Sermon preached by the Rev’d Adam Yates
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fifth Sunday of Lent – March 25, 2012
I was reading, “The Cost of Discipleship,” a book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which I commend to you all, the summer I attended a conference in Texas to discern whether I should attend seminary. That trip was a powerful experience, and the morning that I got ready to leave, I knew that I would be going to seminary after college. I boarded the plane to fly back to Wisconsin and pulled out Bonhoeffer’s book to finish the last few chapters.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a great 20th century theologian and religious leader, and in this book he examines very carefully and powerfully what it would mean to live a life in keeping with Jesus’ teachings. More importantly than writing a book about what it means to be a Christian, Bonhoeffer—for those unfamiliar with him—put it into practice.
Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran Priest during the time of Nazi Germany and actively worked against the Nazi regime, helping form a rebel church in Germany that stood in opposition to Hitler. Eventually, Bonhoeffer’s examination of his own faith and discipleship led him to participate in a failed plot to assassinate Hitler, and 23 days before the fall of Nazi Germany, Bonhoeffer was executed. Many consider him to be a martyr of the Church.
On the plane that morning, a woman eventually sat down next to me and upon seeing the book I was reading, struck up a conversation, and asked what it was about. I gave her roughly the same explanation that I just shared with you, ending with Bonhoeffer’s martyrdom. She then asked what I had been doing in Texas, and I explained to her everything that I had been doing, and that I was planning to attend seminary after I graduated from college. She was the very first person I told. She smiled at me, congratulated me and then said, “maybe you’ll get martyred too.” It took her a second to realize what she had said, and then she got very quiet and didn’t say another word for the rest of the flight.
While martyrdom is a bit of an extreme example and perhaps not the best thing to wish someone, much less upon your first meeting, this complete stranger’s odd choice of words was a reminder that being a Christian, choosing to follow in the footsteps and teachings of Jesus, has very real implications. When I was growing up, I remember feeling apprehensive during Lent on many occasions. Jesus’ rather abrupt pronouncement about the wheat grain and those who love their lives, as well as other sayings like the one we read today, troubled me. Different preachers over the years would deal with them one way or another, but they never addressed the question that unsettled me on many car rides home after church; what if Jesus actually meant what he said?
I was, and still am, rather fond of life. I enjoy sharing a cup of coffee in the morning with the person I love, the weight of my cat in my lap as I read a book, and the smell of the changing tide when I go running. I enjoy my life, it is comfortable. The thought that I might have to give up that comfort, whether metaphorically or literally, is troubling. The fact that my faith has real implications is scary.
I know that I am not alone in this internal struggle. I suspect that many of us here have had to confront it in one way or another. Even more importantly, I know that Jesus struggled with it, after all, he was human as we all are. Jesus had beloved family and friends, he enjoyed breaking bread with other people, and we know that he could be the life of the party as when he turned water into wine in order to keep wedding festivities moving along smoothly. In today’s Gospel reading, I suspect that his words were as much for himself as he came to terms with where his journey with God would lead him, as they were for his disciples and the gathered crowds.
Ultimately this struggle we must each face as we confront the costs of our discipleship, as Jesus did, comes down to one question—where do we place our hope?
Hope is an interesting thing. We often talk about it from the position of suffering and great evil, such as the world in which Bonhoeffer lived. He and many others like him had great hope, had great faith, that justice would prevail, that God’s creation could not be undone by such a great evil. Hope and faith in the midst of great suffering and evil is incredibly powerful. It has carried entire peoples through genocide, slavery, and oppression. It carries individuals to survive abusive relationships, persecution, and violence. It is hope founded in the knowledge that God is still creating in our midst, that God has a vision for creation, and that God’s work will prevail. I’m sure that some, if not many, of you have known this hope.
But where is our hope and faith when we are not in the position of suffering and confronted with evil? Where is our hope and faith when we are in the position of comfort, even luxury? I’m happy with my life. Yes, there are things that I want to change in the world, but on the whole, I don’t really want my life to change. Yes, Jesus was creating a revolution, teaching a new way to be in relationship with God, but that doesn’t mean that he wanted to give up his family and friends, the feel of the sun on his skin, or the taste of a meal shared with others.
It comes down to this: do we place our hope and faith in what is or in God’s potential of what is yet to be? When what is is filled with suffering and evil, it stands in great contrast to what can be in God. When what is is generally good, it becomes much easier to ignore the distinction of God’s potential. The problem is that as humans, we see what is and what was not before; we see the present and how it is not like the past, when the present is comfortable, we are loath to change it.
But God’s ways are not our ways, and how God sees the world is not how we see the world. God sees what is and what is still yet to be; God sees the present and at the same time a creation that is still unfolding. Like us, Christ struggled with the implications of this. If we are to call ourselves Christians and claim a life of faith, then we must, like Christ, place our faith and hope at all times in what is still yet to be in God, to place our faith and hope in a God who is at all times still creating, still bringing creation into closer relationship with God.
The grain of wheat, though changed forever, by allowing itself to be changed, by living into its God-created potential, participates in God’s creative work and bears much new life and new potential. So too may we not love the comforts of our lives so much that we never let them go, but instead have faith and hope in God and allow our lives to be changed that they would grow, expand, and participate in God’s vision for creation.
I will certainly not wish any of us martyrdom! I will wish, however, that we all embrace the real costs of our faith because our eyes do not rest on what is now, but on what can still yet be in God, and that at the end of journey, we will have already known eternal life.