The Cost of Discipleship
How much does it cost? When anyone in my family asks me a question, the most likely response that you will get from me is: How much does it cost? My children love to strategize about what presents they want for birthdays and Christmas. They are tech-savvy enough that they can research the things they want online and give me the information. How much does it cost?
Over a decade ago, Amanda called me at the office at my previous church. Logan and Abby were living with us then and we were having a lot of trouble with Logan running away. Amanda had been doing some research and called to tell me that we needed a service dog for Logan. While fully onboard for Logan’s safety, I immediately asked how much this would cost. There was hesitation and then she said twelve. I exclaimed, $1200 for a dog! We used to sell Siamese cats for $50 each and I thought that was a lot. After a bit more silence, Amanda corrected me that it was actually $12,000. We actually ended up raising $28,000 for the dog and the dog we have is worth every penny.
I’m not suggesting that we should look always for the lowest price possible. While there are certain things that are good cheap, many others come under the category of you get what you pay for. I have tried numerous times to cut corners with the cheaper item and it ended up costing me more, not just for replacing but in frustration. What is the cost?
We may not think of following Jesus as having a cost. All we have to do is show up to church from time to time and put a few dollars in the plate. But that is not the biblical picture of following Jesus. According to the Bible, Jesus is not looking for believers, he is looking for disciples. What is a disciple? It is closely connected to the idea of being a learner or a student. But it is much more than the gathering of knowledge. It is about transformation and changing into someone very much like the master or teacher. Discipleship is something that should affect our thinking our words and our actions. Jesus takes this very seriously and he calls us to take it seriously as well.
Understand the Cost
How do you grow a church? One way would be to make the message as easy as possible. Remove anything that even hints at a challenge or offence. I once read about a church that tried to become as inclusive as possible. I’m in favour of inclusivity in principle, but one church took it to the extreme. They removed all mention of the Bible or Jesus because they knew there were people who reacted negatively to them. There was even discussion of removing the idea of God out of sensitivity toward atheists who might visit their church.
That is far from a typical strategy, even for the most liberal of churches. But there is a temptation for every church, conservative or liberal, evangelical or charismatic. The temptation is to take the posture of a salesperson. We need to sell people on joining the church and becoming a Christian and so we make the offer as attractive as possible. We talk about how fun and enjoyable following Jesus is. We talk about the many blessings that come our way. But what does Jesus say?
I’m not sure that Jesus would have been very successful as a salesperson because he goes the complete opposite of common sensibility. In inviting people to become his disciples, he compares it to carrying a cross. We have to work to understand the power of this image. This is not about a slight inconvenience. A person carried the cross because they were going to their execution. The people who heard this teaching would have seen condemned men carrying their cross many times. They saw the people bleeding and broken. All freedom was taken away from them in their last hours as they were forced to carry the instruments of their death to the designated place. There is nothing attractive at all about this. This does not look like a good method of selling people on discipleship.
So what is the cost of discipleship? Being a disciple of Jesus doesn’t mean that we all have to be beaten and executed. But it is still not easy. Once a person picked up their cross, their path was chosen for them. They could not take breaks or get distracted. There was a journey from point A to point B. Personal preferences were gone and destiny was decided. This is what following Jesus is supposed to like. Being a disciple is not about tacking a little Jesus onto your life. It is about surrendering completely to Jesus. It is about putting every part of our life under his lordship. Believing in Jesus is good but becoming a disciple of Jesus has a cost.
Count the Cost
The first step is to understand that there is a cost to following Jesus. Many church people are not even aware of that. The next step is to count the cost. Jesus shifts his imagery to some other aspects of life. Jesus compares what the would-be disciple needs to do to a builder and a military leader. A builder doesn’t start a project unless they know they of the money and resources to complete the project. In the same way, a military leader considering a battle will look at the chances of victory before committing their forces.
I am an armchair historian when it comes to military history. Some of biggest financial investments in the two world wars in the previous century were in the navy. However, the actual use of the ships in battle does not reflect this. Each country was so aware of how much it cost to build a ship that they tended to keep them safe in a harbour unless they were sure that they could win the battle. They knew they could always replace a soldier and a rifle easier than a battleship and so they were more willing to use the infantry.
While I’m not much of a handyman, we have had to do renovations from time to time. We have never just thrown ourselves into it. We always budgeted what could be done and did that much work and no more. The few times we couldn’t finish a project were extremely frustrating. The unfinished work just sits there and mocks us.
Jesus us wants us to take discipleship just as seriously. Being a follower is so much more than having fond feelings for Jesus. We are called to consider the cost and decide whether we are willing to pay that price. The church has fooled itself to think that Jesus is content with as many shallow Christians as possible. Jesus is not as interested in the numbers as he is in the depth of our faith and commitment. It is better not pretend to follow Jesus if we are not willing to pay the price.
There is an interesting passage in Revelation.
“I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” (Revelation 3:15-16, NIV)
When I first heard this, it confused me. Surely a warm faith is better than a cold faith. But Jesus is looking for so much more than a lukewarm commitment. Even rejection of Jesus is more respectable.
Live Out the Cost
We need to understand the cost and we need to count the cost. The next thing that is required is to live out the cost. I have titled this message “The Cost of Discipleship.” That is also the title of a book by a man named Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was from Germany and lived during the rise and rule of Adolf Hitler. Because of his commitment to Jesus and the truth, his life was in danger. Hitler had taken over the German church and was using it as an instrument of propaganda. Bonhoeffer could not go along with that and he was training other German pastors to take the same stand against Hitler.
Circumstances allowed Bonhoeffer to get out of Germany in 1930 and to travel to the United States. Not only was the United States safe, Bonhoeffer had a bright future as he was a brilliant theologian and could have enjoyed a successful teaching career. But almost as soon as he left Germany, he knew he had made the wrong decision. His place was not enjoying the privileges of academia but rather training pastors to be faithful in one of the most difficult situations. Bonhoeffer returned to Germany, was eventually arrested and was hung before his camp could be liberated. One of Bonhoeffer’s most famous quotes is, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Bonhoeffer lived that out, even if he didn’t know at the time how literal it would be.
I’m not saying that God’s plan for us is for us all to die a martyr’s death. But I am saying that the call to pick up our cross is still valid. Being a disciple of Jesus must be the framework for our entire life. How we treat other people, the way we use our words, the focus of our spending and everything else should revolve around our commitment to Jesus. All of us need to be thinking about how we are living out the cost of discipleship. Are we carrying a heavy cross or is our cross just a piece of jewelry to make us look nice?
This is some heavy stuff and we could easily become discouraged. But I want to share some things to help bring this all together. One is that we are saved by grace alone. We cannot earn our salvation, we cannot earn God’s love. When we stand before God, it is not a weighing of our good and bad deeds to determine which elevator we take. It is by the blood of Jesus that we are saved.
Also, discipleship is a journey. The expectation is never that we decide to follow Jesus and we are immediately perfect. The Bible, both Old and New Testaments, are filled with stories of men and women of God who are weak and make mistakes. We are in good company.
I want you to think once more about that image of discipleship as carry the cross. What happened when Jesus really had to carry his cross to his own execution? He stumbled out of weakness and he needed the help of a man named Simon to carry the cross to the final destination. All of us will stumble while carrying our cross. Hopefully we will have a Simon who comes along side us and to help us carry while we regain our strength.
Remember that we get what we pay for. The high cost of discipleship doesn’t mean that we should avoid following Jesus. It means that we can value it highly and cherish it in our lives.