I must confess that the gospel we meet this morning is not an easy one. There is good news for us here, but it is not a simple news. It is a news that will fortify us, but to my fallen palette it tastes a bit like bile going down.
In 1937, just over 80 years ago, Dietrich Bonhoeffer published his now classic text, The Cost of Discipleship (or, in the original German, simply, Nachfolge). His text opens with a harsh admonition, “Billige Gnade ist der Todfeinde unsere Kirche”—“Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church.” Bonhoeffer wrote these words to a church assailed by the claims of a dangerous ideology. An ideology that sought an illusory national purity. An ideology that marked one group as “fully human” while deporting, enslaving, and exterminating those groups deemed “less than human.” In the blink of an eye, the Nazi Party had leveraged itself into a fascist dictatorship. His church, Bonhoeffer worried, was at risk of missing the costly call of God, preferring instead billige Gnade, cheap grace that justified not sinners but sin itself.
Bonhoeffer found himself attempting to minister to communities who struggled to sense the cost of their allegiance to Jesus Christ—afraid to undertake the sacred labor of seeking Christ ready and waiting in their neighbors, enemies, and scapegoats. To preach the Gospel became an act of treason against a society that sought to deform and devalue the “teure Gnade,” the “costly grace” that comes with following Jesus Christ—the life-giving grace that only comes from the vulnerability of the cross. Costly grace, Bonhoeffer knew, calls the church always beyond the narrow horizons of its own self-interest. Costly grace, Bonhoeffer knew, makes no room for a spirituality that would simply treat God as a means to an end—even if that end is peace.
Hidden behind a self-deception that says, “There is nothing wrong with the way I see things,” Bonhoeffer discerned the consequences of cheapened grace. Costly grace, by contrast, only blooms in the recognition of our need for salvation. When that need goes unrecognized, costly grace comes with a sword. That sword is the cross itself, upon which hung the image of the invisible God. A God who would rather die for those who hated him than shed one single drop of their blood.
This morning we encounter the Jesus of this costly grace, who wields in his very being the Word, “sharper than any two-edged sword.” And he teaches us that, if we are to answer his call of discipleship, we must anticipate the consequences of speaking and hearing words of truth, of encountering that spiritual sword, sharper than any blade forged or wielded by human hands. A sword that does not protect us, but makes us vulnerable.
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Jesus identifies in us that pattern of heart that seeks its own fulfillment and defends its own stasis. Into that stasis, Jesus brings his sword. I remember a time in my own life when this sword was drawn—drawn not to slay me, but to dismember my illusions about world around me and the world within me. In my junior year of high school, I met a young woman who would become one of my closest and most beloved friends. We loved early music, we were both musicians, we loved calligraphy and collecting beach glass. We would ride the bus together for two years, write letters to each other, practice German together, and spend endless afternoons in each other’s company, even sharing holidays with one another’s family. We shared so much in common.
So much, except the way the world looked at our bodies. When I was a junior in college, this difference cried out to her with the force of black bodies abused, exploited, and murdered for more than four hundred years. As her life in the world began to unfold, she knew that the color of her skin meant something I could never understand. As she tried in love to explain this to me, I carelessly, defensively dismissed and resisted it. For I had experienced her calm, rational explanations as a kind of violence. In so doing, I said some things I can never take back. Cruel things that dismissed her entire experience and the very real lack of justice she felt. My own secret racism—a racism I would only continue to deny—was uncovered.
And so the sword fell. She did not speak to me for some seven years. Best friends, closer than siblings, were suddenly set against one another. She had spoken the truth, and I had rejected it, along with her. I would only later come to see my experience of this event—the trauma of being excommunicated from her life—as a kind of holy violence, one that would free me from the false peace of my own ignorance.
In a fallen world, the outpouring of God’s grace can feel shocking, scandalous, even violent. This morning’s gospel is an uncomfortable one because it reveals a Jesus whom we both crave and simultaneously despise. Yes, he is the Jesus of our salvation, the Jesus who pours out free grace and new life. But this necessarily means he is the Jesus of our destruction, who wields, if not a sword, a scalpel, with which he will cut away all that is illusory, preferential, and false within us. His grace comes to us as an unearned and unmerited gift. But whereas Jesus’s grace is freely offered, to accept it does come with a cost this side of eternity. Saint Paul knew this cost. It cost him his virtuous and learned reputation, his sense of racial superiority, his freedom, and even his life.
Do not be afraid to lay hold on this teure Gnade, this costly grace. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. The fragile vessels of our life may be shattered as we encounter this grace. The vulnerability of the cross is unavoidable. Yet Our Lord promises that we will find ourselves precisely in that shattering, loved and valued by God for who we are, rather than who we think we are.
Lay hold on that costly grace.
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