weird, right? Yet for some reason, within the last few decades a bunch of bishops and pastors and scholars got together and decided that every three years our churches should read these stories during the Easter season. Why might that be?

Well, your guess is as good as mine: which is to say, you can probably reflect on what these readings have to teach us about living in the time after Jesus’s resurrection and come up with some pretty great thoughts of your own. But for me, the fact that these readings come during the Easter season kind of shocked me into thinking about what we expect from God because of Jesus’s resurrection. What do we expect the Christian life to be like? What does it mean for us that Jesus has won the victory over sin and death? Hows does the resurrection affect our lives?

It can be tempting to focus on the parts of the Easter message that we really want to hear: You are saved! Death is defeated! The victory is won! It can be tempting to think that those messages are the whole of Christianity, and then turn the gospel into something like, “Now we can take it easy, because Jesus did it all.” Or “God will give you so much happiness and success.” Preachers have been getting away with that stuff for a long time.

Today’s readings remind us that part of the meaning of Christ’s resurrection is that we are raised up to be the Body of Christ. Jesus ascended to the Father; we — the church — are here to represent him, to be his presence for one another and for the world, to continue his mission. The reading from 1 Peter tells us this with some metaphors about being living stones “built into a spiritual house.” In the gospel reading, Jesus says it a bit more straightforwardly: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”

And the story of Stephen’s martyrdom in particular reminds us of something that it is easy for us to forget in the comfortable times of our lives as American Christians: if we are the Body of Christ, then we are a crucified body. We are a body who has faced ridicule, persecution, and violence for speaking truth, for staying faithful to our God, for caring for those whom others would rather push away.

Jesus’s first disciples could not have forgotten that, even if they’d tried. Even prior to the crucifixion, they knew they were walking a dangerous path with Jesus. And then after the resurrection they faced trouble and persecution, and almost all of them died martyrs’ deaths. And yes, they preached about all that Jesus gave them: peace, healing, power, hope, a sense of mission, forgiveness, love, a more intimate knowledge of God. But they also did not shy away from the fact that being a follower of Jesus cost them dearly, too, in life and in death.

We don’t hear that preached on too often — at least not so starkly; we usually don’t bring that up when we talk about what being a Christian means to us; we hardly ever sing about it. Yet in the last ELCA hymnal — the green one — there was this beautiful, haunting song that captured that truth perfectly:

They cast their nets in Galilee

Just off the hills of brown

Such happy simple fisherfolk

Before the Lord came down

 

Contented peaceful fishermen

Before they ever knew

The peace of God That fill’d their hearts

Brimful and broke them too.

 

Young John who trimmed the flapping sail,

Homeless, in Patmos died.

Peter, who hauled the teeming net,

Head-down was crucified.

 

The peace of God, it is no peace,

But strife closed in the sod,

Yet let us pray for but one thing–

The marvelous peace of God.[1]

Being people of the resurrection means that God comes into our lives with peace and with purpose. It means that God messes up our lives by making us part of God’s plan and God’s work in the world — which sometimes means we will have to set aside our own comfortableness or our own desires; which calls us to give more and love more and sacrifice more; and yes, sometimes, this may get risky or painful or even dangerous.

Those first disciples — the ones who kept this whole “Jesus” thing going — knew this well. They were hurt. They were imprisoned. They were killed. And yet through it all they continued to call Jesus their savior. They continued to talk about “the peace of God which passes all understanding.” They waxed poetic about their personal experiences of the love and grace of God in their lives. Something about following Jesus made all their sacrifices worth it.

I’ll confess that even though I’ve thought about this weird phenomemon of the Easter joy and the Easter call to sacrifice  a lot (especially in these last few days, as I’ve tried to come up with a nice pretty bow to tie on to the end of this sermon for you), and even though I often feel a sense of joy in the moments where I have felt called to sacrifice as part of my discipleship…despite all of that, what it is about following Jesus that makes sacrifice worth it is hard to put words to. It’s something of a mystery, by which I mean — something I know to be true, but also unexplainable.

Another martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, tried to make sense of that tension between the experience of the gift of grace and the simultaneous experience of the cost of following Jesus in this way:

“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 cost 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.”[2]

The closest I can come to explaining it, is that it must have something to do with love. I mean, it almost makes sense to us when a mother sacrifices for her children, because of her love for them.

Maybe, in a similar way, it is the love of God for us and our love for God that fills us with all those wonderful Easter blessings: love, joy, peace, meaning, life — and that same love that makes us part of the crucified Body of Christ, and makes us more willing to do what God asks of us, even when it is difficult. Maybe there is not a contradiction there, between the gifts of God and the call to sacrifice — maybe it is just part of the mystery of love…that same mystery of love that caused God to take on flesh and sacrifice for us.

Let us pray. Holy God, in the times where we feel mostly clearly your blessings and in the times when we feel most clearly the cost of following you, may we always know your love, your joy, and your peace. In the name of Jesus Christ, our way, our truth, and our life. Amen.


[1] William Alexander Percy, “They Cast Their Nets in Galillee” (1924), Lutheran Book of Worship, #449.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship.

WWJD? Serve and suffer.

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 21st Sunday After Pentecost + October 18, 2015

Readings: Isaiah 53:4-12; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

My brother, John, is a senior in high school this year. I called home the other day, and he answered: “You’re talking to the new president of the Science Olympiad Team!” I congratulated him, and he continued, “I don’t know why they voted for me. My campaign wasn’t very strong, and the other candidate was really good.” I asked him what his election platform had been. He said he’d run under the slogan “What would John do?” I laughed first, but then I thought: well, that’s not such a bad slogan. If I trust what John would do in most situations, that’s a good reason to give him my vote. And I guess it worked.

Later I told a friend that story, and that got us reminiscing about those “WWJD?” bracelets that were so popular in the ‘90s. Kids all over the school had brightly-colored bracelets tied around their wrists to remind them to ask “What would Jesus do?” in every situation.

But since my time at Lutherock this summer, I can’t think about those bracelets without hearing Pastor Alex Hoffner’s voice in my head. He was in seminary when the bracelets were popular, and he told us — in his unforgettably intense, southern preacher-storyteller way — about a professor who hated the bracelets. When he saw a student wearing a WWJD? bracelet, he would get in real’ close to them and say: “What would Jesus do? Jesus would die! Are you ready to die? Then take that thing off!”

I guess that professor thought the WWJD? fad represented a watered-down form of Christianity, like it just skimmed the top of the question of what Jesus would do if he were in our shoes. A lot of the time, when we think about what Jesus would do, we think about being kinder. Being nice even to those that are mean to us; being generous in giving to charity and maybe the occasional beggar; if we’re feeling particularly spiritual, we might even ask the “weird guy” if he might like to sit at our lunch table. Which matches how we remember Jesus most of the time: as a kind, compassionate man who knew how to turn the other cheek and love everyone. And being that kind of person is difficult. It is a way of putting other people before ourselves that requires some suffering on our part, some acting out of the “dying-to-self” part of our baptism. But that image of Jesus is just one facet of who Jesus is. It kind of makes Jesus into a teddy bear.

I did not expect this when I googled “teddy bear Jesus.” From the Teddy Bear Museum in Jeju Island, South Korea. (More pictures here.)

But while Jesus was compassionate, that compassion could sometimes come out fiercely — less like a teddy bear, and more like a mother bear ready to defend her cubs. Jesus publicly condemned the religious leaders for their hypocrisy and greed and thirst for power and position (Matt. 23); Jesus dares to say that the rich will lose their position in God’s kingdom (Lk. 6:24-26); Jesus speaks up for those who are being abused by those in power. Jesus welcomes not just the outsiders, but the sinners (Lk. 15:1-2). Jesus is arrested, suffers, and dies, and Jesus demands that his followers carry that same cross. How many of us saw all those harsh stories when we looked down at our WWJD bracelet?

It’s been said that the Gospel of Mark was written for an early group of Christians who could not get their heads around the idea that the cross is essential to the work of the messiah and who could not get their heads around the idea that the cross is essential to discipleship.[1] The cross — meaning suffering, shame, death, and not just death, but laying down our lives — is not just an accidental part of Christ’s mission; it’s not just an incidental part of God’s plan that we have to get past in order to get the “real” stuff of the plan. The cross is the real plan. Jesus could not have been the messiah without being a suffering servant; and we cannot be true disciples without being suffering servants as well. That’s what the Gospel of Mark is all about.

In today’s gospel reading, we see that yet again the disciples themselves are missing that point. Just a few weeks ago we heard a story about the disciples arguing over who is the greatest of the disciples (Mark 9:30-37). And Jesus explains, “You’ve got it all wrong. Whoever wants to be the greatest must be a servant to everyone.”

And now, just a few stories later, they’re at it again. Two of the disciples ask to be granted special places of power in Jesus’s kingdom. Jesus answers in the symbolic language of “drinking the cup that I drink” and being “baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with.” Because we know what is about to happen to Jesus, we know what he is warning them about: those who wish to be leaders like Jesus must be prepared to suffer like Jesus.

Then the rest of the disciples get word of this conversation, and they’re mad: Who are you two to ask for a special place? Who are you two to be rulers over the rest of us? But Jesus gives them almost exactly the same speech he gave them before: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Mark tells these kinds of stories over and over because the people he was writing to didn’t get it. He thought they needed to hear over and over that following Jesus is not about getting rewarded; it’s about suffering like Jesus suffered.

But Mark wasn’t alone in this effort. The entire New Testament is filled with the language of crucifixion, suffering, sacrifice, servant, slave, death.[2] It seems every writer felt the need to make the same points, because so, so many early Christians were having trouble taking in the same message: following Jesus is not about “living the good life” or about being better than others because we believe or because we go to church or because we follow a strict moral code: it’s about being willing to sacrifice and suffer so that others might live.

From the very beginning Christians have struggled to take in that message, and America’s Christian culture today is missing it, too. We tend to focus on what God’s love for us gives to us: forgiveness, peace of mind, strength, comfort, assurance, hope. We think sometimes about what God’s love for us demands of us, for our own good: repentance, change, obedience, courage.

But it’s more difficult to think of what God’s love for others demands of us: sacrifice, sharing, giving up our rights, speaking up on behalf of others, taking the place of servant so that others may feel the real effects of God’s love in their lives. We are called to sacrifice and to suffer not just so that our own lives may be better for it, but — and perhaps even more importantly — so that others’ lives may be better for it. And if we are truly called to do what Jesus would do, then we are called to be suffering servants — and that might mean making our lives worse for the sake of others. And if we are called to sacrifice and suffer for others even in ways that do not make sense, that do not seem fair, it is because we are called by the grace of God. And God’s grace does not flow from reason or fairness — thank God — but from love.

We are about to sing the hymn “By Gracious Powers,” (text / choral recording) which is based on a poem written by German Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer just a few months before he was killed by the Nazis in April 1945. Bonhoeffer had been imprisoned for two years for undercover work against the Nazis, and was executed when he was linked to a conspiracy to kill Hitler.

Bonhoeffer with confirmation students, 1932. Image from German Federal Archive, available via wikimedia commons.

Amazingly, while in prison he was still working as theologian, writing essays on what he learned of God from his experiences. He planned out a book with this as the main point: that the greatest and most fundamental thing about Jesus Christ is that he existed for others. His power, his wisdom, his might — all this is grounded in his existence for others. Bonhoeffer wrote: “Our relation to God is not a ‘religious’ relationship to the highest, most powerful, and best Being imaginable — that is not authentic transcendence — but our relation to God is a new life in ‘existence for others,’ through participation in the being of Jesus.”[3]

And for Bonhoeffer this wasn’t just abstract thinking. This was something he knew about because he was living it. And he knew exactly how painful it could be. Bonhoeffer was saintly in his willingness to suffer and sacrifice for the sake of others. He had taken a teaching position in America in 1939 in order to escape the necessity of swearing an oath to Hitler, but soon returned to Germany because he felt he must suffer with his people. Later, while he was in prison, a guard offered to help him escape and go into hiding, but Bonhoeffer turned down the offer, because he feared it might bring further suffering on his friends still in prison.

But what is most amazing in all this is Bonhoeffer’s faith that God was with him in the midst of his sacrifice and his suffering. This is what we hear in the poem, in language that sounds like it comes straight from today’s gospel reading:

Should it be ours to drain the cup of grieving

even to the dregs of pain, at thy command,

we will not falter, thankfully receiving

all that is given by thy loving hand.[4]

God’s love so filled Bonhoeffer that he could not help but choose to sacrifice, suffer, and even die for others. And even in the midst of his very human fear and despair, Bonhoeffer found some joy in that participation in Christ’s existence for others.

It’s unlikely that any of us will be called up to be a spy for the sake of the gospel, or to be imprisoned, or to die. But we are called to make radical, sacrificial choices every day as bearers of God’s grace to this world. May we listen more closely for those calls and be ready to sacrifice what they demand, in Jesus name. Amen.


[1] This is a common interpretation of Mark, but I’m riffing directly off of Fred Craddock, who was quoted by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton on the Lectionary Lab Live podcast for this week. The show’s blog is available here.

[2] This idea, too, comes from the work of Rev. Dr. Chilton and Rev. Dr. John Fairless in their Lectionary Lab Live Podcast.

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (Enlarged Edition), ed. Eberhard Bethge (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1972), pp. 381.

[4] Bonhoeffer, “Powers of Good,”  Letters and Papers from Prison, 400.