“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. “
In 1937, in Nazi Germany, Dietrich Bonhoffer published his theological classic The Cost of Discipleship. The English title of the book speaks for itself, he writes of a discipleship which is demanding, all-consuming and risky. This week’s Gospel makes the cost of discipleship explicit. Jesus’ mission as the Christ will cost him dear, he will not have the easy path to glory that Peter hopes he might, rather he will be rejected, he will suffer and he will die, before rising again after three days. Following Jesus means following him to the cross. The German title of Bonhoffer’s book is Nachfolge means "following“.
This does not mean that those who follow Christ will inevitably face martyrdom, or that we must seek suffering. Nor does it mean that when we find ourselves bullied, abused or exploited we must accept it as “the cross we have to bear” (too many women describe their abusive husbands as “the cross they are carrying” to leave this unsaid). However, it shows the lie of “the prosperity gospel” which suggests that those who follow Jesus will achieve worldly success, because God somehow favours them. Following Jesus, is no guarantee of an easy life or quiet one.
Part of this costly call to discipleship is living differently, putting our minds to divine and not human things. This means, for example, having a different attitude towards possessions. Bonhoffer writes:
“Earthly goods are given to be used, not to be collected. In the wilderness God gave Israel the manna every day, and they had no need to worry about food and drink. Indeed, if they kept any of the manna over until the next day, it went bad. In the same way, the disciple must receive his portion from God every day. If he stores it up as a permanent possession, he spoils not only the gift, but himself as well, for he sets his heart on accumulated wealth, and makes it a barrier between himself and God. Where our treasure is, there is our trust, our security, our consolation and our God. Hoarding is idolatry.”
In Mark 10:17-22, the cost of sitting lightly to his possessions renders discipleship too costly for the Rich Young Ruler and remains an ever-present challenge for Christians.
Part of this costly call to discipleship is naming sin for what it is. It is refusing to be complicit with structural evil. For Bonhoffer, this meant calling out the Nazi Regime. Confronted with Nazism, the German Church faced a choice,they could become the religious arm of the state, turn a blind eye to the Nazi atrocities or they could stand against it. Bonhoffer chose the latter course and it was costly. He was initially sent to prison, then to concentration camps, and finally he was hanged. How much easier it would have been to keep quiet, to stay out of politics, to focus on his prayer life, but would it have been more Christian?
In the face of the ecological crisis, we face a similar choice to Bonhoffer. We can name the evil inherent in the destruction of the natural world, in the rich inflicting climate chaos on poorer nations, in bequeathing to future generations problems we are not courageous or selfless enough to solve. This will be costly, both in terms of personal lifestyle, for we will have to practice what we preach, and in terms of conflict, for if we challenge the powers and principalities of this world there will be push back. But the alternative of staying silent, being accommodationist, and making compromises with the values of this world in ways which prove more costly for others rather than ourselves, reeks of cowardice. Is demanding action on the ecological crisis, despite its inherent risks and sacrifices, part of the cost of discipleship in the 21st Century?