Unpopular Christianity

Secular ChristianityJesus was not a popular man. In the 1st century, throughout history, and today people have struggled not just in coming to him but also in going with him. I have written elsewhere on the cost of discipleship, so in this post I want to remind us of just one of Jesus’ stinging statements about following him, and then pick up a few challenging points from John Calvin. If you avoid the slew of secularised ‘Christian’ teaching that promises you your best life now, through pearly white smiles atop expensively tailored suits, you meet an unpopular Jewish rabbi, despised and rejected. Though there are many reasons Jesus was insulted, spat on, and ultimately executed according to the wishes of his own people, we might say that his enemies were threatened by what they did not understand about him, while his followers were offended by what they did. As Samuel Rutherford wrote in one of his letters, “‘Lord’ is a cumbersome word; and to obey him, and to work out our own salvation, and to perfect holiness, is the cumbersome and stormy northside of Christ; and that we eschew and shift.”

Duccion di Buoninsegna - Christ taking leaveOne of Jesus’ most disturbing statements comes in Luke 14, ‘If anyone comes to me does not hate his own life he cannot be my disciple.’ Our immediate reaction is to shrug off the remark and conclude that Jesus was having a frustrating day. But Jesus’ point is that our love of and allegiance to him should dwarf our affections for this life. It is when we grasp this meaning that Jesus’ words really sting, for we love this life and its splendid pleasures. Our sight is constantly drawn from the glory of God to his gifts. But Jesus thought following him was worth more than our entire life and the sum of its contents. It is because we are so enamoured with this life that Jesus’ forceful words insult us. We must be careful not to love our lives so much that we begin to hate Jesus and his call to discipleship.

Golden booklet of the true Christian life - Calvin

The danger in over applying Jesus’ words is that we recoil from God’s good gifts in a mood not dissimilar from ingratitude. Thus the Christian life is poised on a knife-edge. As Calvin says in the fourth chapter of his Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life, our love for this world must be broken, and our hope for the new cultivated. The struggle is to learn proper appreciation of all we enjoy now, without those things displacing our affections for Jesus. Everything we enjoy comes from God and is a divine blessing to be gratefully received. But Calvin thought we needed to be constantly reminded that this world is merely a signpost to God’s glorious restoration of all things. We must be weary of vainly clinging to our lives and what is passing, and grateful for the brief and generous hints of what is to come.

I will conclude by returning to something I said above: Jesus’ enemies were threatened by what they did not understand about him, but his disciples were offended by what they did. Those who do no know Jesus cannot comprehend this tension, loving our Lord so affectionately that we appear to hate this world. It is only when we comprehend what Jesus has done for us that our gratitude and love for him will dwarf this life. So Calvin writes, in the Institutes (3.7.1), “We are not our own: in so far as we can, let us therefore forget ourselves and all that is ours.”

Bonhoeffer on the Cost of Discipleship

Photo of BonhoefferEarlier this year I was asked to preach at the first of our quarterly youth rallies. After deliberating for a few days, I decided to preach on discipleship and the cost of following Christ. In my preparation I planned to frame the talk with writings from and references to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and death. This was not to be, since wisdom told me most 15 year old South Africans would simply switch off at the mere mention of World War 2. That is a pity, because fewer stories from history epitomise the cost of Christian discipleship more than Bonhoeffer’s.

At the age of 31 he wrote his outstanding Nachfolge (German for ‘Discipleship’). Largely a critique of the nominal and secularised Christianity rife in Germany, this work is legendary, and should never be forgotten, for Bonhoeffer’s illuminating distinction between costly and cheap grace. Read it. In the preface Bonhoeffer asks where answering the call to discipleship will lead, what decisions and partings it will demand. And his answer is that we need to go to Christ, for only he knows the answer. “Only Jesus Christ, who bids us follow him, knows where the path will lead. But we know that it will be a path full of mercy beyond measure. Discipleship is joy” (p40, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 4).

Flossenberg concentration campFor anyone who does not know the rest of his story: Bonhoeffer died 8 years later in a Nazi concentration camp for plotting to assassinate the Führer. When Bonhoeffer penned the words above he had no inkling that faithfully following Christ’s call to discipleship would lead to his own death. Did he still consider it joy when he sat in Flossenbürg concentration camp awaiting that fateful hour? Did he wonder where Christ’s mercy was in his latter life and execution? I think Bonhoeffer would tell us that the costliness of the call is unavoidable, yet full of God’s wondrous grace. Perhaps the most famous quote from his Nachfolge is this, “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ” (p45). Note how he saw God’s grace and Christian cross bearing as inseparable, and far from divergent.

Bonhoeffer bookApparently the last thing Bonhoeffer said to anyone was a relayed message to George Best, through a fellow inmate at Flossenbürg: “This is the end, for me, the beginning of life.” But Bonhoeffer approached that end as he had lived his entire Christian life, well acquainted with the intertwining of grace and cost, discipleship and death, and was not deterred from trusting his God’s sovereignty. A doctor at the camp wrote of Bonhoeffer’s last moments, “I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God” (Quoted in Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, p531).

Jesus said this about such disciples, “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” While Bonhoeffer undoubtedly gained life, I fear many of us consider loss to be incongruent with faith in Christ. We all long for cheap grace. In our age of consumerism we spend eagerly and enthusiastically. But when discipleship becomes costly we shake our heads. Many Christians today are unwilling to be disciples who know and experience the cross to be part of our discipleship. To these Bonhoeffer would pose this question, ‘How can we cheapen something that was so very costly to God?’