The Cost of Discipleship

carrying the crossThe Gospel for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time follows directly on last Sunday’s Gospel, continuing our reflection on Matthew 16. Indeed, last week I anticipated this week’s reading, by including all three “Peter scenes:” his witness to faith, his receipt of the keys of the kingdom, and his failure to appreciate the nature of Jesus’ identity and destiny, as one who must suffer and die, before rising in triumph. The third scene starts off today’s Gospel:

"From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, 'God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.' But he turned and said to Peter, 'Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.'” (Matthew 16.21-23)

Jesus sees his mission clearly and starkly, and does not protect himself from what is coming. Peter tries to separate mission from cross, death from resurrection; he is, for a moment, a satan, a tempter. As we saw last week, it is easy for us to do better than Peter and resist tempting Jesus to an easier path — but that’s mainly because we’ve had 2000 years of hindsight, knowing the end of the story: of course he dies, of course he rises. We too often enough want discipleship-lite, the happy ending without the troubles before it.

But today the Gospel climaxes in the application of the three “Peter scenes” to the lives of those listening. Jesus turns to his disciples and makes this clear:

"If any of you want to become my followers, deny yourselves and take up your cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit you if you gain the whole world but forfeit your life? What will you give in return for your life?" (16.24-26)

When it comes to discipleship, there can be no mere spectators. All who would follow Jesus become part of the drama of Jesus, taking up our own crosses.

But we cannot but notice that Jesus’ next words quickly suggest that the sacrifice is worth it: as you give, so you will receive:

"For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done." (16.27)

If you do take up your cross, your reward surely will be great. Don’t worry about the cross and denial of self. You will receive far more than you have given, death will surely be followed by resurrection. This is not quite Peter’s refusal of the very idea of suffering and death, but still, the comfort of a happier ending.

This might be the end of it, except for the fact of the daunting first reading chosen to accompany the Gospel: a terrible, compelling passage from the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah was famously called from the very beginning:

"Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations." (Jeremiah 1.5)

JeremiahFrom the very beginning Jeremiah is given a mission to speak on God’s behalf. But his mission entails great suffering. He is put in the stocks in a public place like a common thief, to be mocked by passers-by. Shamed and in pain, he cannot be silent, and he cries out at his powerlessness, directly confronting God in fierce words:

"O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed; you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me. For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, 'Violence and destruction!' For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long. If I say, 'I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,' then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot. "(20.7-9)

Just these three verses make up today’s first reading, but Jeremiah’s utterance goes on. The second part depicts Jeremiah’s associates all turning against him:

"For I hear many whispering: 'Terror is all around! Denounce him! Let us denounce him!' Those close to me are waiting for me to stumble. 'Perhaps he can be enticed, and we can prevail against him, and take our revenge on him.'” (20.10)

Betrayal on all sides; friends disappear when the word of God is inconvenient. Jeremiah 20 is read on this 22nd Sunday, it would seem, because it casts a shadow on Jesus’ pronouncement on his own coming suffering, death and resurrection, and his invitation to his followers to take up their own crosses.

Mission is not easy. The happy end does not take away the pain and fear; being God’s favored one, chosen vehicle, is not necessarily a happy event. Jeremiah’s gut instinct for God does not erase the pain of seduction and abandonment. Woe to the person who is faithful to her mission! Really, it does get that bad: just look a few verses down in the same chapter, to the start of Jeremiah’s next lament:

"Cursed be the day on which I was born. The day when my mother bore me, let it not be blessed." (20.14)

If this turn — Matthew 16 read in the shadow of Jeremiah 20 — seems rather depressing, so it is, because the journey to life passes through death, real death, not a show or a moment of small drama.

A hard and famous example: One of the greatest books of Christian witness in the 20th century was The Cost of Discipleship, written by the Lutheran pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was born in Breslau, Germany, in 1906. A Distinguished pastor and teacher, Bonhoeffer could have had an entirely comfortable life. But he knew better. His little book again and again emphasizes how hard it is to really follow Christ, because taking up the cross is hard.

BonhoefferHe reminds us that the world desperately needs honest followers of Christ who speak truth to power, risk their necks to help those in trouble, refuse to play it safe when fundamental human values have been scorned and pushed aside, when hatred seeks to stifle love. Being like Jesus is to see the world not just for its undeniable goodness and beauty, but also in its grim darkness, violence, selfishness. The cost of discipleship is great, Bonhoeffer tells us, a long night before dawn. Be afraid, but still take up your cross here and now, and do as Jesus did.

Bonhoeffer was not just an eloquent writer and teacher. He practiced love to the extreme, carrying his cross into the heart of darkness. That is: an early and outspoken critic of Hitler and the Nazis, he worked in public and in secret against the Third Reich, and he was often in trouble with the Nazis. His travels brought him to New York in 1939 and to Union Theological Seminary, where he could have stayed for the duration. safe and honored. But he saw that as a Christian, he needed to face the evil close up and do something about it. So he returned to Germany when the war was heating up and others were fleeing. He became involved in more and more risky plots again Hitler. After being captured and suffering in several concentration camps, on April 9, 1945 Bonhoeffer was executed by hanging — just two weeks before American soldiers arrived and liberated the captives.

He is one of the finest and bravest disciples of Christ of the 20th century, and will always be remembered for his faith and courage: but his path to glory was through the camps, finally to stand naked at the gallows. His was a stark realism about the cost of discipleship — in keeping with what Jesus knew from the start, and in keeping with what Jeremiah had centuries earlier put into eloquent words. A terrible end, but for Bonhoeffer as for Jeremiah and Jesus, an infinite beauty arises from the horror.

In this grim year of 2020, we are faced with a Covid 19 that kills without pity, amid stark manifestations of a hateful racism, in a world of floods and fire and environmental degradation. Surely we don’t need more bad news in the guise of the Gospel's Good News! But still, in 2020 we have to be realistic Christians, our eyes open, lest we be worse than the faltering Peter, Christians in name only.

Jesus calls us to stand in the middle of things, putting our lives on the line, even when it hurts, in small ways and mortally. We need to live our faith, to do our best, no longer guilty bystanders, outraged but taking no risks. Being honestly, vulnerably present can be manifest in a deep compassion, but also, for some of us at least, by the risk-taking of women and men who refuse to be silent in the face of the violence and injustice around us, who expose themselves before raw and ruthless power, and suffer the consequences, all out of love. So who among us might be the Bonhoeffers of 2020?

protestBut lest we part in too gloomy a way, I leave the last words to Jeremiah. At the end of the lament I recounted above, even in his misery he also cries out in faith:

"But the Lord is with me like a dread warrior. Therefore my persecutors will stumble, and they will not prevail. They will be greatly shamed, for they will not succeed. Their eternal dishonor will never be forgotten.

"O Lord of hosts, you test the righteous, you see the heart and the mind. Let me see your retribution upon them, for to you I have committed my cause.

"Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers." (20.11-13)