Last week, in order to consider the answer to “Who do you say that I am,” I had to “dip” into this week’s reading because as Jesus’ identity comes into focus as the Messiah, the Son of God, Jesus begins to explain to the disciples what being the Messiah, the Son of God actually looks like.  So, we have encountered a little bit of what we find here.  Jesus describes the way in which he is head towards suffering, the cross, and resurrection.  He then describes that he expects nothing less than our willingness to follow him there:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? (Matthew 16: 24-26)

Notice again what is happening.  As Jesus reveals who he is, we begin to get a better sense of who we are supposed to be.  This is where we start to get uncomfortable.  How can I be this person?  How can we be this kind of people?  It all seems too much, doesn’t it?  This seems like a like of work for people who are supposed to be saved by grace alone, doesn’t it?  But that depends on how you understand grace.

Grace is a tough word.  It is a word that is thrown out a lot when church folks get together.  “We are saved by grace alone.”  “God’s grace is sufficient.”  “We receive God’s grace in the sacraments.”  Grace is definitely one of those “church” words.  And that isn’t a bad thing.  It is not a bad thing for the church to have a distinctive language.  It is not easy to just walk into church and be a Christian.  Even folks who would say they have been Christians their whole lives would be able to say that.  In fact, they might assert it more strongly.

To be a Christian is to learn a new language.  Our experiences in this Christian community call the church are shaped by Scripture as well as the traditions of the church passed down to us.  The reason we are giving our third graders Bibles today is to help them in the process of learning the Christian language.

Not only is there a verbal language, but also there is a language of gestures and actions that are shaped by our participation in this community.  Outside of the church baptism makes no sense.  We say some words and dump some water on a person.  Big deal, right?  Just as importantly, serving vulnerable people is given a different meaning.  We are not doing it only out of sympathy.  The folks receiving help are not objects of pity.  They are not just people we help to feel better about ourselves.

In this community Baptism is our initiation into this new family that is the body of Christ.  In this community we are in ministry with vulnerable people because we recognize in each of them the image of God.  We are called to love God, and because we love God, we love what God loves, which are our neighbors.  We recognize that our neighbors are none other than Jesus Christ beckoning to us.  To grow as a Christian is to learn a new language of words and action.

Grace can mean a lot of things to a lot of people, but our understanding of grace is distinctly shaped by our participation in the body of Christ.  When we divorce it from that life, we again run the risk of creating a false idol, grace that looks like whatever we want it to.  I don’t know if you’ve noticed a theme, but we are still pretty good at creating idols for ourselves.  They may not be fashioned out of wood or stone, but they are still as pernicious as ever.

What, then, does grace look like?  Grace is the power and presence of God.[1]  Grace is gratuitous.  God’s grace is freely given to us, even though we do not deserve it. However, just because we don’t deserve it, and just because it is feely offered to all, doesn’t mean that God doesn’t require anything of us in return. Yet, that is what often passes for grace.  That is what the theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer described as “cheap grace.”  In this scheme, according to Bonhoeffer,

Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits.  Grace without price; grace without cost![2]

The logic essentially goes that because grace is freely offered to us, our reception of grace need have little or no effect on the shape our lives.  Whatever we do is covered by grace.  Yet, this seems to be exactly the opposite of what we encounter in our scripture for this morning.  Picking up our cross and following Christ does not sound like an encounter with Jesus Christ that requires no response.  Losing our lives so that we might find them does not sound like an encounter with Jesus Christ where our regular activity remains separated from our faith, where our activities remain relatively unaffected.

This is where learning a new language comes in.  The church often finds itself misunderstood by the world because we can somehow come to the conclusion that to pick up our cross and follow Christ, to deny ourselves is actually the character and shape of grace.  Think about the hymn we sang at the beginning of the service:  “Lift High the Cross.”  The cross to us is a sign of victory.  To everyone else, this was a sign of execution.  It was a sign of death.  To wear a cross in Jesus’ time would be as if we were wearing little electric chairs around our necks now.  Yet, because and only because it is where Jesus died,  it is a sign of victory.  We see victory in the cross because when Jesus was resurrected, he conquered death.  The sign of death then becomes a sign of life.  This does not make sense outside of the community called the Church.

If we let our desire to be respectable in the eyes of the world consume us, we let the world set the agenda for what grace is.  Our understanding of grace only comes through our answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?”  We can only understand grace because know Jesus.  When we truly encounter Jesus, and we see him for who he is, we begin to realize there is a cost.  Yet, because it is Jesus, we are willing to do anything to follow him.  We don’t care about the cost.  It is the kind of grace that causes a fisherman to drop his nets, abandon everything he knows.  Cheap grace is grace that requires nothing of us because it is grace without Jesus Christ.

The grace we are talking about, as Bonhoeffer says is “costly because it is calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.”[3]  The grace offered to us in Jesus Christ is costly because it requires our whole lives.  This is the character of losing our lives in order to find it.  We aren’t just throwing our lives away.  We are losing ourselves into Jesus Christ’s life.  If it weren’t Jesus Christ, it wouldn’t be grace because no one else can make such a call on our lives.  Most importantly, as Bonhoeffer points out, “it is costly because it cost God the life of his son…[but] above all it is grace because did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us.”[4]

The way we understand grace can make a lot of difference in the way our lives move forward.  Grace is good news. But it isn’t good news because it means that we can go on as we please.  Rather, it is good news because it comes to us as God’s gift for us to become the kind of people God created us to be.  We do not find cheap grace in Jesus Christ.  Rather, as John Wesley suggested, Jesus Christ’s commands are covered promises.[5]

It is true that much is required.  It is true that to be a disciple of Jesus Christ is costly.  Indeed, our whole lives are required.  It is a call to follow Jesus Christ to the cross.  It is a call to lose our lives.  For goodness sakes, Jesus tells us that we are to be perfect as his heavenly Father is perfect!  It sounds like an impossible task.  And it would be if it weren’t for grace.  Real grace, costly grace, is inseparable from Jesus’ commands because it is our reception of Jesus’ grace that enables us to grow into the kind of people who can live out those commands.

We are a people who believe in responsible grace.[6]  God offers grace to all freely, yet God expects a response.  We wouldn’t know how badly we need Jesus without grace, yet when we are convinced of how mired in sin we are, we are called to repentance.  We say “yes,” to Jesus.  Whether that is a dramatic moment we can remember or whether we grew up in the church and gradually came to faith in Christ, our “yes” is not the last word.

God is not done with us.  Conversion is not a one time event.  The life of a Christian is a life of constantly being more and more converted into a disciple of Jesus Christ.  That is what we United Methodists call sanctification.  At every moment of growth, we realize how much more growing we have to do.  As we become more and more familiar with the language of being a Christian, the more we realize how much more we have to learn about loving God and loving our neighbors.

Grace is offered as the channel through which Christ shines more brightly in our lives.  What does it look like to live as people who are the recipients of costly grace?  It takes practice.  And where does such practice come?  It comes in the liturgy of the church through which we pass in worship each week.  Think of a rough rock made smooth as water passes over it. The practices of the liturgy and the grace of Jesus Christ makes us smooth, less resistant to Christ’s call. Week in and week out, our gathering for worship may not always be incredible.  Every sermon may not have Ricky Bobby in it. Yet, over time, we are smoothed out for Jesus.

When we leave the church, we are prepared to live as a Christian in the world.  Think of the liturgy like improvisational comedy.  When you go to an improv show, everything looks like it is done off the cuff.  Yet, improv only comes after practicing the games that make improv work.  We are trained in the liturgy and strengthened by Christ’s grace in such as way that we can improv Christian responses to situations we encounter.

Discipleship is no different.  Learning to carry our cross.  Learning to lose our lives.  This comes as we gather together, to hear the stories of who we are, to pray, to pass peace, to sing the hymns of our faith, to remind ourselves of who Jesus is, so that we can be reminded of who he calls us to be.  Most importantly, as we practice what a Christian life looks like in worship, we receive the ultimate help because we share in Holy Communion, which John Wesley described as that “grand channel” of God’s grace.[7]  We are nourished by Christ’s body and blood through the power of the Holy Spirit, so that when we move out into the world we live as if we really believe that Jesus is who we say he is when we recite the creeds.

Christ offers us grace.  Because we are members of the body of the one who offers us grace, we ourselves become instruments of his grace.  Not instruments of cheap grace.  Grace the shows the world that Jesus is that treasure in the field that we sell everything to buy.  As instruments of grace we become channels, sacramental people through which good news is proclaimed to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and the oppressed to go free.

In a world that seems rocked by earthquakes, blown around by hurricanes, made low by crashing stock markets, we have the incredible task of proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor.  This isn’t going to make sense to a lot of people, but it may make a difference in the lives of many people.

The danger here is that since we understand grace as a call on our lives and the lives of our brothers and sisters in the church, we may lose patience if we don’t see the progress that we think we should in others.  To live as a Christian is to hold in tension holding one another accountable with the reality that we are all on the way towards being the people God calls us to be.  It means that we cannot lord accountability over one another as a way to put one another down or assert dominance over one another.  It is not a way to shame people we don’t like out of the church.

Rather, being instruments of grace means we get close enough to one another, that we love one another enough, to help one another on the journey. It means that when we pick up our cross, we do not do so alone.  It means that when we lose our lives, we are drawn into the lives of others because we become members of a body that is larger than ourselves.  At the end of the day, costly grace means that we enter together into a love worth dying for.

[1] Randy L. Maddox, Responsible Grace, (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1994), pp. 84-87.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 1995 Touchstone Edition, (New York:  MacMillan, 1959) p. 43.

[3] Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, p. 45.

[4] Ibid.

[5] John Wesley, “Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount V,” §2.3, John Wesley’s Sermons:  An Anthology, (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1991), p. 211.

[6] Maddox, Responsible Grace, p. 86.