17 April 2009

Homily for Friday of Easter Week

Acts 4: 13-21
Portions of Psalm 118
Mark 16: 9-15

In 1937, as the Nazi movement was on the rise in Germany, a Lutheran pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a book entitled “The Cost of Discipleship”. This book, focuses on how grace is lived out in the midst of the Christian Church today.

One of the most important parts of the book, considered a Christian literary classic of the twentieth century across denominational lines, deals with the distinction which Bonhoeffer makes between "cheap" and "costly" grace.

Bonhoeffer writes: “…cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”

To put it even more clearly, cheap grace reduces the Gospel to: “Of course you have sinned, but now everything is forgiven, so you can stay as you are and enjoy the consolations of forgiveness." The main defect of such a proclamation is that it contains no demand for discipleship.

In contrast to this is costly grace, of which Bonhoeffer writes: “…costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light.’”

In our Gospel reading today, we are given an overview of the events that followed the Resurrection of Christ. In it, we are reminded of the Resurrection proclamations of both Mary and the Disciples who were on the Road to Emmaus… proclamations that were ignored, rationalized, or otherwise disregarded by the others; that is, until our Lord shows up himself and replaces rationalization with realization, and begins the process of conforming his followers to his image by the working of the Holy Spirit. (We will hear a more detailed account of some of these events in our Gospel reading this coming Sunday.)

When Christ appears to his disciples in the Upper Room on that first Easter evening, he offers them, in Bonhoeffer’s words, “a gracious call to follow Jesus… a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit.” Here is a cadre of men who ran at the moment of Jesus’ greatest trial, whose guilt and pain must have been overwhelming. They were totally unworthy on the basis of their own merits to receive such a gracious calling on their lives – it is only on account of the love of their Master that they did, indeed, receive the calling; one that was destined to utterly transform their lives.

Compare the response, particularly of Peter… poor Peter!... in our Reading today from Acts with his response when our Lord was facing immanent arrest: instead of striking out with a weapon of this world, Peter abides in the embrace of God, accepting reproach for the sake of the Gospel. Peter, John, and the rest of Jesus’ followers – in the wake of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit – transition from skeptics to convicted preachers who call all of us to embrace, not cheap grace, but costly grace – grace that may, eventually, require of us the ultimate price in this world.

That is uncomfortable to think about these days. Bonhoeffer realized that. He argues that as Christianity spread, the Church became more “secular”, accommodating the demands of obedience to Jesus to the requirements of society. In this way, he writes, “the world was Christianized, and grace became its common property.” The problem is, there is nothing common about grace. At times and in places throughout Christian history, the gospel has been cheapened, and obedience to the living Christ was gradually lost beneath formula and ritual, so that –in the darkest days of the Church’s history - grace was literally being sold for worldly gain.

The example of Peter and John in today’s reading from Acts, reminds us that the Gospel often will result in little earthly gain – save gaining a mantle of suffering or a crown of Martyrdom. This isn’t a result of cheap grace; a grace that can be bought or sold with ease… it is a result of costly grace, the grace of God won for us on the cross, and poured out upon us by the Holy Spirit – a grace that is intended to conform us more and more to the image and likeness of God revealed to us in the life and death of our Lord Jesus Christ.


All original material (C) 2007-2010 by Father Robert Lyons.

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