Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Count the cost first. That’s Jesus’ point in the Gospel lesson today. See whether or not you have what is needed to complete the task, to finish the mission. If you don’t, then don’t begin, lest someone ridicule you for falling short of your goal. And of course, Jesus’ words are not aimed just at construction projects, or the leaders of nations taking military action. It’s aimed first and foremost at all of us: People who will, or will not, be His disciples. And this comes about, it seems, because Jesus sees the large crowds who are traveling with Him.
Now in many churches today, the conventional wisdom is that large crowds are a good thing. Today, lots of pastors and congregations are all about having the biggest congregation, the largest facilities, the most programs. Evangelism strategies, and ministry workshops, and pastor’s seminars are almost all aimed at getting more folks in the door, so that your congregation will be larger and larger. This wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, if a congregation is growing because of the right reasons: that the Word is being preached in its purity, and the Sacraments are being administered rightly, as the Augsburg Confession, Article VII defines as the marks of the one, holy and true Christian Church.
The difficulty with the so-called church growth movement is that the guiding principle seems to be, “do whatever it takes to get them in the door.” Pastors and congregations who buy into the church growth model essentially have to buy into other such strategies and principles as, “less Scripture is better” and “the Lord’s Supper ought not be offered on Sunday, if at all” and “liturgy and ritual is passé” and “no one likes traditional music, but only music that has catchy tunes, has a strong beat, and sounds like what you hear every day on the radio”.
These propositions really argue against themselves. On the one side, they claim that potential churchgoers are too sophisticated to be affected by God’s Word and must be swayed by modern marketing and the meeting of their ‘felt needs.’ On the other hand, they assume worship must be dumbed down, because people today are evidently not intelligent, educated, or capable of concentrating more than three minutes at a time.
In part, this is why so many churches are making their Sunday services more, what’s called, “seeker friendly.” The priority is to try to bring in more and more who are unchurched, by having “lowest common denominator worship.” That is, events that are friendly, warm, easy, comfortable, and upbeat. In other words, just make them “happy”.
The problem with that approach, however, is that it completely denies what and who Christian worship is actually meant for. Worship is not where outreach takes place. Worship is for disciples! In fact, in the early church, non-believers—such as the large crowds Jesus saw in our Gospel lesson—were allowed to meet with the believers for the first part of the worship service, through the readings and the sermon. The church wanted them to hear the good news that Jesus, God incarnate, had suffered, died, and risen again for the forgiveness of their sins and to give them life eternal.
After that, however, the unbaptized had to leave the service. Non-believers were not allowed to even see the celebration of the mysteries, the Lord’s Supper, much less participate. You think closed communion is a Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod invention? Think again. Go talk to the apostles if you’ve got a problem with it.
The Christian liturgy and proclamation was, first and foremost, for the initiated. It was for the baptized and the instructed, because these people would be those who would understand, for example, the words of Jesus like those in our Gospel lesson today. Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, but they were not really following Him. They were tagging along with Jesus, because he could cure the sick, do interesting deeds of power, and generally, put on a good show. Sometimes even pastors fall into the trap of thinking, “Our church can have large crowds, too, if we’ll just put on a good show!”
But if you read today’s Gospel lesson again, aren’t Jesus’ words meant to do just the opposite? Doesn’t Jesus intend to weed out those who were not disciples, to discourage those who just came to be entertained, so that no one would be deceived into thinking that discipleship, is easy, or comfortable, or suitable for great masses of people? Rather, Jesus says if you want to be my disciples, you must be prepared to leave everything behind, you must be prepared to leave home, and family, and security, and prosperity behind, to come follow me.
In fact, says Jesus, “whoever does not carry the cross and follow me, cannot be my disciple”. Paul, too, wrote how discipleship comes at a cost, and how the message of the crucified Savior was a stumbling block to some, and foolishness to others.
But these are the words of life. These are the kinds of things we need to be able to say in church, without dumbing them down or softening them up for the seekers who might be present, for fear they might find a suffering God uncomfortable, or discipleship too demanding or harsh.
When believers gather for Word and Sacrament, these are precisely the words we need to hear, and that preachers need to proclaim. Those who would be Jesus’ disciples will be able to count the cost, and consider the sacrifice, and be prepared to renounce all to be a follower of Jesus, who Himself paid the cost and underwent the sacrifice for us.
And let no one dare twist the text around a little, or ignore such texts as this, or read only selected lessons, so that we won’t turn visitors off by such a call from Jesus, to take up your cross and come follow!
Jesus is saying to you and to me this morning, “This is what it means to be my disciple! It is costly. It demands something of you. It involves cross-bearing and sacrifice and service!” And if you are not willing to be my disciple, Jesus says, then go with the large crowds. Go your own way. But realize that if you’re not with Christ, there is no other path that leads to anything except for eternal death.
So many, however, chose the wide, smooth, easy way, rather than the narrow path. They ignore what lies at the end of their easier road, concocting all sorts of wishful ideas. You’ve heard many of them, haven’t you? Maybe you’ve even said some of them. Things like, “I believe in Jesus, but organized religion isn’t for me.” Or, “It doesn’t really matter what you believe, as long as you are sincere about it.” Or, “A loving God wouldn’t really condemn people who don’t believe in Him to hell.”
Such lies sound pleasant, reasonable, tolerant, charitable. But they’re still lies, and the truth of sacrifice is hard, especially the truth that while faith demands nothing of you, discipleship does, and Jesus spoke just as much about discipleship as He did about faith and salvation. The challenges that discipleship waves in your face makes it seem inevitable that the true church will always be small in numbers.
Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, imprisoned and finally martyred by the Nazis for participating in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, said, “True Christians will always be small in number. The true church will always consist of the few.” Such words fly completely in the face of the church growth movement, and the push for larger and larger numbers that are thought to be the indicator of success and effectiveness. A growing congregation can be an indicator of a lot of things, but it is never an cause-and-effect indicator of faithfulness, nor of true discipleship.
Our congregation is blessed to be relatively stable in numbers. We lose some members to relocation, some to death, some to other local congregations, Lutheran and otherwise. We seem to lose the most, however, to their unfortunate retreating from worship and discipleship. Gladly, though, new individuals and families come to us as well. Austin grows, bringing long-time Lutherans who find the worship, preaching, teaching, and faithful administration of the Sacraments here at St. Paul to be biblical and comforting. Others, finding either no comfort or no substance in the places they formerly worshipped, join us as well. Students come to UT or Concordia or other area colleges, and we become their church home for a time, and we rejoice in their time among us. Our day school and pre-school bring families from both Christian and non-Christian backgrounds to our doors, and many are captured by the Spirit working through the Word, and become part of this greater family.
Although all these comings bring joy and all the departures bring heartache, we should never be so foolish or so arrogant to think that numbers alone indicate discipleship and faithfulness in our members. Nor does any sort of program, or particular mix of staff, or expansion of particular activities indicate the success or the faithfulness of any church.
The faithfulness of a believer is, in a sense, an individual thing. It’s very personal. I can’t cannot determine whether you’re a faithful believer. That can be witnessed only by God, examining your heart and life.
Discipleship, on the other hand, is somewhat more outward and obvious to others: Does he or she attend worship faithfully? Do they join us in studying the Word of God, and apply it in his or her life? Does he or she serve others by participating in the needs of the church? Does he or she consistently and substantially give of the financial blessings the Lord has given them? But some of these things, other than congregational worship and bible study, can done quietly and unobserved. I can make some reasonable judgments about your discipleship based on outward signs, but can’t be completely confident in their accuracy.
Which leaves all of us, and each of us as individuals, wondering, “Will I be found faithful? Will I ever be considered, by God, a true disciple?” And the answer to both questions is, you really won’t, because both true faithfulness and true discipleship, don’t come from you. They come from Jesus Christ, who calls us to come, follow Him.
True discipleship, just like true faithfulness, comes from Jesus Christ alone!
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book, The Cost of Discipleship, writes that it is all about Jesus Christ himself, and not about the individual believer. He writes, “The call goes forth, and it is at once followed by the response of obedience. The response of the disciple is an act of obedience, not a confession of faith in Jesus. How could the call of Jesus immediately evoke obedience? For the simple reason that the cause behind the immediate following of call by response, is Jesus Christ Himself. It is Jesus who calls, and because it is Jesus, the disciple follows at once. The encounter is a testimony to the absolute, direct, and unaccountable authority of Jesus. Because Jesus is the Christ, He has the authority to call and to demand obedience to His word. Jesus commands simply, ‘follow me, run along behind me’, and the disciple follows in Jesus’ footsteps, for the sake of the call of Jesus. (Bonhoeffer, pp. 61-62)
And that is how anyone can be a disciple of Jesus: By Jesus calling us, and we simply follow in His footsteps. By Jesus commanding us to come, and we run behind Him, responding to His power, and His authority to demand obedience. By hearing His call, and striving to live a Christ-like life, in obedience to that call.
This means living lives of love, and sacrifice, and service. This means giving ourselves away, and taking up our cross and coming after Jesus. That’s the cost of discipleship: Obedience to Jesus. Obedience that is not always comfortable, or easy, or entertaining. But it’s obedience that creates in us, and sustains in us, faith. True faith, in the one, true God: Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In their blessed, holy names, Amen.