THE COST OF DISCIPLESHIP

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If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me (Mark 8:34).

The life of Christian discipleship is not easy. It places unique demands on those who decide to follow Jesus and his teachings. While there are some who call themselves Christians who seem to drift through life without a care, Jesus places real demands on those who would call themselves Christians, that is, those who have chosen to live a life in obedience to Jesus. There are admirers of Jesus, and there are followers—real disciples, who experience the challenge of truly following Jesus each and every day of their lives.

In his Confessions, St. Augustine tells the story of his conversion to Christianity from the dualist Manichean sect. His mother Monica, a constant irritant to her son, was always begging and cajoling her son to join her in the confession of the Christian faith. Augustine knew that conversion to Christianity would mean a change in his lifestyle and in his relationship with his concubine with whom he already had had a son. He relates how he knew more or less that one day he would become a Christian, but for the moment he was unwilling to change. And so, Augustine tells his readers that he prayed, “Lord make me chaste, but not yet.” In a larger sense, this is much the same as praying, Lord make me a Christian, but not yet. Augustine weighed the cost of Christian discipleship and found the cost to be much too high for him at that moment in his life. Subsequent generations of Christians, no matter what they think of Augustine or some of his later theological writings, respect him for his honesty and for his recognition that becoming a Christian was not just a verbal consent to a set of creeds or beliefs but something that has a real cost, something that would demand a real change in the way he lived his life.

The life of Christian discipleship is costly. Jesus, for example, calls that those who desire to follow him, those whom he calls disciples, to forgive those who hurt them or with whom they disagree, to pray for their enemies, to turn the other cheek, to renounce their possessions, and to lay down the sword.  These are costly demands, ones that many find difficult. It is no wonder that some folks who began to follow Jesus left him saying, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it? (John 6:60).

In the Lenten season, Christians are reminded that if they desire to follow Jesus that they are to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow him. In the earliest church Christians faced the real risk of being crucified as Jesus was. In subsequent generations, particularly when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, this became much less likely for Christians. As a result, these words of Jesus have been understood in a more spiritualized manner. Jesus says that if we want to save our lives, we will lose them but if we want to gain our lives, we have to be willing to lose them for Jesus’ sake and for the sake of what he taught his followers, that is, the gospel message. The New Testament Greek word for life here is psyche, meaning one’s life or one’s soul.  If we want to experience the life that Jesus imagines for us, we have to be willing to let go of the things that hold us back from truly following him. We need to deny the idols that we have constructed in place of God. There are many idols in our lives to which we cling for assurance and hope but Jesus teaches us that they are not the appropriate object of our ultimate trust and hope. Our trust alone belongs to God who is made known to us in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.

Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” If you decide truly to follow Jesus, the cost may be high. You may not be able to live just as you did before. Our self- denial creates the conditions for the creation of Christian life in community with others. You will have to change.  If you want to gain your life, as Jesus teaches, you have to be willing to give it up for God first. That is no easy task.  That is the cost of genuine discipleship.

GIVE THANKS IN ALL CIRCUMSTANCES

 

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In June of 2013, I flew to Belgrade, Serbia to take part in a four-day ecumenical conference in Belgrade, Serbia organized by the Ecclesiological Investigations International Research Network. The conference, entitled “Religion, Authority and the State: From Constantine to the Secular and Beyond,” brought together theologians, religious scholars, and clergy from a variety of religious traditions. The conference commemorated the 1,700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan. That was the edict in which the Emperor, Constantine and Licinius, his co-Emperor at the time, proclaimed religious tolerance in the empire, allowing Christians to practice their faith openly.

Belgrade was chosen as the site for the conference because Constantine was born in the ancient city Naissus in the Roman province of Moesia, the area on the south side of the Danube River, in what today is the modern Serbian city of Nis, located about 125 miles southeast of Belgrade.

At the conference, I presented a paper entitled, “Theo-political Visions: Post-secular Politics and Messianic Discourse” in which I discussed a variety of secular philosophers in Europe who are interested in the writings of St. Paul primarily for the form of their argument and not for their religious content. (The paper later was published in the academic journal, Ecclesiology.*)

I packed my bags so that I could take my suitcase onto the airplane with me. For reasons still inexplicable to me, Air France required me to check my suitcase at the last minute.   My flight arrived late in Paris leaving me with less than forty minutes to get to another terminal and board my flight on the former Yugoslav National Airline, JAT.  JAT stands for Jugoslovenski Aerotransport. The troubled politics of the Balkans are still evident in little things such as the name of the airline. Yugoslavia ceased to exist more than twenty years ago, but Belgrade, the former capital of Yugoslavia, is now the capital of Serbia.  The Serbians have not given up their past and cling resolutely to whatever they can of their former pride.

When I arrived early on Monday morning in Belgrade my bag had not made my connecting flight. Fortunately, I had the medicine I needed, my phone, and a few electronic devices in my carry-on but some of the power cords and adapters were still in my suitcase.  If I had planned to lose my bag, I might have made some different decisions about what I packed and where I packed it.  (I might also have gotten some insurance to cover lost or delayed baggage.) As it turned out the only clothes I had on arrival were the clothes I was wearing— blue jeans and a long-sleeved dress shirt with black dress shoes.   That might have been fine if it had not been ninety-five-plus degrees with high humidity for the entire week I was there.  The heat index made it even hotter than it was at home that week, and it was pretty hot at home.

Without my suitcase, I tried to make the best of it. On Monday, I was fine. Tuesday, my shirt was thoroughly soaked with perspiration and I was miserable whenever I ventured outside. On Wednesday I bought a short-sleeved black t-shirt for around 5 dollars and a pair of sandals. On Thursday, my bag finally arrived in the afternoon, just one half-hour before I was scheduled to present my paper. I was thankful to have my baggage with a few changes of clothes to wear over the next two day until I departed Belgrade for Dulles International Airport early on Sunday morning.

Reflecting on my trip, I realized once again, in case I really hadn’t already learned this lesson, that “things do not always go as planned.” I also was reminded that it is possible to live with very little.  I do not have to have all the things that I have to live a full abundant life. In Belgrade, I did not need a full wardrobe of clothes, or even a small suitcase full of them, to enjoy the company of friends and fellow travelers. The same is true when I am home with all with which God has blessed me. These things are easy to forget.

When things do not go as planned, we can get angry, despair, or move on as best we can.  It is better, I have found if we can do so thankfully and happily rather than in disgust and bitterness.  I find great assurance in words written by St. Paul to the Christians in Thessalonica:

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you (1 Thess. 5).

You might ask, “how can Paul really say that I should learn to “give thanks to God in all circumstances.” In all circumstances?  That’s what Paul says and that is what he meant.  In another letter, this time to the Philippians Paul wrote the following:

…For I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need (Phil. 4:11-12).

Next time you find yourself in a situation in which things do not go as planned, remember the admonitions of Holy Scripture and try as best you can to give thanks to God in every circumstance in which you find yourself.

 

* Craig A. Phillips, “Theo-political visions: Post-secular Politics and Messianic Discourse,” Ecclesiology 10 (2014), 337-354.

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