Ministerial Musings: “The Cost of Discipleship”
Like many communions, the United Church of Christ has a Statement of Faith. It is not so much a test of faith, as many of the historic creeds are, but rather a testimony of the common faith shared by the 5,320 autonomous congregations that comprise this united and uniting denomination.
Framed between brief introductory and concluding sentences, the statement testifies to seven of the primary deeds of God: creation, salvation, judgment, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Church, and forgiveness. The sixth proclamation (about the Church) begins with the words, “You [God] call us into your church to accept the cost and joy of discipleship.”
Those familiar with the work of the modern Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer will know that this line is borrowed from the title of his 1937 text The Cost of Discipleship. Although a staunch pacifist, Bonheoffer was part of the failed conspiracy attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler in 1944. On April 9, 1945, Bonheoffer was hanged at the Flossenbürg concentration camp, just three weeks before the Nazi’s surrendered.
Bonheoffer knew that being a Christian would not always be joyous. It is a call that sometimes entails great risks. He was to write, “Being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will.” Sometimes doing God’s will leads to wells of happiness. Sometimes it leads to lonely gallows.
Discipleship is joyous. It is also costly.
Less than twenty years after Bonhoeffer’s death, another famous Christian would say, “if a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.” That Christian was The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We all know how that story goes. We all know that King embraced the cost of discipleship fully.
What about you? What matters most to you? For what are you willing to die (other than your family and closest friends)?
Are you willing to stand alongside the poor and the oppressed as they struggle to move from the margins of society to its center? Are you willing to declare that all people are created in the image of God and, therefore, are entitled to equal rights and respect, especially from those who wield political power? Are you willing to say, “Enough!” to war as an archaic means of international conflict resolution? Will you stand-up for animals who cannot speak-up for themselves when treated unethically? Will you call upon corporations to stop exploiting the earth and to be the good, ecological stewards we were all called to be?
The truth is you probably will never have to risk your life to advance any of these causes — or a host of others. But would you? How far would you go? Would you just go far enough and, when the going gets tough, would you retreat?
Christ risked everything so that we could have a personal relationship with God, so that we would see, embodied in this itinerant rabbi, the radical road to inclusive truth, love, forgiveness, mercy, and grace. Are we not called to follow where he leads, regardless of the price we may pay?
The Rev. Dr. John Tamilio III, Ph.D. is the Senior Pastor of Pilgrim Congregational United Church of Christ in the Tremont neighborhood of Cleveland. JT3 lives in Lakewood with his wife and their three children.
John III Tamilio
John Tamilio III is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, an accomplished guitarist, and a nationally published author. His first book of poetry, Blind Painting, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Letters in 2003. He and his wife, Susan, live in Lakewood, Ohio with their children: Sarah, “Jay” (John IV), and Thomas.