A Sermon about Greatness


Lutheran Church of the Cross, Arlington Heights
23 September 2018 + Lectionary 25B (Pentecost 18)
Mark 9.30-37

This week, I’ve had two sermons to write. That’s a lot of work — so you’re going to help me finish writing this morning’s sermon. Yes, this is one of those sermons. I’m going to ask you to participate.

I want you to think of someone who has been a role model, or a hero, or a mentor, to you. What was it about that person that made them great for you? What about that person made an impression on you that made you look up to them?

With one or two other people, take a few minutes now to share with each other about that person in your life. Who has been your role model, or hero, or mentor? What about that person made them great for you?

After a few minutes, I’ll call us back together with the sound of the bell.

From the sound of conversation, it sounds like we have more than a few role models, heroes, and mentors in our lives that made an impression on us — professors or teachers, work supervisors or colleagues, family members, close friends, pastors or other church leaders. If we had the time to share, I’d love to hear why each of those people you named were great for you.

The question of greatness takes center stage in our gospel reading today. On the way to Capernaum, the disciples are arguing about which one of them is the greatest. Later, at home, Jesus offers a valuable lesson about greatness that we’ve heard before: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Or said another way, in a another gospel: The last will be first, and the first will be last. (Matthew 20.16)

Jesus’s lesson here sounds simple enough, but it’s one of those verses so often cited, one of those biblical phrases so often uttered, it’s easy to lose clarity of what it’s actually saying.

Indeed, the idea of being last is so counterintuitive, so countercultural, so opposed to everything we’re conditioned to believe and to do. We have solid ideas of what it means to be the greatest — measured by how much money we make, how many academic degrees we have, what kind of car we drive, what neighborhood we live in, the people we know, how many “likes” and “retweets” our social media posts get. Perhaps most timely of all: Ask one political party what it means to make something great, and another will tell you it already is or has always been great. It’s not difficult to see why the concept of greatness is so divisive, so dangerous, so relevant.

The disciples are afraid to answer Jesus’s question about what they were talking about because the disciples are afraid that Jesus will upend and dismantle their culturally-conditioned notions and perceptions of greatness. As it turns out, their fear is well-founded because that’s exactly what Jesus does.

Think back to last week’s gospel reading: Jesus asks his disciples, casually, “Who do people say that I am?” They offer some answers: John the Baptist? Elijah? One of the prophets?

And then he turns the question on them: “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter (oh, Peter…), quick as always to try to give the right, most impressive, greatest answer: “You are the Messiah, the great deliverer who will vanquish all our enemies, free us from the tyranny of the Romans, and restore our rightful status as the greatest nation!”

Do you remember Jesus’s response? “Get behind me, Satan!” Yikes. That seems like a harsh way of telling Peter he’s wrong, but it gets the point across, doesn’t it?

Peter’s idea of a great Messiah had been woefully misguided. Jesus has already told his disciples plainly the kind of Messiah he is. He will take up his cross, undergo great suffering, rejection, and even death. He will give up his life for the sake of others. He will be last of all and servant of all. He will be betrayed into human hands and they will kill him… but he will rise again.

Jesus gives us a model of what it means to be great, far from our preconceptions of what it means to be great. By becoming human, by willingly becoming part of our frail and flawed existence, God shows us that being great has to do with solidarity with those who are oppressed, with relationship with the least of these, with love for all creation.

Greatness is not determined by how much money we make, how many degrees we have, what we drive, where we live, or anything else. To return again to my very favorite biblical commentator Karoline Lewis: “Greatness is determined by weakness and vulnerability. By service and sacrifice. By humility and honor. By truthfulness and faithfulness… [and] we are called to embody this kind of greatness, so that the world can witness the true meaning of greatness born out of love.”

I’d be willing to bet that the examples you gave at the beginning of this sermon have to do with this kind of greatness. We look up to people, to our mentors, to those who have had the most influence on our lives, for the way they live that guides the way we live.

We have the ultimate model of this kind of greatness in Jesus — the Creator of all who becomes as one of his creatures, the Master and Lord of all who becomes a servant of all — showing us the way of love in self-emptying servanthood, pouring out his life, giving us his very body and blood, for the sake of our life. For it is in dying that Christ destroys death, and it is only by dying that Christ rises to new life and indeed raises even us to new life.

Thanks be to God.


“Who do you say that I am?” + A Sermon about Who Jesus Is and Who We Are Called to Be


Redeemer Lutheran Church, Hinsdale
16 September 2018 + Lectionary 24B (Pentecost 17)
Mark 8.27-38

“Who do you say that I am?”

It’s a deceptively simple question: “Who do you say that I am?”

For as long as the Christian church has been in existence, questions about the identity of Jesus have enticed the minds of historians and theologians. Even artists have taken up this debate, each offering their own distinct visual representation of Jesus. While of course we don’t really know what Jesus looked like, some of their representations are certainly closer to the truth than others.

It’s fair to say, too, that for as diverse as the visual answers to this question are, the theological ones are just as vast and varied. Turn on the TV to certain megachurch pastors, and the Jesus you’ll hear about often sounds more like a self-help book or a magic, wish-granting genie. Still other depictions of Jesus by the Christian Right and Left would seek to align him with one political party or another, with all the implications that entails.

So what about the Bible? Surely that will give us a more definitive answer to this question. So we might think — and yet we have four gospels with four very different portrayals of Jesus, plus the twenty-three additional books of the New Testament that each offer their own unique insights about this radical, first-century, itinerant Jewish rabbi-carpenter.

Maybe we just have to face the fact that there is no one simple answer. After all, even today’s gospel reading itself offers four different answers: John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets, or the Messiah. And just as easily as Jesus poses the question, he moves even more quickly to shut down the conversation, sternly ordering his disciples to tell no one about him. Technically, Jesus never really even confirms or denies Peter’s answer.

“Who do you say that I am?” Maybe another way of posing the question, as biblical scholar Karoline Lewis suggests, is this: “Who will you say that you are?” Indeed, Jesus’s identity is very much wrapped up in our own identity as followers of Jesus. Try as artists and theologians and historians might, we can never fully know what Jesus actually looked like or said or did. Sure, we have the witness of the four gospels and the other New Testament writings, and that paints a pretty good picture — but evidently not clear enough, for indeed, interpretations throughout centuries of Christian belief and practice have given way to innumerable divisions and denominations within the church.

Lewis continues: “Who you say Jesus is, is who you have decided to be.” Or maybe it’s the other way around. Who we are, who we have decided to be, what we have decided to believe is who we claim Jesus to be, superimposing our own beliefs, for better or worse, on Jesus.

This is a dangerous game that has led to the church’s often exclusionary and harmful attitudes toward marginalized communities throughout the years. When the church answers Jesus’s question “Who do you say that I am?” out of its own self-interests, it has historically resulted in some pretty convincing, albeit misguided, “biblical” arguments in support of slavery and segregation, against the leadership of women in our pulpits, and opposing the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons in the life of the church.

Anne Lamott, one of my favorite writers, says it this way, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” We can safely assume we’ve made Jesus into who we say Jesus is when suddenly he doesn’t seem all that different from us.

With that in mind, Peter’s identification of Jesus as the Messiah is less a confession of faith or giving the right answer and more revealing of what Peter wants Jesus to be. Following the popular Jewish thought of his time, Peter yearned for a Messiah, a specially anointed king from the royal line of David, ancient Israel’s greatest and most respected king. Descended from David, this new king was expected to powerfully vanquish Israel’s oppressors, to free Israel from the occupation and foreign rule of the Roman Empire, and to restore Israel’s status as an independent and divinely chosen people.

But that’s far from the kind of Messiah Jesus is, and he sternly rebukes Peter, even calling out Peter’s proposal as satanic and evil. Maybe it’s a bit harsh, but it certainly gets the point across.

The role of the Messiah that Jesus has in mind is much different. The Messiah that Jesus claims to be is a Messiah who takes up his cross, who undergoes great suffering, rejection, even death. This is Jesus’s answer to his own question. “Who do you say that I am?” This is the Messiah who suffers and gives up his life for the sake of others, who manifests God’s great love for God’s creation by offering his very self for our life.

This is also the answer to the flip side of the original question that Karoline Lewis poses: “Who will you say that you are?” ELCA pastor Elisabeth Johnson, who serves as a missionary in Cameroon, offers these words:

“Jesus speaks of losing our lives for his sake, and for the sake of the gospel. Taking up our cross means being willing to suffer the consequences of following Jesus faithfully, whatever those consequences might be. It means putting Jesus’ priorities and purposes ahead of our own comfort or security. It means being willing to lose our lives by spending them for others — using our time, resources, gifts, and energy so that others might experience God’s love made known in Jesus Christ.”

This passage is an invitation to discipleship, to following Jesus — but it doesn’t promise that the life of following Jesus will be easy or without challenges.

In the years before 2009, before the ELCA officially began ordaining and consecrating openly LGBTQ pastors and deacons, many Lutheran clergy who did not identify as straight either served closeted, withholding their identity from those with the power to defrock them, or were barred from serving entirely.

A few, however, chose to serve the church openly, at great risk. As an act of holy disobedience, the first three openly gay and lesbian pastors in the ELCA — Ruth Frost, Phyllis Zillhart, and Jeff Johnson — were ordained “extraordinarily” (outside the bounds of official church polity) in 1990, which promptly led the removal of the congregations that had called them from membership in the ELCA. In the years that followed, more and more gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender pastors and deacons were ordained and consecrated extraordinarily, served their congregations and ministry settings openly, and faced similar consequences — until the church finally started to catch up.

These early instigators of a movement toward full inclusion knew this life of discipleship well. They knew what it meant to take up their cross, to suffer the consequences of following Jesus faithfully, following the example of a Messiah who constantly reached out to the margins, toppling walls meant to keep “those people” out, and subverting boundaries every step of the way. These faithful instigators of the church knew what it meant to put Jesus’s priorities and the mission of the gospel ahead of even their own safety and the comfort and status quo of the institutional church.

“Who do you say that I am?” If we profess the church to be the body of Christ, we need look no further than these early instigators and other faithful witnesses to the gospel of radical inclusivity and love and justice for all people. These are the body of Christ. These are the answer to who Jesus is because these are the followers of Jesus.

Following in their witness, following in the witness of Jesus, this is our invitation. Who do you say that Jesus is? Who will you say that you are?

Image Description: Pastors Ruth Frost, Phyllis Zillhart, and Jeff Johnson join hands in prayer and blessing on the occasion of their “extraordinary” ordinations in 1990. (Credit: Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries)

Early on the First Day of the Week


+ Preached at our joint ecumenical Easter sunrise vigil with Holy Family Parish (Roman Catholic) in the park +

Augustana Lutheran Church
16 April 2017 + Resurrection of Our Lord
John 20.1-18

Kate Braestrup is a chaplain for the Maine Warden Service. In addition to enforcing the state’s fish and wildlife laws, the game wardens Kate works with also respond to various outdoor accidents, fatalities included.

So when she’s helping train new wardens on how to respond to deaths, she tells them a story from her own life. Kate’s husband Drew, a police officer, died in a car accident while on duty a number of years ago. When the news of his death reached her, she knew that she wanted to see his body, to bathe him, and to dress him — much to the astonishment and horror of the state police department and funeral home director. After a good deal of back-and-forth phone calls, they grant Kate her request — and with her mother, she goes to her husband, bathes his body, and dresses him in his dress uniform. The experience, she says, was “better than fine, better than okay.”

Kate tells that story to new trainees to teach them this: When a family member says they want to see the body of their deceased loved one, you can trust them. You don’t have to pretend to protect them.

Kate also points them to the text we just heard read. “Back in bible times,” she says, “there were no state troopers or funeral directors to get in the way of things.” Mary Magdalene did not have to justify herself to the disciples nor overcome their protective skepticism when she wanted to go to the tomb where Jesus’s body had been laid. Nor, upon discovering the tomb open and the body presumably gone, did she have to justify her distress and her grief.

It’s natural, and more common than not in Kate’s experience as a chaplain, for loved ones to ask to see the body to tend to their loved one. Far from the common perception that the presence of a body makes the pain more acute, it’s just the opposite — which, I think, explains Mary’s weeping and grief intensified. They have taken the body away, and I do not know where they have laid him…

Which then, for me, raises the question: If there is such attachment to the body, the physical body, how did Mary not recognize Jesus when he appeared? After all, she was one of Jesus’s closest friends and disciples, and it hadn’t been that long since he died. Surely she wouldn’t have forgotten what he looks like, right?

Sidebar: To say I’m not very good at gardening is an understatement. In no way would anyone ever describe me as having a “green thumb.” If anything, that thumb is brown, shriveled up, and falling off the vine. Case in point: When, after my grandpa’s funeral one of those hardy green plants that are supposed to be impossible to kill was (foolishly) entrusted to me… well, you know where this is going. So you can imagine my surprise when I decided to re-pot a plant in the kitchen down the hall from my office this year and a little time, some sunlight, and remembering to water it at least a couple times a week later, it’s flourished. Compared to the near-dead plant it was before, it’s been transformed and is barely recognizable. You might even say it’s undergone a resurrection.

Like that plant, it’s as though we’re led to believe there’s something different physically about the resurrected body of Jesus. It would certainly explain why Mary didn’t recognize him. I don’t know what to make of that, nor am I sure there even is a definitive answer, nor am I sure it even matters. But what is certain is this: the resurrection changes things. Things are different, and new. There’s something different about Jesus, but it’s more than physical, with far-reaching implications.

Theologian James Cone describes it this way:

The cross and resurrection of Jesus stand at the center of the New Testament story… [and] mean that we now know that Jesus’ ministry with the poor and the wretched was God effecting the divine will to liberate the oppressed. The Jesus story is the poor person’s story, because God in Christ becomes poor and weak in order that the oppressed might become liberated… God becomes the victim in their place and thus transforms the condition of slavery into the battleground for the struggle of freedom. This is what Christ’s resurrection means. The oppressed are freed for struggle, for battle in the pursuit of humanity.

The resurrection changes things. The resurrection liberates and declares that God is, definitively, for the oppressed, for the marginalized, for those who mourn, for those who are cast down. The resurrection empowers and urges us to be about the work of justice and love. That is the message we proclaim when we declare, against all odds: Alleluia! Christ is risen!

A Sermon about Journeys


img_0899Preacher’s Editorial Note: I have the privilege of serving a Reconciling in Christ (RIC) congregation, meaning they have made the decision to be intentionally welcoming and affirming of the diversity of God’s people, particularly those in the LGBTQ+ community. When I was looking for an internship site, it was important both to me and to the field education directors at my seminary to find a site that is RIC to provide me with a safe place to complete my internship year. I am grateful for Augustana’s welcome and also for their future support of an LGBTQ+ intern in the next academic year.

Today, Augustana celebrated nearly thirteen years of being an RIC congregation. Our worship was enhanced with the music of the River City Mixed Chorus (a choral ensemble made up of LGBTQ+ persons and allies). I also preached perhaps my most personal sermon to date, the text and recording of which follows below. I am happy beyond words for the support of all the communities along my journey that have made it possible for me to do what I am called to do. Deo gratias.

Augustana Lutheran Church
5 March 2017 + First Sunday in Lent (RIC Commemoration)
Matthew 4.1-11

I admit, when I learned that Augustana’s annual Reconciling in Christ commemoration would coincide with the First Sunday in Lent, I was nervous. Lent, after all, is traditionally a season where words like “repentance” and “sin” are thrown around in excess—words that have come to be triggering for many in the progressive church and especially for those in the LGBTQ+ community.

I’m also usually not one for diverting from the lectionary, but the texts assigned to the First Sunday in Lent this year—one from Genesis about the fall into sin (there’s that word again) and another from Romans, a letter written by the apostle Paul who is responsible for many of the “texts of terror” used to justify homophobic and transphobic violence—made even me take a few liturgical liberties.


As I began to mull over what I might preach today, I found myself drawn to the gospel text, the one reading I did not change. It tells the story of Jesus being tempted by the devil in the wilderness. Much could be said about the story itself, but what most attracted my attention was the larger context. Immediately before this passage comes the story of Jesus’s baptism, which we just read moments ago, and immediately following is the account of the launch of Jesus’s public ministry. Taken together, this pattern of baptism-wilderness-ministry suggests the pattern of the Christian life—or we might say the journey.

My own journey began at the font at Trinity Lutheran Church in Utica, Michigan. The subsequent years of Lutheran schools from preschool through high school drew me to Concordia University in the near suburbs of Chicago, where I originally planned to study secondary education in English. After one field education experience in a 7th grade English classroom, that was enough of that for me, and I opted instead for the pre-seminary program.

Then, late in my senior year, I began the process of coming out as gay. While that task proves difficult enough on its own, it also meant that I could no longer in good conscience or for my own safety pursue ministry in the fundamentalist faction of the Lutheran church in which I was raised.

Enter Urban Village. The young, United Methodist church plant I discovered around that same time fully welcomed and affirmed me for who I am and invited me more deeply into the community. For the next two years, I found myself more involved in the life of the church than ever before, as my own theology began to be re-formed. It was also during that time that I began to pay attention to my call to ministry again.

The next phase of my journey brought me to Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Chicago, which in many ways felt like coming home to the rich heritage of my natal tradition but with a refreshingly progressive spin. The Holy Trinity community continues to support me through seminary, and I am grateful to call them family.


The River City Mixed Chorus sings a trio of choral anthems for our Reconciling in Christ (RIC) commemoration at Augustana on Sunday, March 5, 2017. (photo credit: Josh Evans)

Today as we celebrate nearly thirteen years of being a Reconciling in Christ congregation, I tell you my story to tell you this: Inclusion matters. Inclusion matters because it saved my life. Inclusion matters because it reawakened my call to public ministry. Inclusion matters because of comments like this one that I received just this past week from a queer friend who also grew up in an ultra-conservative congregation: “Even something as simple as seeing someone like me at the front of the church means a lot even after having been out for years.”

Inclusion matters, but inclusion also demands confession and repentance of the ways we are complicit in systems of oppression. In a quote attributed to Indigenous Australian artist and activist Lilla Watson, we hear: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

The work of liberation and reconciliation is an ongoing activity. Being a Reconciling in Christ congregation today means that when we see the water protectors of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe forcibly removed from their lands, we speak out. It means that when a presidential order threatens the lives of our immigrant and refugee siblings, we hold candlelight vigils and call and write to our elected officials out of the deep convictions of our faith. It means that when transgender persons of color are murdered at alarming rates, while our lawmakers are more concerned about where the hell they pee, we demand justice and accountability for their lives taken too soon.


The struggle for justice is hard, and I’m  especially grateful this week for the new ABC mini-series When We Rise, chronicling the LGBTQ+ rights movement, beginning in San Francisco in the early 1970s. In the first episode, Ken Jones, a Navy officer in the Vietnam War who has just been reassigned to a base in San Francisco, struggles with coming to terms with his sexuality and, at the recommendation of a Navy chaplain, finds himself in the congregation of an anti-gay fundamentalist preacher. But as he leaves the service, he spots a gay bar down the block and walks in as a drag performer is singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” He’s greeted by Mama Jose, who says to him: “God has delivered you to this place of refuge.”

Not long after, that place of refuge is raided by police, who start beating and arresting patrons. While others lock arms in solidarity and protest, Ken runs away.

Later in the episode, he returns to the bar, apologizing for his cowardice and vowing to stick around the next time it happens. As he is welcomed back with open arms, and joined by the other main characters for the first time, Mama Jose declares, “All of you combined, locked arm in arm, are stronger than you know. You could lift us all up.”

The struggle for justice and the work of reconciliation is hard, but we always stand on the shoulders of those who came before and lock arms with those who fight alongside us.

For those of us who are Christian, Lent offers us the opportunity to return to the font, to remember our baptism, and to renew the covenant we made at the waters in renunciation of evil and all the forces that defy God, the powers of this world that rebel against God, and the ways of sin and oppression that draw us from God. It’s a tall order, but the promise of God is certain: In baptism we are named and claimed as God’s own, and throughout this season, throughout the wilderness journey, we are ever led back to the source and font of abundant life.


What’s the Catch? A Sermon About Costly Grace, Discipleship, and (of course) Threading Needles with Camels


Grace Lutheran Church
11 October 2015 + Pentecost 20B
Mark 10.17-31

What’s the catch? It’s the question we ask when things just seem too good to be true. After four years of college and almost two years of seminary, I know that the surest way to attract poor students to your event is to offer free food. I’ve certainly taken advantage of my share of those opportunities—but always wondering: So what do I have to sit through, or sign up for, or commit to? What’s the catch?

It’s a question that I imagine was also on the mind of the man we meet in our gospel text today. Surely he had caught wind of Jesus’s rapidly spreading ministry—the healings, the exorcisms, the miracles, the resuscitations. And we know he’s intentionally seeking Jesus out. When he sees Jesus with the crowds and the children, he goes out of his way, distracted from his journey. There’s a sense of urgency and sincerity to his inquiry: he runs up to Jesus and kneels before him. “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” It’s a fair question, and he’s genuinely curious. What do I have to do to get in on this? Is it too good to be true? What’s the catch?

In response, Jesus is direct. Like a good Jew, he recites to him Torah, God’s law, and specifically the Ten Commandments. Do these things. That’s the catch. And like a good Jew, the man responds, “I have kept all these since my youth.” Check, check, and check! And then Jesus pauses and looks at him, lovingly, before continuing, as if to say, “You really don’t get it, do you? Let me try again.”

See, Jesus didn’t recite back all of the commandments, or even a random assortment. You might recall from the days of confirmation class that there are two “tables,” or subsets, of the Ten Commandments: the first table deals with our relationship to God, and the second deals with our relationship to other people. It’s this second set that Jesus highlights. You might also recall the famous passage a couple chapters later in Mark’s gospel where Jesus is asked which commandment is the first of all and he responds: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with your mind, and with all your strength… [and] you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk 12.30-31). Jesus effectively summarizes the two tables of the commandments, which is to say that in today’s passage, he effectively tells the rich man, “Love your neighbor.”

Jesus doesn’t discount this man’s keeping of the commandments, but he does tell him he is missing something. What Jesus is getting at is the difference between what we might call following “the letter of the law” versus “the spirit of the law.” In other words, the point is not following the commandments for their own sake but for the sake of communal justice. It’s not enough, for instance, to refrain from outright stealing from our neighbor, but, “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor… then come, follow me.” Jesus makes looking out for our neighbor a prerequisite to discipleship, as if to say, “There’s your catch.” Love your neighbor. Take care of them. Then you’ll know what it means to follow me. But the man is shocked at this and goes away grieving.

image unashamedly stolen from Paul Eldred’s blog, whose excellent sermon on the same text you should also read

Then, following the pattern from last week’s reading, the conversation moves from the public sphere to the private circle of the disciples, where Jesus elaborates: “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” But the disciples don’t get it either, so he says it again and even adds an intentionally absurd comparison, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” And still they don’t get it.

Echoing back to the rich man’s question, the disciples ask, “Then who can be saved?” What’s the catch? And pausing and looking at them in the same way, Jesus says, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” What? Another catch?

Perhaps it’s understandable then when Peter, exasperated, declares, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” What more do you want, Jesus? And then Jesus finally lets in on what his movement is all about: “The first will be last, and the last will be first.” This message that Jesus is proclaiming is going to turn things upside-down and inside-out. It’s getting back to the heart of God’s law that is concerned about justice, and it insists on removing those things, like wealth and greed, that get in the way.

So how do we inherit eternal life? What’s the catch? As good Lutherans, we know that there is no catch. Grace alone, right? Well, yes and no. And before you run to Pr. Kevin and accuse the seminary intern of heresy, let me be perfectly clear: We are indeed saved by grace through faith for Christ’s sake apart from works. (Did I get that right?) It’s what our Lutheran faith is all about, and for good measure, lest we forget, it’s even posted on a sign on one of our bulletin boards here. But it’s also much more than that.

Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II, famously wrote about the “cost of discipleship.” With a fierce commitment to peace and social justice, Bonhoeffer offered a prophetic critique of the church of his day which had been sold out and corrupted by the Nazi regime, often openly endorsing Hitler’s politics to preserve itself. It ignored state-sanctioned tyranny and the violence being done against the Jews and other minorities at the expense of the gospel they were supposed to be preaching.

For the church of Bonhoeffer’s day, “grace alone” had turned into an excuse to ignore social sin, resulting in a failure to resist injustice. In other words, “grace alone” had turned into “cheap grace,” as Bonhoeffer writes:

Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before… Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship. [1]

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1906-1945

Cheap grace is a misunderstanding, Bonhoeffer claims, of what Luther had in mind when he said we are saved by grace alone. Cheap grace ignores the fact that Luther’s discovery of grace thrust him from the cloister to the world. For Luther, being saved by grace was only half of the point, and its necessary corollary was rooted in the obligation of discipleship. Put plainly: Grace is indeed a welcome word of good news to the sinner, but grace doesn’t just let us sit back in idleness as before, as though nothing has changed. Because of grace and the inbreaking of God’s new reality, everything has changed. The sick are healed, the dead are raised, the poor are lifted up, the outcast are welcomed in, the first are last, the last are first, the humanly impossible is divinely possible.

Costly grace, far from a “one-and-done” occurrence, is a living reality. Costly grace calls us to follow Jesus, like the rich man and the disciples. Costly grace beckons a life of discipleship, which Bonhoeffer knew all too well. Costly grace drove him from the confines of his comfortable career in academia to the confines of a concentration camp. Bonhoeffer risked his own life for being bold enough to speak out against the gross injustice and corruption he saw going on, and it ultimately cost him his life. Cheap grace lets us acquiesce in the face of injustice; costly grace demands that we call it out.

The life of discipleship to which Jesus invites the rich man and to which he calls each of us is not about following rules for the sake of following rules but for the sake of our neighbor. Like Bonhoeffer knew, discipleship means questioning the status quo when it contradicts God’s will for justice. It means standing in solidarity with the poor and the oppressed. It means removing all those obstacles that get in the way. It even means practicing civil disobedience—or is it divine obedience?—when our state’s budget crisis threatens our most vulnerable populations, as our own local Lutheran bishop and countless other people of faith have done in a series of demonstrations this past summer.

faith leaders, with a camel, at a “Moral Monday” rally this summer in protest of the Illinois state budget cuts (photo credit: Tom Gaulke)

So what’s the catch? How do we enter the kingdom of God? Again, let me be perfectly clear: we are saved by grace through faith because of what God in Christ has freely done for us. But because of Christ’s redeeming work, we are freed to love and serve our neighbor. It’s not that we’re earning grace, but rather that we’re living in response to it. The kingdom of God is all about justice, and it’s a work in progress to which each of us is called to participate.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Cost of Discipleship,” in A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), 308.