These past few weeks have a been a blur. I know my calendar doesn’t lie, but I can’t imagine that we’re already at the end of Lent. Before we leave the season behind, though, I’d like to dwell a little bit on one of the central topics at the heart of the gospel and the Lenten season, and that is change.
Change is something we’ve all had to embrace a lot lately. We’ve simply had no other option. The same thing could be said for the gospel and what it means to trust in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. To call Jesus “king,” like we’ll do this Palm Sunday, is to be willing to change how we think and act and live in this world so that it aligns with how Jesus thinks and acts and lives in this world. In our culture of total freedom and radical individualism, that’s a hard sell. But, if Jesus is to be believed, it’s the only way to real growth and real joy.
King of Kings and Lord of Lords! We worship you this morning, and we come before you knowing that you ask a lot of us, but you ask it because you love us and want what is best for us. So, we in turn ask simply for the desire to want your change. Guide us by your Word and your Holy Spirit today, so that in your light we might see light, and in your truth, we might find freedom, and in your will, we might truly discover peace through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Matthew 4:18-22; 5:2, 29-30; 13:44-46; 1 Corinthians 6:19-20
As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him. Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him…
And he began to teach them. He said…“If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell…
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it…”
Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.
“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” by Issac Watts
(YouTube video, with lyrics, for in-home worship: https://youtu.be/Tkx8WAycYAc)
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.
See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
The irony of resurrection is that it only works if we die. Resurrection is that wondrous, green shoot we see all around us today poking its head out of the dirt but that we know owes its very existence to the dead and decaying husk of what used to be a seed. Without death, there would simply be no life in this world. It’s the same thing in the Kingdom of God. As Jesus once told his disciples, “Anyone who wants to save her life will lose it, but those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Life, it seems, can only follow death.
I’ve been thinking about death a good deal lately and not only because COVID-19 has proven to be such a terrible disease, but because of how it’s forced us to change almost wholesale how we go about everyday life. Some old ways of doing things have had to be put to bed so that we can live in today’s strange new world.
When Jesus first placed that call to his disciples to come and follow him, they faced a similar sea change. They left the world of commercial fishing and entered a brand new one of radical giving, miraculous healing, and itinerant homelessness. What follows in the Gospels is the story of how this brand new world required an equally radical transformation of the disciples’ understanding of what it meant to think and act in society. Virtually everything, they learned, would have to change.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once described this as “the cost of discipleship,” and he employed the language of cheap versus costly grace. “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession.” Costly grace, on the other hand, “is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner.”
Isaac Watts’ famous Easter hymn expresses both aspects of this costly grace seamlessly. The “death of Christ my God” desires not only respect and belief; it demands “my soul, my life, my all.” Here is a sacrificial love “so amazing, so divine” that we’d indeed be willing to sell — in fact, we’d be ecstatic about selling — all we’ve got to get a mere taste of it. Jesus’ parables about the pearl of great price and fields of treasure might not have been exaggerations after all.
But, in today’s topsy-turvy world, it’s Jesus’ more painful descriptions of costly grace that resonate with me. “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out… if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off.” These are extreme measures, but they seem awfully less extreme two weeks into a shelter-in-place order. In a world that has tied its lifeline to the free flow of commerce, to sever that line is about as extreme as you can go to save our lives. Are we willing to do the same to save our souls?
As our Lenten season ends and Easter rolls around, I invite you to examine your own lives and the lives of your family members. (Sometimes we need a loving outside perspective to see through our own messes; just remember to let them lovingly return the favor.) What attitudes, desires, habits, practices, and patterns of thought of yours need to die so that something new and beautiful can arise? Where do you need to change, so that you can truly live?
Prayers for Our World
Maybe the first place we start is with our desire — or lack thereof — to change. Let us pray for our own hearts and souls and minds this morning, asking that they be transformed and renewed. Take some time right now to pray simply for the desire to want to change. Then pray for God’s wisdom and guidance as to where you need to change.
When you are finished, let us turn our prayers specifically toward our families and our neighbors’ families and then to the world…
- For our families, we pray that even when our patiences wear thin and our attitudes break against each other, that we would find comfort in each other’s arms and joy in each other’s company.
- For those of us who are working overtime during this crisis, we pray for the strength and energy to carry on and for the chance to carve out some time for rest and play.
- For those of us who have been laid off or have otherwise lost our regular income, we pray for the quick and continued generosity of not only our government but also our neighbors and, in the end, a quick return to employment.
- For those with chronic illnesses entering into this pandemic, we pray for protection from the virus and the ability to receive quality and effective treatment.
- For all who are working on the front lines during this time — our medical professionals, our delivery people, our grocery and sanitation workers, and all those in social work or other forms of relief — we pray for their safety and for your blessings upon them.
- For all who have loved ones in nursing homes or other places with limited access, and for those loved ones who are because of that feeling even more isolated.
- For all children and their parents living in poverty here in Cincinnati and across the world, especially those who don’t have quality healthcare or even the ability to safely quarantine.
- For the wisdom and strength of the church here and around the world, especially in places without social safety nets, that we would be sources of hope and health and peace to these families.
- For all those who have died this week because of this virus, that God would receive them into his open arms of love.
Gracious and Suffering God, we remember what grace cost you and why you gladly and lovingly bore it. We pray today for the courage and willingness to do the same, whatever the cost to our pride and our own sense of rightness. Hear our prayers this morning for ourselves and for our world. We ask these things in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, one God with you and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
For more on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s costly grace, see his book, The Cost of Discipleship.