Saturday, September 19, 2009

Free...But Not Cheap

[A few thoughts, which I'd like to warn the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, could turn into my sermon on September 27.]

The Marine Corps today unveils a new ad campaign. It represents a departure from the pitch for new recruits the Corps has used in the past. James Dao writes in The New York Times:
Calvin Klein it’s not. The advertisement shows men crawling through mud and under barbed wire, being smacked in the head with padded fighting sticks, vomiting after inhaling tear gas and diving, boots and all, into a swimming pool.

If it sounds like a teaser for a survival reality show, that’s not far off the mark. On Saturday, the Marine Corps will unveil its newest advertising campaign, and unlike past campaigns featuring the Marines’ stately Silent Drill Platoon in dress uniform, the new spot highlights in high-definition detail the grit, sweat and tears of boot camp.

“It’s not soft,” said Maj. Gen. Robert E. Milstead Jr., who heads the Marine Corps Recruiting Command. “It’s not showing people in a nice uniform. It’s not showing all the good things. It’s in your face.”
The article goes on to point out that economic downtimes have allowed the Corps to meet its recruiting goals not only for 2009, but for the next three years. So, the Marines figure they can be picky. They can afford to give a more accurate representation of what Marines will go through, at least in the process of becoming Marines. 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 because, in working on next Sunday's sermon, I've been considering what's involved in being a disciple, about how 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.

Jesus never does that. 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.

But though grace is free, it isn't, as the martyred German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, "cheap." Jesus says, "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).

He goes on to say, "Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it" (Matthew 10:39).

In the Gospel lesson for tomorrow, Jesus says, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all" (Mark 9:35).

In the Gospel lesson appointed for next Sunday, Jesus tells those who follow Him:
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. "For by grace you have been saved through faith," the first century Ephesian Christians were reminded, "and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God..." (Ephesians 2:8). "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life...Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God" (John 3:16-18).

In other words, it's a matter of trust. Do we trust in anything more than we trust in Jesus or do we trust in Jesus and His grace?

Jesus doesn't mean that we are literally to cut off hands, feet, or eyes, of course. But He does mean to show us what trust, faith, is like and how hard the way of faith can be. The way of faith in Jesus Christ, of course, brings incomparable comfort, hope, and peace.

But it also calls us away from our dependencies on the dead, dying, finite things of this world. Christ calls us not just to let go of those things readily identifiable as sins--the misuse of God's Name, 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--if those things keep us from trustingly grabbing grace.

That's what faith is: grabbing God's grace.

And if you think that's easy, then you know nothing about faith. The father who approached Jesus for exorcism for his son knew how difficult faith is. Jesus told the man to believe, to trust, 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 is hard.

Fortunately, 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. As with that man who approached Jesus on behalf of his son, all who approach Him in honesty and openness, who want to believe will find a remarkable thing happen to them: God will begin to build faith--trust--within them.

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 him and the other disciples, "Brothers, what should we do?" (Acts 2:37). They knew that they were holding onto sins and 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. How could they be free to grasp the hand of grace extended by God through Jesus Christ?

"Repent, 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," Peter said (Acts 2:38).

And this gift is no mean or peripheral thing. It's the Holy Spirit Who makes it possible for us to believe--or trust--what we can't believe or trust 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.
These are incredible blessings. But the fact is that they're not always the blessings we want. Like those who wash out of boot camp, we want...
  • the uniform (or 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
Marines willingly submit their bodies and minds in service to their country, government, and commander-in-chief. Anyone who would follow Jesus--and take up the gifts of grace--is called to submit--body, mind, soul, and all--to Him.

Faith is total surrender to Christ, and that's why Jesus says it's so rare. The Gospel of Luke records this interchange between Jesus and a questioner (I'm using The Message translation here):
A bystander said, "Master, will only a few be saved?"

He said, "Whether few or many is none of your business. Put your mind on your life with God. The way to life—to God!—is vigorous and requires your total attention. A lot of you are going to assume that you'll sit down to God's salvation banquet just because you've been hanging around the neighborhood all your lives. Well, one day you're going to be banging on the door, wanting to get in, but you'll find the door locked and the Master saying, 'Sorry, you're not on my guest list.'

"You'll protest, 'But we've known you all our lives!' only to be interrupted with his abrupt, 'Your kind of knowing can hardly be called knowing. You don't know the first thing about me.'

"That's when you'll find yourselves out in the cold, strangers to grace. You'll watch Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets march into God's kingdom. You'll watch outsiders stream in from east, west, north, and south and sit down at the table of God's kingdom. And all the time you'll be outside looking in—and wondering what happened. This is the Great Reversal: the last in line put at the head of the line, and the so-called first ending up last." (Luke 13:23-30)

Of course, no one has perfect trust in Christ when they're presented at the baptismal font...or when they're confirmed. Nor will any of us have perfect trust this side of the grave. Christian faith is a journey and God promises that if we are willing to make that journey, He'll not only mark the pathway, He will give us all that we need to make it. God knows that, we are incapable of even confessing faith without His help. "No one can say, 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit" (1 Corinthians 12:3).

Following Jesus costs all Christians their lives. The Christian life isn't about personal fulfillment, though that may very well be a side benefit. It's 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!

Pastor Brian Stoffregen puts it well when he writes, "It may be that a believer or a congregation that seeks to avoid any difficulties..." seeks to avoid the very things that God wants them to go through in order to preserve and strengthen their faith, their trust in grace.

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.


Ivy said...

Amen. What a great proclamation of the gospel. Peace Mark.

Mark Daniels said...

Thank you very much.