Reading: Luke 9:57-62, Luke 14:25-33
One thing that I remember from my childhood is that every year there was a mass mailing selling magazines that the words: “You may have already won 10 million dollars” on the front of the envelope. When you opened the envelope it was full of stickers representing magazines so that you could order a subscription, so you likely ordered another year’s subscription for those magazines you subscribe to every year.
This was an amazingly clever marketing scheme. If you took a philosophy class, you might have learned about Blaise Pascal. One of the things he wrote about is called: “Pascal’s wager”. The basic idea of Pascal’s wager is there is a great potential reward but no cost, it makes no sense not to make the bet. In the case of that envelope that gives you an entry in a sweepstakes drawing; it is cheaper, and more convenient, to renew your subscriptions through them than to renew each one individually; it costs nothing, and who knows, maybe you’ll win the prize — there is nothing to lose, so you make the wager when you buy your magazines.
Another example of Pascal’s wager is a little social media hoax that goes around on a regular basis saying something like: “Mark Zuckerberg promised he will donate \$1 to Shriner’s Children’s hospital every time this message is shared” — you seriously doubt that it is true, but many share it anyway because it seems not to cost anything.
Of course, Pascal’s wager wasn’t about marketing, nor was it about creating a Facebook hoax — it was an argument for living a religious life. Pascal argued that if we believe in Jesus — if we are right, our gain is infinite while if we are wrong, our loss is finite. If we don’t believe, and we are right, our gain is finite, while our loss is infinite; so there is only one safe bet.
I really did grow up with Pascal’s wager evangelism — Heaven, hell, eternal destiny. The gospel that I heard and understood as a child really was a pretty obvious bet; there really was no downside to choosing Jesus. Choosing Jesus was easy, it was painless, and the alternative was too terrible to imagine. It is safe to say that what I understood was Pascal’s wager.
When I read my Bible, sometimes there were passages that stuck out, because they made no sense in my life context, or because I understood them differently than what I had learned in Sunday school, or understood from the preaching in church. Today in our Sunday School class, we discussed one of these passages. I really remember how it stood out to me when Jesus turned away those who would follow him.
The first person Jesus discourages is somebody who promises to follow Jesus anywhere; Jesus responds: “Foxes have holes, birds have nests, but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” Jesus discourages a follower who says “anywhere” because the cost of following Jesus is the discomfort of vagrancy. The idea that following Jesus may lead to homelessness is a pretty big, and immediate cost — this isn’t what I was told before the altar call.
The next two people make even less sense to me — you see, I don’t have to sacrifice my family or say goodbye to those at home to commit my life to Jesus; my family are devout Christians and I have many Christian friends. If there were a decision that would separate me from home and family, in my childhood context, it would be rejecting Jesus. For both Pascal and I, choosing Jesus is easy — and I have only benefited in life from this choice. I didn’t understand why Jesus would discourage followers. This passage and a passage that comes later in Luke (which the Sunday school book does not cover) just didn’t seem to fit my experience nor my understanding — listen to what Jesus says to those who follow:
25 Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26 “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30 saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. (Luke 14:25-33 NRSV)
My Christianity costs me nothing — Jesus talked about a Christianity that cost everything. The only cost I counted was the cost of Hell, and the cost of losing the Church — I never counted the cost of following Jesus. Was the preacher wrong, was my prayer inviting Jesus into my heart ineffective? Did the child me deeply misunderstand some very important details? Needless to say — the child me deeply misunderstood many things; I had no concept of “original audience.” When Pascal makes his wager, Christianity costs him little. When I asked Jesus into my heart, I had nothing to lose, and only something to gain.
Luke 9 foreshadows the Crucifixion. In this chapter, Herod takes an interest in Jesus and notices a similarity between Jesus and John, who he executed. Herod’s interest is a dangerous thing. In the same chapter, Jesus tells the disciples about what is coming; that he will be rejected by Jerusalem’s religious leaders, and that he will be put to death, and later he told the disciples that he would be betrayed. Jesus is turning away those who want to become disciples when he knows he has started his journey to the cross. Following Jesus is easy when you have a Christian community, government officials want the Christian vote, and those dearest to you also follow Jesus. Following Jesus is hard when it means you will be isolated, lose your community and will likely lose your property and your life. Pascal’s wager does not look so good in the First and Second century as it does in 17th century Europe or the United States today. As I learned about what the first Christians faced, I learned that they truly had a cost to count.
I have to admit, I’m glad I’m not part of the Primitive church. I have no desire to be lit on fire, nor killed by wild animals, nor any of the other tortures the earliest Christians faced. I’m very glad I’m in the United States, and not one of the many countries where I would risk persecution and death for my faith. I’m glad that Nero isn’t in charge, and that I have the freedom to say what I believe without fear of arrest, even when what I believe is inconvenient for those in power. John the Baptist lost his head because he condemned Herod’s behavior, but if I said the same thing about our current leader’s misbehaviors, my head would remain safe; the worst I could expect to suffer is a few rude comments on social media.
Cost counting isn’t very relevant in my context; except that it grows relevant as I understand more. I live in a very Christian society, but I also live in a society that has great difficulty distinguishing its secular culture from Christianity. I live in a society where Christians can argue about which parts of the Bible are not Biblical, without irony nor intended disrespect, and who will defend what the Church has long named mortal sin because our culture says that greed is good. I live in a culture that asks Christianity to excuse its sin and with politicians who ask preachers to teach religion in a way that is convenient; now, these are just requests — and there is nobody coming to arrest those who do not comply, but these are very tempting requests — there is an idea that compromising scripture to fit culture or politics brings fame or success. You can find preachers who will excuse any sin if there is somebody in power to reward them.
I’ve grown to appreciate two preachers and theologians who served in Germany during in the first half of the 20th century: Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. You might know, Nazi Germany hung Bonhoeffer for treason and deported Karl Barth to his native Switzerland. When I read their work today, there is nothing especially exciting radical about what they write — but, in their context, it was a matter of life or death.
Early 20th century Germany was very Christian. It is uncomfortable to say it, but when Hitler was elected, Christians supported him — and very few churches spoke out against him. Christians largely rationalized and compromised, and there was nothing that the government did that the majority of churches would not support, and many went beyond compromising and rationalizing, to adjusting their teachings to match those of the secular government.
Barth and Bonhoeffer were leaders in what has become known as the confessing church. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran and his friend Barth was Reformed; as the majority of the churches were compromising with Hitler, those churches who felt that these compromises were too much formed an alliance. There was a joint statement of faith written that both Lutheran and Reformed churches agreed to, and they had to do some truly challenging theology as they were in a truly unique situation: I would like to read the English translation of this joint statement:
In view of the errors of the “German Christians” and of the present Reich Church Administration, which are ravaging the Church and at the same time also shattering the unity of the German Evangelical Church, we confess the following evangelical truths:
1. “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6
“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold through the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved.” John 10:1,9
Jesus Christ, as he is attested to us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God whom we have to hear, and whom we have to trust and obey in life and in death.
We reject the false doctrine that the Church could and should recognize as a source of its proclamation, beyond and besides this one Word of God, yet other events, powers, historic figures and truths as God’s revelation.
2. “Jesus Christ has been made wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption for us by God.” 1 Cor. 1:30
As Jesus Christ is God’s comforting pronouncement of the forgiveness of all our sins, so, with equal seriousness, he is also God’s vigorous announcement of his claim upon our whole life. Through him there comes to us joyful liberation from the godless ties of this world for free, grateful service to his creatures.
We reject the false doctrine that there could be areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ but to other lords, areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.
3. “Let us, however, speak the truth in love, and in every respect grow into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body is joined together.” Eph. 4:15-16
The Christian Church is the community of brethren in which, in Word and Sacrament, through the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ acts in the present as Lord. With both its faith and its obedience, with both its message and its order, it has to testify in the midst of the sinful world, as the Church of pardoned sinners, that it belongs to him alone and lives and may live by his comfort and under his direction alone, in expectation of his appearing.
We reject the false doctrine that the Church could have permission to hand over the form of its message and of its order to whatever it itself might wish or to the vicissitudes of the prevailing ideological and political convictions of the day.
4. “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to have authority over you must be your servant.” Matt. 20:25-26
The various offices in the Church do not provide a basis for some to exercise authority over others but for the ministry [lit., “service”] with which the whole community has been entrusted and charged to be carried out.
We reject the false doctrine that, apart from this ministry, the Church could, and could have permission to, give itself or allow itself to be given special leaders [Führer] vested with ruling authority.
5. “Fear God. Honor the Emperor.” 1 Pet. 2:17
Scripture tells us that by divine appointment the State, in this still unredeemed world in which also the Church is situated, has the task of maintaining justice and peace, so far as human discernment and human ability make this possible, by means of the threat and use of force. The Church acknowledges with gratitude and reverence toward God the benefit of this, his appointment. It draws attention to God’s Dominion [Reich], God’s commandment and justice, and with these the responsibility of those who rule and those who are ruled. It trusts and obeys the power of the Word, by which God upholds all things.
We reject the false doctrine that beyond its special commission the State should and could become the sole and total order of human life and so fulfil the vocation of the Church as well.
We reject the false doctrine that beyond its special commission the Church should and could take on the nature, tasks and dignity which belong to the State and thus become itself an organ of the State.
6. “See, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matt. 28:20 “God’s Word is not fettered.” 2 Tim. 2:9
The Church’s commission, which is the foundation of its freedom, consists in this: in Christ’s stead, and so in the service of his own Word and work, to deliver all people, through preaching and sacrament, the message of the free grace of God.
We reject the false doctrine that with human vainglory the Church could place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of self-chosen desires, purposes and plans.
The Confessing Synod of the German Evangelical Church declares that it sees in the acknowledgment of these truths and in the rejection of these errors the indispensable theological basis of the German Evangelical Church as a confederation of Confessing Churches. It calls upon all who can stand in solidarity with its Declaration to be mindful of these theological findings in all their decisions concerning Church and State. It appeals to all concerned to return to unity in faith, hope and love.
The result of this choice was the arrest of about 700 Christian pastors, for Bonhoeffer it was death, for Karl Barth, the principal author of the declaration, it was deportation. Now, as I said, the situation here isn’t the same as it was in Germany. Sometimes a government official might take it upon himself to tell a church what they should teach and believe — but such a statement has no legal force. (I condemned such a statement that was made against the Southern Baptists and the Catholic church in Ft. Wayne Indiana by the Attorney General.) The Barman declaration named government supported, blindly patriotic and political Christianity as false teaching, and named ways in which it is false; you see, sometimes there is something to sacrifice. Sometimes we have to remember that because Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not.
I don’t expect that the cost of discipleship will be mass arrests or for American pastors to be hanged — but, the cost is to be accused of being unpatriotic, of political pundits telling people to run away from your churches, and for high government officials to use their position to publically condemn whole denominations and cast doubt upon their faith. I don’t expect an order to worship Caeser, but I do expect people, including political commentators and government officials, to quote Romans 13:1-2 in a way that says the Early Christians disobeyed God when they refused to sacrifice to Ceaser.
In all of this, we must put Christ first, even if it costs us pride, esteem, or our sense of belonging in a community. As the Sermon on the Mount teaches us, we cannot serve two masters, there comes a time when we have to choose; and when that time comes, we need to choose Jesus — even if the cost is a hanging. I’ve said many times I believe Christianity is about Jesus coming to where we are and inviting us to walk with Him wherever that leads. There are many who followed Jesus to the Cross, and if that is where Jesus leads us, that is where our Faith says we must go. Our hope remains the same — whether we are lead into the valley of the shadow of death, or the valley of the shadow of embarrassment: that as long as we walk with Jesus, we are with Jesus at the end our journey because we never forget that the cross isn’t the end of the story.