The Marine Corps unveiled a new ad campaign last week. It represents a departure from the pitch for new recruits the Corps has used in the past. It emphasizes how difficult, first of all, it is just to become a Marine. A bracing exposure to the realities of what's involved for those who make a commitment to join up will undoubtedly cause some to opt out of the service and will probably incite others to sign on.
This development particularly caught my eye when I saw it last Saturday because, in considering today’s Gospel lesson, I've also been considering what's involved in being a disciple of Jesus Christ. The fact is that we in the Church sometimes sugar coat things, trying to be palatable to our world, trying to make following Jesus like a trip to Walt Disney World. “Do anything you want,” we seem to tell an unimpressed world. “God will forgive it all in the end anyway.” The people of the world hear our mushy platitudes and wonder, “If you’re not offering anything new or different from the world, why would I want to be part of the Church?”
Jesus never tries to make following Him sound easy. Yes, Christ has done all that is necessary for us to be forgiven our sins and to have life with God forever. The grace of God, given through Christ, is amazing. That grace is the best news any of us will ever receive!
But though God’s grace is free, it isn't, as the martyred German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his classic book, The Cost of Discipleship, "cheap." Jesus says, for example, "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" (Matthew 10:37-38).
Following Jesus isn’t easy and Jesus underscores that In today’s Gospel lesson. He says: “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched" (Mark 9:43-48).
The free grace of God can only be grasped by faith or trust in Christ, the giver of grace. Do we trust in Jesus and His grace or not?
In His words about hands, feet, and eyes, Jesus doesn't mean that we are literally to cut off body parts, of course. But He does mean to show us that trust in Him--faith in Him--calls us away from our dependencies on the dead, dying, finite things of this world. Anything that prevents us from following Christ needs to be jettisoned. And given how stubborn we are, we’re likely going to have to jettison them again and again in our lifetimes. I know I repeatedly give up and take back bad habits and sinful ways of thinking on an almost daily basis. I get so frustrated with myself. I wonder why God is so patient with me. It makes me all the more grateful for God’s grace!
And Christ calls us not just to let go of those things readily identifiable as sins, things prohibited by the Ten Commandments, the Mosaic Law--things like the misuse of God's Name, failure to heed His Word, murder, thievery, sexual intimacy outside of heterosexual marriage, and so on. Christ also calls us to let go of otherwise good things--things created by God, things which, when used, in the right places at the right times in the right ways are good. Christ calls us to also give up those things if they keep us from trustingly grabbing grace.
That's what faith is: Grabbing God's grace. And that isn’t easy either. In a famous incident recounted by Mark at another place in his Gospel, the father who approached Jesus for exorcism for his son showed that he knew how difficult faith is. Jesus told the man to believe in Jesus. "I believe," the man confessed, "help my unbelief" (Mark 9:24). The man knew that grace is free, but that the faith needed to apprehend grace, to grasp hold of grace, is hard.
Thankfully, God knows how hard faith is for us, too. Psalm 103:14 tells us that God, the inventor and giver of grace, "knows how we are made; he remembers that we are dust." God is charitable with us. He understands our humanity from the inside out. The New Testament book of Hebrews says of Jesus, “…we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” The preacher in Hebrews then says, “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
As with that man who approached Jesus on behalf of his son, all who approach Jesus in honesty and openness, who want to believe, find a remarkable thing happens to them: God builds up their faith in Christ.
On the first Christian Pentecost, after Peter said that the sins of the world had necessitated Jesus' death on a cross, his fellow Jews asked the disciples, "…What should we do?" (Acts 2:37). They knew that they were holding onto sins and holding onto the world more than they were holding onto God, that they were holding onto the blessings of God as though they were more important than God. They wanted to know: How could they be free to grasp the hand of grace extended by God through Jesus Christ? How could they avoid separation from the God Who designed them and came into the world to rescue them from sin and death and hell?
Peter told them, "Repent [that is, turn away from sin], and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
And this gift—the gift of the Holy Spirit--is no little thing. It's the Holy Spirit Who makes it possible for us to believe what we can't believe on our own:
- that God is for us;
- that in Christ, God forgives our sins;
- that in Christ, God gives us fresh starts;
- that in Christ, God gives us eternity;
- that in Christ, we are made one with God.
- the uniform (or the identity) of faithful servant without being a faithful servant;
- the grace of God without submission to God;
- the privileges of sainthood without the sacrifices;
- the peace that passes all understanding without the turbulence of a surrendered will;
- forgiveness without repentance;
- church membership without discipleship; and
- answers, if they're the ones we want to hear.
Faith is total surrender to Christ, and that's why Jesus says it's so rare. Of course, no one has perfect trust in Christ in this life. Christian faith is a journey and God promises that if you and I are willing to make that journey, He'll not only mark the pathway, He will give us all that we need to travel it. God knows that we are incapable of even confessing faith without His help. First Corinthians 12:3 says, "No one can say, 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit.”
Following Jesus costs all Christians their lives. Only those who give their old lives—each day—to Christ will be given a new life. In 2 Corinthians, Paul writes, “anyone united with [Jesus] gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life burgeons!” The Christian life isn't about personal fulfillment, though that may very well be a side benefit. The Christian life is really about being in sync with the God Who made us, loved us, and wants us to be with Him forever. That will most certainly put us at odds with the world--including our families and friends--repeatedly.
It will even put us at odds with ourselves. I've been a Christian for thirty-three years now and I still daily struggle with my sins, with my desires to call the shots in my life, with my personal ambitions. I wonder why God insists on doing things in ways other than what I prefer! But whatever the frustration, I’d rather have Jesus than all the popularity, power, or ease this dying world has to offer. In Jesus, there is real peace!
I'm a recruiter for Christ. I hope that all people--all my fellow sinners--will follow Christ. Keep in mind though: Grace is free, but it isn't cheap. Are we willing to pay the price—the price of surrender--for God’s free gift?