Discipleship

The Cost of True Riches (or The Cost of Discipleship…but that’s Already Taken)

As per my usual custom, I was perusing the daily newspapers the other morning. Whilst doing so, I happened upon a very interesting article in The Age. It reported that the creator of the 1960s-set drama, Mad Men, had forked out $250,000 for use of a Beatles’ song, Tomorrow Never Knows. According to the creator, “…the show lacked a certain authenticity…” because he had never been able to use a master recording of the Beatles. So, his solution was to spend a quarter of a million dollars for the privilege (see “Mad Men Pays $250,000 for Beatles Song,” The Age, 9th May, 2012).

It’s a mind-boggling amount of money, simply for a few minutes of music. But my point is not to focus on an apparent case of financial profligacy. Of course, we may baulk at the thought of spending that much on something as ephemeral as a few bars from a pop-song. Others, though, may see this as a wise investment. Arguments of this ilk are, in many ways, beside the point. It seems to me that the story is instructive for a very different reason. This peculiar little story can actually offer followers of Jesus a model, or metaphor, for the nature and cost of Christian discipleship. The costly efforts of the Mad Men creator to secure something he saw as absolutely indispensable to his creation should stimulate our thinking about how much Christians are willing to part with in order to reach that which is most precious. In order to perfect his show, to better it – to authenticate it – the creator (and the producers, no doubt) was willing to spend a small fortune on something relatively small.

How much more, then, should Christians reflect on the value placed upon, say, intimacy with Christ, and the consequent costs that are involved in securing that intimacy? Only if Christians are willing to pay the price for an authentic life of discipleship will they actually receive it. To be sure, intimacy with Christ is a gracious gift. The act of the dying, triumphant God, who opened up the possibility of salvation for those fashioned in his image, is something that cannot be earned or extracted. It is grounded in the free act of the One who is eminently free. However, this gift is not without cost. Indeed, salvation may be free, but it is expensive. It costs a lot, and entails much sacrifice: for the God who offered himself for his sinful image-bearers; and for those image-bearers who, by the Spirit, have given themselves to him in return. This is the hard road of discipleship and progressive sanctification, as Christians live out their declared separation from sin and under God’s reign. No claim regarding the Christian life that posits anything less can truly be known as such. Christian authenticity is none other than the reality of Christ’s life in the life of an individual; and given that this reality can only come about as the individual takes a resolute, lifelong stand against everything that would mar Christ’s image in him, Christians ought to reflect soberly on how costly that can be.

The New Testament has much to say about the costliness of true discipleship – about the sacrifice that Christian authenticity entails. Against the backdrop of God’s gracious provision of salvation through Christ, the authors of the NT write frequently of how much it takes to walk the narrow road. Cheap grace is not to be found in its pages; nor is an antinomian attitude countenanced. For once it is recognized that the chief obstacle between the Christian and intimacy with Christ is the constant predation of sin, the struggle against it takes on new, almost cosmic, meaning. The Apostle Paul, for example, spoke of putting to death the sinful nature (cf. Romans 8:13; Galatians 5:24). That is a striking image: death. Christians are called, not to reason with the sinful nature, or to simply oppose it (though that is certainly true). They’re to put to death, so to speak. Paul uses the chilling finality of a person’s demise as a way of getting at the attitude Christians should have towards sin. In the pursuit of authentic discipleship, followers of Christ are to ruthlessly and completely separate themselves from its pernicious effects.

But Paul is not the only NT writer to speak about the struggle for holiness, the cost of discipleship, and the conflict against sin. The evangelists, who recorded the words and deeds of Jesus, included in their works sayings that point to the importance, nay the utter urgency, of pursuing that which is godly. Let’s look at one particular passage: Matthew 6:19-24. It occurs in the midst of Jesus’ so-called Sermon on the Mount, where he offered a kind of new covenant charter to the disciples that had gathered around him and received his ministry. In this passage, Jesus commands his followers not to store up earthly treasures for themselves. Instead, he counsels them to store up heavenly treasures (v.20) that cannot be harmed, followed by the conclusive statement that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (v.21).

The creator of Mad Men, obviously devoted to his work, is a perfect reflection (albeit in a rather perverse way) of the general thrust of Jesus’ words in verse 21; indeed, one might even say that his heart – the centre of who he is – lies with his creative endeavours. That forms the background to what might seem to be an extreme act. Jesus’ pithy statement rings true, regardless of context, for one’s life will be devoted to what one considers most valuable, such that one will offer everything for it. The question for those who claim to value Christ above all need to reflect upon where their hearts are set, and just what their treasure is. A person “cannot serve two masters” (6:24); devotion to God cannot be tempered by devotion to something else. As such, authentic Christian living – living that is genuinely and transparently Christ-like – will not admit such admixture.

Intimacy with Christ, and the life that is transformed accordingly, is one that demands the complete devotion of the person who benefits from it. Again, we may look to Jesus himself to shed light on this. Matthew 13:44-46 has him likening the kingdom of heaven (God) to both treasure and fine pearls. They conjure up images of objects prized and valuable. Like them, the kingdom is something to be treasured; and, like the ones pursing them in Jesus’ parable, those who claim to follow him are to “sell everything” for it. In order that true Christian discipleship may flourish, a resolute willingness to sacrifice everything for it needs to sit firmly within the Christian’s heart. Whereas Paul uses the image of death as a way of characterizing the extent to which Christians ought to pursue God and the holy life, Jesus here puts it in terms of payment. Either way, the point is clear: Christian discipleship is a life marked by the kind of total sacrifice that is itself grounded in the knowledge that what is being received is of infinite value. It cannot be otherwise. It means taking up one’s cross, dying to sin and declaring exclusive allegiance to the One in whose image we are made and to whose likeness we are being conformed. It means giving everything – up to, and including, ourselves – in order to secure something far more valuable. The late John Stott, in writing of the Christian’s struggle against the sinful nature, said this:

“Self-denial…is actually denying or disowning ourselves, renouncing our supposed right to go our own way” (“The Cross of Christ”, p.323).

Quite so. The German Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, said that when “Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die”, and in many ways, it is true. Having been bought at the price of Christ’s death, we must recapitulate that death in our lives so that we might obtain true life. Indeed, we are to “put to death” the sinful nature (borrowing from Paul). Of course, that is the case for all those who are in Christ, for death is the final stage of sin’s rule. Nevertheless, discipleship in this life demands a thousand daily “deaths” to self, to the pride, to sin. Only as that happens can we truly say that we are members of God’s kingdom. Denying the sinful nature and taking hold of God’s kingdom, therefore, are two sides of the same coin. Or, to put it slightly differently, everything that I have mentioned in this essay – intimacy with Christ, the pursuit of holiness, authentic discipleship, and devotion to God – are of a piece; you cannot have one without all the others. It’s a packaged gift. As I said earlier, it’s a gloriously free gift. However, an authentic Christian life, even more so than an authentic TV program, costs everything. 

Weekend Musings

This article is quite unlike the ones that have been posted of late. It does not concern issues out there in the public sphere; nor is it a rigorous analysis of the topic in question. Instead, it represents a couple of insights that I gleaned from Scripture last weekend, and as such, this post will undoubtedly exhibit a more informal character.

Both insights I gleaned whilst reading the Gospel according to John. I have been studying this book for some time, and have been repeatedly struck by its remarkable theological density. However, during the course of studying Chapter 15, two particular points – both of which are essential elements of a vibrant Christian life – leapt off the page and hit me squarely between the eyes. However, before I delve into those truths, I should set the scene. The fifteenth chapter of John’s Gospel is largely about two things: the love that ought to exist within the fellowship of believers; and the inevitability of hatred and hostility that will meet believers as they seek to minister to the world. What’s more, it comes in the midst of a very private and intimate gathering between Jesus and his disciples, and everything he says in this passage is for them. He begins by likening his relationship with them to a vine and its branches (v.1). He then proceeds to counsel his disciples to remain in him in order to bear fruit (v.4), before commanding them to follow his commands – chief of which is the command to love one another (vv. 9-12, 17). Finally, he warns them of the inevitability of opposition to the message they carry and embody – a message that saw Jesus himself persecuted and despised, but only so that they would be prepared. Within what I have just written lies the two truths that have given me pause for thought and have led me to reflect on my walk as a disciple of Christ.

The first truth relates to the metaphor Jesus uses at the commencement of the chapter. His use of the “vine-branches” image (with God as the gardener) is an apt description of the deep interconnectedness of the church: those who are united to Christ receive their power from him, and it is necessary to remain in him (ie. endure in union with him) in order to, as he put it, “bear fruit”. That much is true, and I (usually) have no trouble abiding by, and celebrating, this great image. Paul’s image of the body (1 Corinthians 12:12-31), which is a complementary way of understanding the interrelationship between Christ and believers, also comes to mind. We are many, but together – joined with Christ and held together by the Spirit – we are one. Putting aside any temptation to break out into song at this point (remember the cheesy ballad, “We are one, but we are many”?), both images convey the deep intimacy that exists between Christ and his church, transcending time, space, geography, culture and language. It is a mystical union that brings us into the closest of relationships. So far so good. But what I failed to appreciate (even if I did formally recognize) was that the image John presents to us – that of the vine and the branches – not only implies intimacy or connectedness between Christ and believers; it also implies intimacy and connectedness between believers themselves. A branch is automatically connected to all the other branches of the vine if it is connected to the vine itself. Similarly, a part of the body – the foot, say – is implicitly connected to all the other parts by virtue of the fact that it is a member of the body.

And so it is with us. Not so profound, you might say. That may well be true, but how many of us live in such a way that betrays our own purported spiritual independence? This is significant, since I have detected such a tendency in myself, and that is why Jesus’ words struck me so deeply. For too long, I have attempted to grow spiritually – to bear fruit, you might say – without the aid of the body. Sure, I have been a part of the body. I am a faithful member of a local church. I have taken part in all kinds of ministry there over the years. But I have never truly allowed myself to be fully and freely shaped by that community; to be sharpened by other disciples, as iron sharpens iron. I have always kept a distance, believing myself to be of such spiritual stature that I could get on in life without the enriching aid of a vibrant spiritual community. But recent events have taught me otherwise, and the frustrating inconsistency of my spiritual walk of late has slowly brought me round to the idea that the body of Christ – his church – is a necessary context within which authentic Christian spirituality may flourish.

The image presented in John’s Gospel confirmed that; in order to bear fruit, one must remain in Jesus, but his love and his presence are made manifest in the lives of other believers, to whom one is also connected. Only then, when we take full stock of that truth, will a constantly vibrant and enlivening life of discipleship become a reality. That is something that I need to learn, living as I am with a kind of  rugged individualism. The fact is, I cannot exist without the community of God, and nor was I ever meant to. I might think that it is a sign of spiritual maturity to strike out on one’s own without the ministry and support and spiritual nourishment of other Christians, but this passage has made me realize that I am simply engaging in a self-defeating exercise. Remaining in Christ and remaining in the body cannot be separated; to cut oneself from the latter is to (eventually, but inevitably) cut oneself off from the former. At that point, the failure of one’s efforts to maintain a spiritually vital life apart from the embodiment of God’s presence in his church becomes a fait accompli and no fruit will be forthcoming. I wouldn’t say that I’m in danger of that – far from it – but my spiritual growth demands the humble embrace of the ministry of others.

Paul’s image is also instructive, and it spoke to me as well. The picture of the body he uses is interesting, since in order for a particular member (again, we can use the foot) to function as it was meant to function, it needs to be connected to the body. A foot is not truly a foot if it has been severed from the body; conversely, it has be attached to the rest of the body – connected to tendons, ligaments, bone, etc. – in order to fulfil its function as an aid to walking. In a similar manner, I can only fulfil my function within the body of Christ – thereby becoming what I was created to be – when I live in deep interdependence with others. The presence of a spiritually stimulating environment, apart from the natural benefits I might accrue, brings me into contact with the embodied Christ. We are social animals, and have been created as such. Moreover, we – I – have been redeemed into a community, in which true identity is found. Any attempts to grow in isolation (and I should know, since I have been doing that for some time) constitute, as I have said, a self-defeating project.

The second truth that influenced me concerns Jesus’ later words about the reality and inevitability of opposition to the gospel. He counsels his followers to prepare themselves for such opposition, as he himself did (v.18). Not all will receive what they have to say, and they will face the prospect – sometimes constantly – of lethal hostility. All this is on account of the name of Jesus (v.21). That in itself is an important point, since those of us living in the west like to try and maintain some kind of civility, and to imagine that discussions and conversations are conducted with mutual respect and peaceful understanding. But this is hardly the case elsewhere, for Christians from many parts of the world face horrors that we scarcely give credence to – all for the sake of Christ. But what really impacted me was the fact that I was guilty of not taking this warning seriously enough. I kept it at arms length, implicitly confining it to the pages of an historical document whose cultural and chronological distance from my own situation had been exacerbated by my own tendency to reduce it to the object of theological and intellectual games. As I read this passage, I realized that Jesus was speaking to my own situation, and to the reality and inevitability of opposition to the gospel in my own environment. And it struck me that for some time, I had not always allowed the text of Scripture – God’s Word – to speak to me. This passage opened me up to the stark truth that I had kept a distance between myself and all of Scripture. Reading Jesus’ words about opposition and hostility to the gospel, whilst trying to avoid such a situation in my own life, suggested to me that my efforts to understand the Bible did not always mean that I was listening. I may have developed a true understanding of the meaning of the passages I read; but did I allow them to speak to me? Was I allowing the Creator and Redeemer God to transcend time and space, and bring forth the significance of his Word for me? Unfortunately, I could not always answer in the affirmative.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with studying the Bible in order to glean the theological meaning of the text. There is nothing wrong with expending intellectual energy discovering the intended meaning of a passage, its immediate and biblical context, and its theological and ethical implications. These are necessary elements of good, honest Bible study. But if it does not set one’s heart on fire; if it fails to actually speak to the one who is reading it; if it does not transform and shape and mould someone into the likeness of Christ, leading to faithful discipleship; then it has not truly been read or understood. This is something that had, for me at least, receded. Those words, spoken by Jesus and recorded by John, were not meant simply for the former’s immediate circle of followers, but for all Christians down through the ages. And those words – like all the words of Scripture – ought to carry with them a Spirit-filled power that crosses the chasm of time and culture to change us in our own situations (diverse as they are) today. That is something that I learned, and it is a lesson worth repeating.

These truths – the essential nature of the Christian community and the immediacy of the Word – may be known instinctively by some of you, and I celebrate that. I am a little slow to learn at times, I must admit. But it just goes to show that if you open your ears for just a moment, God will speak. You just have to make sure you’re actually listening.