The Cost of Discipleship

File:Bundesarchiv Bild 183-R0211-316, Dietrich Bonhoeffer mit Schülern.jpg

Sunday Evening

Psalm 16

4 Those who choose another god
multiply their sorrows.

When I was 17, I found a book in a local bookstore entitled The Cost of Discipleship. I hadn’t yet heard of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I didn’t know anything of his context in Germany before and during the Nazi era. I didn’t know about his work teaching catechism in the inner city. I didn’t know about his ecumenical work. I didn’t yet know about the underground seminary in which he taught when the Nazi’s took over the state church. I didn’t know that he consciously chose to leave the United States in 1939 and return to Germany to suffer with his nation the woes that were upon them. I didn’t yet know he had been martyred by the Nazis. I was simply gripped by the title and content of the book. Its thesis was pretty simple: Jesus meant what he said.

Bonhoeffer contrasted “cheap grace” and “costly grace”. Cheap grace was a love that asked nothing in return, it asked no sacrifice, no commitment, no discipleship. Cheap grace allowed us to return home unchanged. It was a pointed critique of most church life. It had a dramatic effect on my young life.

I had been raised in a context that tended to look upon the teaching of Jesus as a noble ideal rather than a real expectation. It was good to forgive those who sin against you, but God would forgive us if we didn’t. It was good not to judge, but God would still love us if we did. It was good to share the love of God, but we had an evangelism committee and the pastor for that purpose.

The Christianity I experienced as an adolescent was about comfort in our struggles and encouragement to be nice. And then I read Bonhoeffer: “When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die.” Radical discipleship. It was thrilling and challenging to think about taking Jesus seriously.

Since then I have met people whose allegiance to Jesus caused them to be tortured – beatings, cigarette burns, electric shocks, the whole deal. What infuriated their captors most was they could not turn their victims to hate. I have known others who were missionaries in places where becoming a Christian was a crime. There is something about great sacrifice that seems noble and heroic to a young man. Later on in life, it looses its romance. But I also came to understand that the cost of discipleship is not the one, big, heroic thing; it is the many small heroic things – acts of kindness, generosity, sacrifice, service. It is shoveling the snow from the sidewalk of a neighbor whose mobility is limited. It is showing up with food in time of grief. It is choosing to silence gossip, or reaching out to those on the margins. It is choosing to put the best construction on the words and deeds of others and to hold one’s tongue rather than vent one’s anger. It is the courage to acknowledge ones faults rather than justify one’s actions. It is the commitment to make amends and to choose reconciliation. All of which sounds like “nice” – but is, in fact, far more than nice. It is the choice to live the reign of God rather than the way of the world.

There are people I knew who came to clean the church bathrooms when we could not afford a janitor. It is not something pleasurable or intrinsically rewarding; it is something one gives for the sake of others. Bonhoeffer will always be something of a hero to me – but so are the people who made some eighty sandwiches every Wednesday and took them to the street people on Cass Avenue in downtown Detroit. So is the couple who opened their home for a weekly Sunday night Bible Study – who saw their home as a tool for Gods purpose rather than a private sanctuary for themselves (or an investment for their future). So are the people who lived gracefully in pain rather than inflicting it on others. So is the woman who brought a remarkable cheerfulness to her nursing home when she could not longer stay in her home.

The cost of discipleship is not only seen the in the family who quit their jobs, sold their home, and became missionaries to Papua New Guinea. It is seen in the guy you could always find washing dishes after a church event, or the one who showed up to fix whatever he heard was broken. Or the guys who took a troubled teen under their wing and showed him what a good man could be. Or those who gave up their Saturday morning to prepare the altar for Sunday. All of which looks a lot like “nice”, but is in fact a choice to be a healing and life-giving presence in the world, to be a witness to the love of God, to show allegiance to this Jesus who told us to love our neighbor as ourselves.

And what I know of most of these – including the man who was tortured – is that they didn’t consider their discipleship a cost but a privilege from which they received far more than they gave. But it was a choice. A choice to follow this Jesus. A decision to choose the kingdom because of the one who chose them.

And so we come back to the verse from our psalm this morning: “Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows.”

There is a cost to worshipping other gods. It is a cost in sorrows. There is a price to pay to serve money, wealth or power. The gods of beauty and fame exact terrible sacrifices. And they do not give back. Their rewards are fickle and fleeting and perish in the grave. But the life God gives is eternal – both now and in the age to come.


Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R0211-316 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (, via Wikimedia Commons

One thought on “The Cost of Discipleship

  1. Reminds me of our lives together at P.O.P. And what I have heard about your time on Detroit. Thanks for all you do.

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