+ In Nomine Jesu +
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Strangely enough, Christians in the first couple of centuries were often persecuted and even put to death, not because they were religiously minded, or zealous for their faith, but because they were considered atheists. Since they refused to worship the god’s of Rome their persecutors accused them of worshipping no god at all. While there wasn’t a broad persecution of Christians going on at the time, any person could accuse another person of being a Christian. The accused would then be arrested and most likely sentenced to death for being an atheist.
We know of certain events that took place in Smyrna around 150 A.D. through a writer who claims to have witnessed them. It all began when a group of Christians were brought before the authorities, and all of them refused to worship the gods. Under the cruelest of tortures they remained firm, we are told, because (quote) “resting in Christ they scorned the pains of the world.” When Germanicus, an elderly Christian, was brought to trial, he was told that he should take into account his old age and recant, rather than submit to torture and death. To this he responded that he had no desire to continue living in a world where the injustices that he had just seen took place. And, to show how deeply he meant his words, he called the beasts to come to him and kill him. His act of courage further aroused the anger of the mob and they began to shout: “Death to the atheists!”
It is difficult for us to assimilate what the early Christians endured into our contemporary setting. I mean, as Christians, people of the same faith as the elderly Germanicus, we simply wouldn’t be accused today of being atheists. And, even if we were, there really wouldn’t be any consequence. In fact, these days our atheism would more likely be protected and perhaps even lauded and celebrated instead of punished.
So, it is difficult for us imagine a world where our relatives and friends are arrested and put to death simply because someone accused them of being Christian.
That is the upside, if you will, of being a Christian in this present day and age. Sure, things may change in the future, but, as of right now, here in this country, there is very little physical threat to those of us, who, by God’s grace, choose to confess and believe in Christ as the Savior of the world. In fact, even with all of our complaints about government intrusion into our lives, we are still relatively free to practice our faith as our conscience dictates.
The downside of living with such religious freedom is that our faith in Christ can become, what Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor who was put to death under Hitler’s regime, called cheap grace, or, cheap discipleship. The cost to us personally for following Christ can be so low, so minimal, that we run the risk of taking His grace and forgiveness for granted.
Bonhoeffer first witnessed “cheap grace” when he traveled to America for the first time back in 1931. He came to take some doctoral courses at Union Seminary. When he arrived on campus and began his studies he was appalled at what he found. The students and professors really never even talked about Christ. Their discussions focused more on philosophical issues and on political and social concerns. Bonhoeffer, who had already experienced some degree of persecution in Germany for preaching Christ, was shocked by what he found at the American seminary. How could such religious freedom produce a wanton and vile disregard of Christ and His Word!?
It was on his return to Germany that Bonhoeffer wrote his now famous worked titled “The Cost of Discipleship.” The book is concisely summarized in a single phrase, where Bonhoeffer wrote, “when Jesus calls us to follow Him he bids us to come to Him and die.”
“If anyone comes to me (Jesus says) and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. And any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.“
It’s a pretty bold statement, but, from our perspective, Jesus’ demand is no more absurd than Bonhoeffer’s. Either way, it is the self that has to die in order for Christ to be supreme in absolutely everything in our lives. Consequently, our parents can’t surpass Him in importance. Neither can our wife or children, or, our brothers or sisters. In fact, if we are to be His disciple, we’ve got to esteem Him and laud Him even higher than we do ourselves, which, if necessary, includes being ready and willing to die for the privilege of confessing Him as our Lord and Savior.
The biggest problem you and I face in being disciples of Jesus is in sacrificing things in our lives for the sake of our faith. There is probably no more pointed example of that point than in the worship wars that plague our churches today. It is difficult enough to get people these days to commit to going to church. It is hard enough to get people to see that coming to God’s Word in preaching and sacrament is an integral part of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus and that, in the end, worshipping on a regular basis is not a sacrifice, but, a privilege and blessing. But now, because in many circles the church has given in to the whims of an entertainment crazed society, worship has to be styled in such a way that people will be amused and entertainment in the worship hour. All the while, Christians in places like Egypt are being cut down for refusing to deny the name of Jesus!
In the end though, it won’t be our willingness to suffer, our resolve or our dogged determination that will keep us true to Christ. The very One whose name we confess is both the giver and the keeper of our faith. What we can’t do, in terms of setting the right priorities to please the Father, the Son has already done for us, for, He loved His Father more than life itself and He became obedient in that love unto death, even death on a cross.
He comes to us tenderly in Word and Sacrament, asking the question that moves us, by sheer grace, to greater love and devotion to Him. What do I have (He says) that I have not given to you!? This is My body and this is My blood. Take them, for they have been broken and shed FOR YOU!! Yes, “while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”
A fellow prisoner with Bonhoeffer wrote, “through the half-open door in one room of the huts 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 that God heard his prayer. Before his 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.”
We could, as many have, argue the specifics of Bonhoeffer’s death, the reason he was sent to the gallows and so forth, but, what we can’t argue is that he lived what he believed. “When Christ calls us to come and follow Him, He bids to come to Him and die.” “I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.” In Jesus’ name. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.
+ Soli Deo Gloria +
Send Rev. Alan Taylor an email.