By Paul Koch –
We have grown accustomed to view church as sort of a nice, safe, and even neutral place in our lives. We come here on Sundays, sit in our usual seats, enjoy receiving of the gifts of God, and then head out about our day feeling a little more enriched, a little more uplifted, and a little more encouraged. Church may be compared to a hearty home cooked meal or a family reunion. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, but it is fueled by a sense of belonging and joy. If nothing else, a good church is comfortable and makes us feel welcome. But there is far more to church than meets the eye, far more to our nice and safe gathering than can be detected from the outside. In fact, church has something very dangerous at its core. Contained within this place lurks something that can tear lives apart, something that brings division and suffering and tears.
Again, this dangerous thing hides in plain sight, found in the most innocent and comfortable things we experience here. We find it lurking right there when a young couple brings their newborn daughter up to the front of the church. There she is dressed in white, just as cute as can be. Everyone leans around the heads in front of them to get a better view as they bring that child to the baptismal font. The congregation adds their prayers to the prayer of her parents as the pastor takes that child in his arms and does something extremely dangerous. He marks the child. He marks her with a cross upon her forehead and upon her heart, setting her apart as one redeemed by Christ the crucified. And then he pours water over her head saying, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” As he wipes the drips of water from her precious head he knows that he has just done something very risky. Through that simple act the devil was driven from the heart of that child, but now it hangs about her neck as a lifelong and powerful enemy.
This isn’t safe, you see. It looks cute and it is a joy for us to celebrate, but it is a dangerous act. Baptism works forgiveness of sins in that child, it is a sure rescue from death and the devil, but it draws a clear line in the sand. It is a proclamation to the ancient serpent that you are now an enemy. This gift sets you on a precarious path. A path that is not marked by ease and glory but a path marked by a cross. The danger may not be visible at first but we begin to realize it more and more with the passage of time: when that child grows into a young lady and temptations begin to mount up trying to lure her away, when family and friends no longer support the faith she was raised in, when Satan employs his relentless attack causing divisions in her relationships and separation from the church, then the danger becomes all too clear. Just spend some time talking to the parents of those who haven’t entered into this place to receive our Lord’s gifts in many, many years. Look into their eyes and see their worry and fear, and you get a sense of the danger that lurks within these walls.
This inherent danger begs the question, what does it take? What does it take to endure, to remain a child of the almighty God, to go from that font to the grave and beyond as his saint? This is the question that our Lord speaks directly to in Luke chapter 14 when he speaks about counting the cost of discipleship. He begins with a bold and shocking statement about the totality of discipleship saying, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”
Now he’s not saying that we need to go around actively hating everyone and everything if we are to be his disciples. Rather he is making it crystal clear that we are to love nothing more than Jesus. And this, he warns, is costly. And he wants those who follow him to understand the cost, to understand just what is at stake when you are called to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.
So just what does it take to be a disciple?
Well, he begins by giving you an example of one who sets out to build a tower. If you were going to embark upon a major building project, wouldn’t you first sit down and figure out how much it is going to cost? Otherwise you would get going, maybe finish the foundation, but then have to leave off building the tower, and you would end up being mocked by everyone else. Or think about a king who is going out to war against another king. Doesn’t he first sit down and figure out whether he will be able to defeat with his 10,000 men the one who comes against him with 20,000? The point he drives home is that in our lives we count the cost of things. We figure out what it will take to go the distance. Nobody wants to get started and then just leave the project half done, or even worse suffer some staggering defeat from which we cannot come back.
To start down the dangerous path of discipleship with no idea of the cost, of what it will take to endure to the end, is foolish. It would be to bring that infant child to the waters of Holy Baptism and then leave her without the ongoing gifts of God that she received in that sacrament. To not count the cost would be to not prepare her for the world of temptations that will ceaselessly attack her throughout her days. And even worse than simply not continuing to cling to the gifts of Christ, is to teach about life as a disciple as a life without suffering and hardship. To not count the cost then is to believe that a life of faith is a life of victory and not suffering, a life of financial stability and earthly comforts instead of a life marked by a cross.
The danger is that when the attacks come there is a chance of failure. There is the reality that that child will reject what she has been given. She might turn away from our Lord’s promises and our prayers will seem to go unanswered, even as our hearts break for the those who become like salt-less salt. The danger lurks within each and every child of God gathered here today. The danger is that you have believed that the cost was just some time on a Sunday morning, or perhaps time to say prayers around the dinner table. But the cost is so much more. The cost cannot be measured out. It cannot be counted in fractions or parts. For the cost of discipleship is absolutely everything.
What does it take to be a disciple of our Lord? It takes your death. That is why the child is marked by a cross. That is what your baptism was; it was a baptism into the death of our Lord Jesus Christ. To be a disciple is to lose everything, lose the world, lose every other god that you would place your hope in, lose everything that you would find your identity and security in. To be a disciple is to gain a cross. A cross soaked in the life giving blood of Christ. That is how you endure. That is how you press on down this dangerous road. You don’t do it; Christ does. Christ embraces you in his death and resurrection. He takes a hold of you. He and dwells within you. He is the faithful one that will not fail to reach the goal. After all, Christ himself is the author and perfector of your faith. He began it. He called you to himself. He washed you in his blessings. He declared before the judgment seat, “I forgive you all of your sins.” And so you are.
This is a dangerous life hiding right here in our midst because over and again it is a life of dying and rising. Yours is a life where our Lord beats back that sinner lurking within you declaring that he has no claim upon you, for you have already died. But then that same one who marked you with his cross, who killed you in your sin, clothes you with his robes of righteousness. He clothes you with life and salvation. He gives you this very day promises of eternal life and all the blessings of paradise.
As a disciple, you lose the world with all its vain hopes and gain only a cross. But that cross delivers to you the very gates of heaven.