The Costs of Discipleship

Each year, during Epiphany, we read the stories of Jesus calling disciples and we make connections between the call of the disciples and the call of contemporary Christians to be disciples. The word disciple comes from the same root as discipline. It refers to a way of living that conforms to a particular set of standards. The Statement of Faith of the United Church of Christ is a confession of faith that was adopted by our church in 1959 as a testament of what we believe. In 1981, the Executive Council of the church approved a version of the statement in the form of a Doxology for use in connection with the twenty-fifth anniversary of the denomination. That version addresses God directly as a prayer. It is the version most commonly used by our congregation. In that version. we say, “You call us into your church to accept the cost and joy of discipleship.”

Christian churches are frequently quick to point out the joys of discipleship: supportive community, forgiveness fo sins, confidence in times of trial, peace in the knowledge that one is beloved. But we don’t spend much time speaking about the costs. In our covenant with new members, our congregation asks a question about participation in the life of the church and mentions the obligation of members to support the community, but we don’t make a big deal about the costs.

I have been specially thinking of the costs of discipleship this week because in this second year of our lectionary cycle, we read about Jesus calling disciples in the Gospel of John last week and we will read Mark’s version of the calling of disciples in this week’s Gospel. In John there is some questioning and discussion. Mark tells the story more succinctly: “As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a new into the sea - for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him.” A change of career, leaving behind the livelihood of generations of their families, heading off without a visible means of support and the word Mark uses is “immediately.” The story of the calling of James and John is as compact in Mark’s version: “As he went a little farther, he saw James and John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.” Mark likes to use the word “immediately.”

As a pastor, who frequently has conversations with people considering participating in a church, I have to say that I have never experienced anyone’s response to the invitation to become a follower of Jesus as “immediate.” It can take a long time for someone to make that commitment. We have people who join the church only after years of participation. We have people who count themselves as members of the church and still are reluctant to see themselves as disciples of Jesus. They like the community. They may even enjoy worship services, but they are not at a point in their lives where they are willing to make a big commitment.

I think the sense of immediacy comes more from Mark’s impatience with telling certain parts of his story than from a lack of consideration of the consequences on the part of the disciples. After all, it is impossible in a short volume like the Gospel of Mark to report all of the details. And Mark is eager to tell the story of the crucifixion and his Gospel is driven, from its first words to reach its conclusion.

I’ve been having conversations with three different people recently about the call to ministry as a vocation. Right now all three have other sources of income and work at other jobs. They like the idea of ministry as a vocation. They feel a sense of call But they also have commitments that need to be fulfilled, obligations to meet and are uncertain about the timing of leaving their day jobs and making the commitment.

It wouldn’t be honest for me to advise any of them that responding to the call to the ministry is in their best financial interests - at least if best financial interests is speaking of the amount of income that they will earn. There re many rewards to a life of Christian ministry. Wealth isn’t one of them. In fact, in some parts of the church ordination vows come only after a vow of poverty is taken.

Consider the lives of the four who are called in the passage of Mark’s Gospel that we read this week. Simon, also known as Peter, was martyred in Rome during the reign of emperor Nero. The tradition is that Peter asked to be crucified upside down, so that his death would not be the equal of Jesus and the Romans obliged.

Andrew, his brother, went to Patras in western Greece in 69 AD,, where the Roman proconsul Aegeates debated religion with him. Aegeates tried to convince Andrew to give up Christianity so he wouldn’t have to torture and execute him. Andrew refused. He was scourged, and then tied rather than nailed to a cross, so that he would suffer for a longer time before dying. The historian Dorman Newman reports that it took him two days to die on the cross.

James, the son of Zebedee, also known as James the greater, was killed with a sword. Herod Agrippa, governor of Judea was especially harsh in the persecution of Christians. Tradition teaches that the one who accused him was inspired by his courage and converted to Christianity on the spot and asked to be executed alongside James. The Romans obliged, and both men were beheaded.

Of the four named in this week’s reading, only John escaped a violent death. It is reported that he passed away peacefully in Patmos in his old age sometime around 100 AD. He is probably the only one of Jesus 12 original disciples who escaped a violent death. After all Jesus was crucified by the Romans. The story of a very violent death is reported in all of our Gospels.

Although few are martyred for faith in our country today, a life of faith may not be the easiest pathway through this life. Discipleship has its costs.

I’m not saying that it is not worth it. The joys are deep and real. I would not choose a different path for myself. There are things in life much worse than sacrifice. But it is only fair to be honest about the cost.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!