Theme: The Cost of Discipleship – Service
We continue today from where we left off last weekend, considering the cost of discipleship. Today, we think of service, as Jesus described during His Sermon on the Mount, from Luke 6:27-36:
Luke 6:27-36 "But I say to you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 "bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you. 29 "To him who strikes you on the one cheek, offer the other also. And from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either. 30 "Give to everyone who asks of you. And from him who takes away your goods do not ask them back. 31 "And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise. 32 "But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 "And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 "And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back. 35 "But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. 36 "Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.
In the name of our Savior, dear fellow redeemed.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor in Germany during WWII. Although he studied in the United States for a time, he returned to Germany shortly before Hitler and the Nazi party gained power. Bonhoeffer quickly saw the intent of the Nazi regime and spoke out against the persecution of Jews and others, as well as the Nazi authority over Lutheran churches. He began to teach that Christians must “not only bandage the victims under the wheel but jam the spoke in the wheel itself.”
In 1937, Bonhoeffer published a book called The Cost of Discipleship, which was an expression of the Christian faith that was based primarily on the Sermon on the Mount – the very topics we are studying this morning. In that book, Bonhoeffer differentiated between what he called “cheap grace” and “costly grace.” Within the context of his time, Bonhoeffer argued that too many Christians were standing for “cheap grace,” namely, taking the Christian name but not standing with courage against the forces that were opposed to it. “Costly grace” on the other hand, was exactly what it sounded like – it came at a cost. Christians who opposed the evil of the Nazi party would have to be willing to face persecution. Their message of God’s grace would come at a cost for their personal lives.
Bonhoeffer would eventually follow that very path as he was arrested in 1943 and sent to a concentration camp. He would eventually be executed, a mere two weeks before American forces liberated the camp. Bonhoeffer understood what Jesus was getting at in this portion of the Sermon on the Mount. He lived it. He knew the Cost of Discipleship, both in the context of Sacrifice as we talked about last weekend, and in the context of Service, as we think about today. For Bonhoeffer, his faith in Christ dictated that he owed a higher standard of service to others – as well as to God. That is the nature of discipleship, as we see from the words of Christ today.
The most important verse of our text to keep in mind is the very last one. “Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.” This is the perfect summation of our text and of the topic of discipleship. The only reason we can follow Christ is because He was first loved us and showed us mercy. The primary motivation to offer service to His name and to others is the mercy He has given us. It is of paramount importance to continually keep this fact in mind, especially in a section that contains many commands.
The mercy of our heavenly Father in Christ allows us to do things that we wouldn’t normally do. Jesus describes a few: Doing good to those who hate you. Blessing those who curse you. Turning your face to the one who strikes you. Giving your shirt to the one who takes your coat. The basic theme of all these examples is being willing to be mistreated. Jesus says that a Christian needs to be ready to do that.
These commands were not just counter-cultural to that time. They are difficult to do for all ages and all cultures. We feel entitled to respond in like manner to those who mistreat us, especially if they started it. Jesus is calling His followers to live in a different manner, we might call it “taking the high road.” But, even for the most devout Christian, it is tough to willingly be mistreated by others and be okay with it. This is why we call it a cost.
Jesus also explains what makes His will different. He says, “But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 "And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 "And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back.”
One word keeps coming up in each example – credit. Jesus explains that if we do nice things for others just to get something for ourselves, we haven’t really served them. And it’s really not all that hard to do that either. The more difficult and noble task is to serve without expecting anything in return, and to even serve when being mistreated.
The idea of receiving credit might make us think that we do good things in order to get things God. Some do take this section to teach that we can earn blessings from God by helping others – even attaining His mercy and forgiveness if we’re good enough. But that kind of thinking is no different than the very thing Jesus is speaking against. Remember how important that final verse is. When God showed us mercy, did we deserve it? Absolutely not. If we had, it would not be mercy anymore. The very nature of mercy means that the recipient is not deserving. Furthermore, if we cannot serve others by expecting things in return, why would we think we could do that with God?
The credit that Jesus speaks about is glory that God receives when something is done in faith. As Jesus says in verse 35, when you serve others, even your enemies, without expecting anything in return, the Father is well-pleased. When God is pleased, we are too – not because we have earned something special, but because we have shone that we acted in faith. The service we give is evidence that God’s mercy is working in our lives. That credit both glorifies God and proves that we believe what we confess. As James wrote, “Faith without works is dead.” That is true not because faith is earned but because faith is proven to be genuine.
The credit or reward of faith will eventually point to heaven, what Jesus characterizes as being “sons of the Most High.” The promise of eternal life is the end result of faith in Christ. Therefore, every time our faith is proven genuine by service our eternal reward after this life is also proven genuine. And the engine behind all this is the underserved mercy of God.
For Bonhoeffer, his discipleship service consisted in speaking against the Nazi regime in his home country. He took these commands very literally, as he advocated not only for the helpless and defenseless Jews but also for his enemies, the Nazis. By standing for the true Word of God in a time when many Christians were backing down, Bonhoeffer was actually being the most loving of all to his opponents, even those that would eventually kill him for it.
That’s another unique aspect of Christian service. If it is difficult to put into action, it is also difficult to receive. As Jesus describes, it’s as if Christian service operates on a different plane of existence. That’s how foreign it is to our natures. Therefore, we shouldn’t be surprised when the world despises us for loving and serving them as God desires. That is the way things have been since the beginning of sin’s onslaught of this world and it’s the way it will continue until the final day. As difficult as this must have been for Bonhoeffer and other faithful Christians caught in the tyranny of WWII, the stand they took was clear and certain.
The more difficult question is how this same type of service plays out in our lives. Bonhoeffer had something to say about that as well, in describing the difference between cheap grace and costly grace.
“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
“Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.”
We live at a time of relative peace and calm, yet the costs we consider are very much the same. The spiritual warfare of individual hearts has often been translated into public forums, especially within the church. We live at a time when there is just as much pressure on churches to conform to worldly standards. Requiring repentance. Practicing church discipline. Demanding unity and confession before Communion – all things that Bonhoeffer mentioned as necessities in following Christ – are under attack today. It is rare to find Christians and churches that are willing to stand for the truth of God’s Word – even more rare to find those willing to suffer the consequences of doing so.
It is also equally rare to find the pursuit if costly grace today. Hungering to hear the Word of God. Being willing to forsake all to receive forgiveness in Christ. Looking to Jesus above all other treasures in life. These qualities are equally rare. We might look at Bonhoeffer’s life and wonder if we would have done the same. When marching toward the prison doors of the concentration camp, would we have remained steadfast in the faith? But, what we fail to realize is that the same pressures are upon us today – the details are simply different. The only reason Bonhoeffer was resolute in his faith is because he knew and trusted what Jesus had done for him. Once he had that nothing else mattered. The pressures upon us may seem softer than imprisonment and death and in a way they are. But, we, and all Christians, must still wrestle with the bigger issue that Bonhoeffer faced. Not what the Nazis could do to him, but how he could have costly grace, and not cheap grace.
The cost of discipleship involves service. Service to God. Service to other people – all kinds of people. Instead of worrying about what might be easy or what might be difficult – remember one thing. It takes grace. You can succeed because Your Heavenly Father has been merciful and forgiving to you. When He calls you to serve others, it’s not a requirement you must meet to get to heaven – it is a plea to give as you have been given, that others may be saved as well. Therefore, it’s not really about you at all – but all about Jesus. To give yourself up like that involves a cost – but one well worth it. The cost involves standing firm against false practice and false teaching. It involves repentance and humility. It involves love and self-sacrifice. It involves treating everyone equally, even if they don’t deserve it. When this service is offered, in faith in Christ as it only can be; it gives credit where it deserves to be given – to our gracious God.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.