The Reverend David Stanton, Canon Treasurer and Almoner
The buzz-word around the Church of England at the moment is 'Discipleship'. Almost every bishop feels it must be talked about, indeed there's a growing recognition in churches today that there's a fundamental need for renewal of discipleship.
Earlier this month the Archbishops' Council published a report on the Development of Discipleship in the Church of England, all part of the Archbishops' vision for a major programme of renewal and reform. It calls for a new theological conversation on discipleship and ministry, including practical ways of helping to develop disciples. Underpinning this position, there appears to be a primary vision for seeing disciples, as new members of the Church. But before we blindly follow this line let's begin by addressing the question that's first posed immediately before today's gospel reading, when Jesus asks his disciples: Who do you say that I am?
Peter, ever the mouthpiece for the Church, tells Jesus that he is the Christ, yet he sternly orders them not to tell anyone about him. Then he immediately begins to instruct his disciples about the necessity for him suffer. And, as if that is not enough, he tells his disciples that anyone who would follow after him must do so by taking up a cross. It's intriguing to note that as St Mark tells the story, Jesus gives no explanation to his disciples as to the necessity of taking up the cross.
There's never a completely tidy answer whenever the question is asked as to why suffering is a necessary part of human life. We see how Jesus displays a willingness to take whatever the world will throw at him as he demonstrates the consistency of God's love and capacity to overcome the darkness of this world. So it is that in the darkness of Christian persecution, say in Syria or Egypt, or at the bedside of a loved one dying of cancer, we know he's there feeling the pain.
Those of us who want to share in Jesus' life can ask nothing more of him if we, in our turn, are to be part of his victory over evil by displaying self-giving love. It's recorded that as Saint Francis of Assisi became more and more overwhelmed by the self-giving love that Jesus had poured out on the world, so he sought to be more and more united with Jesus in paying the cost of that love. The result was to be that Francis came to bear in his own hands and side the wounds of Christ's passion, what we know as the Stigmata.
In that challenging title of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's great work, there will be, for all who would follow Christ, The Cost of Discipleship. Jesus who offers us the invitation to bear that cost, here, in this Eucharist, comes among us as the one who supremely bears the cost for us and with us. Bonhoeffer makes it clear: While God's grace is always bestowed freely, it is never bestowed cheaply. He says specifically that cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our church, that cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system, that forgiveness of sins is proclaimed as a general truth that cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. In other words, cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession.
Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living and incarnate Jesus Christ. He wants us to know that grace is free, but it's anything but cheap. It comes at the price of God's only begotten son, and it leads us to surrender our lives to God in gratitude and faithful obedience. Bonhoeffer calls this, "costly grace." He says, costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field, for the sake of it someone will gladly go and sell all that they have. It's the pearl of great price for which the merchant will sell all his goods. It's the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake someone will pluck out the eye which causes them to stumble; it's the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves their nets and follows him. God's grace is a free gift, but there's a price to pay.
Nowhere is this stated more clearly than in today's gospel reading where Jesus says: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me". (Mark 8. 34). Such definition focuses more on discipleship as life in the Spirit, or life in Christ, rather than as numerical weight. Jesus' definition of discipleship, deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me, is as much a depth as a growth imperative. Jesus is building a kingdom under God's rule. He's not acquiring people who are good, yet indifferent to the living Spirit. Jesus is calling people to commitment to God's growing kingdom. Jesus is calling people to give their very lives for what will last eternally.
It was Bishop John Taylor who said that the oldest delusion of all is that life consists of achievement. Just like addicts, people who crave for more possessions or higher attainments or new experiences so often do so to offset the emptiness and lack of selfhood. The Gospel is not something we invent, or tailor to our own needs, the Gospel is the faith of the Church, and the faith of the Church is expressed in the creeds. And the creeds remind us that our Christian faith is greater and richer than the faith of each one of us the length and breadth and depth and height as St Paul puts it in his Letter to the Ephesians, where he goes on to tell us what it is all for: that we may know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
That is stupendous and amazing, and yet it is true. To know the self-sacrificial love of Christ and be filled with all the fullness of God is what discipleship it is all about. This Lent we do well to reflect upon Jesus' fundamental question: "what will it profit us to gain the whole world and forfeit our life? Indeed what can we give in return for our life?" Mark 8.36-37.