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Matthew 8: The Cost of Following Jesus, and the Reason
Good morning, everyone, welcome. Please go with me to the book of Matthew, chapter 8. If you don’t have a bible, just raise your hand, and we will give you one you can keep if you’ll read it.
We’ve been in a series through the book of Matthew for several weeks now. The first few chapters of the book of Matthew show how Jesus left his throne and came out into the desert of our wandering and our temptation to save us—not just in some purely spiritual sense, but in every sense. He’s not just the new and better Moses in giving and fulfilling the law, but Jesus is the new and better you and me, offering us life, real life, in him. We are slaves to sin, and God is bringing us up from every slavery into which we’ve fallen until we are free in him.
The last couple of weeks we’ve been going through the sermon on the mount, where Jesus teaches, with authority, a new law, one which he says in no way gets rid of the old law and prophets, rather the new law restores, upholds, fulfills the old. The law is meant to invite us into God’s grace and into the truly beautiful practice of confession. Core to Christianity is a belief that in Christ we are able to change in all the ways we most desperately want and need to change.
We are meant to learn from the law the way the world is meant to be, and the way we were created to be, and if we are honest, we’re meant to admit that there is a distance between the way the world is meant to be and the way it actually is. There is a distance between the way society ought to be, if we are to truly love and care for each other, and the way it is. If we’re honest, too, there is a distance between what we were created to be and who we are.
In and through all of this moral teaching, interwoven with it, Jesus begins to teach what most scholars consider the primary topic of his recorded teachings and the new testament as a whole: the kingdom of God, and what it’s like. Over and over again Jesus, in almost everything he is going to say, he’s telling us what the kingdom of God is like, what the king is like, and what the kingdom of God means for us and our world. Jesus, in the sermon on the mount, is challenging us to believe that there is another reality, besides the one we can taste, touch, and see; there is another kingdom, besides America, or any other nation we live in. And incredibly, he teaches that the kingdom of God is at hand, meaning not far away, not way in the future, but here and now. We can live as citizens of the kingdom of God even now, where we are, we are able to live in the intersection, in the gap between the city of God and this city.
This morning, what we will see, as we go into chapter eight, is a call to do exactly that: a call to live in the gap between what we were created to be and what we are, a call to discipleship. If you will, I’d ask you to stand while we read, starting in Matthew 8:18. [Matthew 8:18-9:17] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.
The call to discipleship comes to each and every Christian, so the cost of discipleship is one each of us must pay, not just pastors. The call to discipleship is a choice, as Bonhoeffer points out, between cheap and costly grace. Cheap grace can be got for almost nothing, and so it is worth almost nothing. “Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our church. Our struggle today is for costly grace.” A call to costly grace is a call to discipleship, meaning a call to follow after Christ on his way to the cross, and like I said, this is a call that comes to each and every one of us who is in Christ.
Cheap grace makes you look good. Costly grace comes with confession, admitting that we don’t deserve the grace of God and that we are squandering it; that we are the real sinners in the room, prodigals who don’t even deserve to be servants in the household of God, and yet we are welcomed as children. Cheap grace fits very nicely into the life you’ve already built. Costly grace tends to wreck all of your plans.
Cheap grace is always sure of itself, always right. Costly grace admits doubt. Cheap grace is mass-produceable and can be bought, used whenever we would like, and if we lose it we can just go to the church house and get more; costly grace must be forged through “long obedience in the same direction,” through lifelong change. So we see in our passage a call into costly discipleship, costly grace.
This passage is one that means a great deal to me, personally. In many ways this passage set me off down the road which ultimately led me here, to this church, serving as a pastor, which is not something I had ever planned or desired for myself. I am grateful to God that he was able to see what I could not, of the future and also of the worth of pastoral ministry.
I was a sophomore in college, nearing the end of the year, and I was really looking forward to the summer. I was in a relationship with my high-school sweetheart. We had already been together two years; I invested a lot in that relationship. I was pre-med on full scholarship and doing well, set to graduate in three years without any debt. I really felt like I was on the right track, and so did my parents and so did her parents. I had a good job lined up for the summer, and I was going to save everything I made for the bright and shining future.
About three months out from summer, I got a call from a guy named Steve Moses, and that call pretty much ruined my life in the best possible way. He said someone had given him my name about possibly being interested in a ministry internship in Memphis that summer through the IMB. They were going to spend two months in inner-city Memphis learning about ministry, and then spend a month in Istanbul. I have no idea why anyone gave him my name. I told him I wasn’t interested. We hung up.
And then it never left my mind. I would wake up, and I’m thinking about this stupid internship that paid nothing. I go to bed, and I’m thinking about this stupid internship that had nothing to do with anything I was trying to do with my life. It wasn’t even medically related, wouldn’t help my résumé at all. Does God do this to you? Where he just won’t leave you alone about something?
About a month later, without cancelling any of my plans, I called Steve again, and asked if I might still be able to apply. He told me all the slots had been filled weeks ago. We hung up; then it never left my mind. I waited another month, in the middle of final exams, I’m walking in the rain to my organic chemistry final, still thinking about this stupid internship.
I called Steve the next day, like a week out from summer, and he said it had never happened to him before, but one of his residents had called that morning and backed out of the position, and would I want to fill his spot. I said yes. We hung up, I called that good job I had lined up and told them I wasn’t coming, then I called my parents and told them I wasn’t coming home that summer, and instead I was going to live in inner-city Memphis for two months, then go share the gospel for a month in an Islamic state. They were confused.
And there’s a lot about that summer I will remember for as long as I have memory, but I especially remember going to talk to one of the folks planting house churches in this downtown neighborhood in Memphis. I think his name was Eric. We were a couple of weeks into the internship. We had met a lot of people and heard a lot of sermons; I was probably feeling about like most of y’all in this room, wondering who this guy was and why we were listening to him, and the passage he chose for that day was this passage, vs. 18-22, about the cost of discipleship.
I’m listening to this guy talk, and—y’all, I’m not super-charismatic. I was a presbyterian at the time, I joke with people that if you see me raise my hands in worship I probably have a question. But God spoke to me that day, and he said, “there are five things you love more than you love me.” Not angrily, not threatening, but gently, he said, “I’m going to take them away, and then you can follow me.” Five things: the career I had planned, my parents’ expectations of me, my girlfriend’s parents’ opinions of me, my girlfriend, and my own high opinion of myself. And over the next six months he was faithful to take each of those things away.
And I tell you that whole story just to tell you, I’m so grateful. I am so grateful. Not at first. At first it hurt, like surgery hurts, or like a fight with a friend that you lose, but you’re glad. Now I’m grateful. Losing everything I was giving my life to helped me find the one thing that has actually been worth my life—this way of following after Christ, costly grace. Friends, what is Jesus’ call to you this morning? Maybe this morning is your call to salvation, or to repentance, or a call to move here and live out your faith in this context. Maybe your call is to a life lived in service to the people around you. Maybe yours is a call to ministry, like mine.
Not that pastoring is any great thing; I believe firmly in the holiness of every vocation. In fact, in a fit of irony one of the first things I did as a minister was to help start a medical missions clinic here in New Orleans where doctors live out and share the gospel every day. God and I have had multiple conversations about why he couldn’t just have let me be a doctor there. Haven’t gotten an answer on that one yet, seems like that just would have been a lot easier for me.
But for each of us, there is a call to discipleship, and there is a cost. There is a cost to discipleship, always, because the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure you find in a field, and you go sell everything you have to purchase it. You have to lose you life in order to find his. There is a cost to discipleship because cheap grace is worth nothing, but costly grace is worth everything. There is a cost to discipleship because we live in a broken world which can’t accept the things or the people of God. There is a cost to discipleship because discipleship is learning to follow after Jesus, and Jesus’ way was costly.
Why is it that we expect, if we follow Jesus, that our lives will be nothing like his? If you get mocked by your neighbors, so did he. If you become poor, so was he. Work some labor job that doesn’t really suit your talents and abilities for twenty years just to help provide for your mom and baby brothers and sisters, so did he. If you aren’t famous, and no one seems to care about your contributions, sometimes they crowded around him, but sometimes he was left with just a few friends. Sometimes they laughed at him. At times, he wasn’t even welcomed in, he didn’t have any place to rest his head. Once the crowd turned against him and treated him like he was a criminal. And his way ended on a cross.
I don’t know what the cost will be for you. Maybe he has to take some things away from you, like he did me, before you’re able to see what in your life holds real value. Maybe, like Peter, you’re going to have to leave a perfectly good career to go follow him. Or like Matthew, ruin your reputation among the crowd you’ve always fought so hard to impress. Or like Thomas, you have to admit your doubts about God and church and all of it. Or like Nicodemus, you may need to admit, even though everyone looks up to you, that you, too, are a sinner in need of grace, that you’re not as strong and put together as everyone thinks you are.
There is a cost to discipleship, but usually it doesn’t feel too costly after you’ve paid it. Usually what you have to lay down in order to follow Christ, even if you didn’t realize it at the time, usually it was something you never should have been carrying in the first place. I love Bunyan’s image in the Pilgrim’s Progress of the Cristian leaving behind his burden, with everything he had in it, only to realize how light and free he was once he laid it down. So whatever it is, and however the call comes, lay it down at the feet of Jesus. His way will cost you everything in the end, and yet everything worth having is found in seeking after him.
One thing I mentioned the last time I preached about this section of scripture, to help us understand the big picture of what Matthew is doing in this section: all of the rest of the disciples began following Jesus way back in chapter four, but Matthew’s call doesn’t come until chapter 9, just after what we read. While all of this is happening in chapter 8, Jesus heals the sick, he calms a storm, casts out demons. Meanwhile, Matthew is still sitting in his tax booth by the road. All of this in chapter 8 is a confession, a confession of everything he missed before he finally decided to follow Jesus.
I wonder how much I missed before I finally decided to follow Jesus, before Steve called me out of the blue. God had been working all around me, but I was focused on other things, my desires were elsewhere. I’m the type of person who would sit in that tax booth for a long time watching the world change before I actually jumped in and took part, and I say that to my shame. I am Matthew, it always takes me a few chapters more than the rest to abandon my own plans in favor of God’s. What about you? Are you still sitting in the tax booth, or are you following Jesus?
And listen, I know the practicality is difficult on this passage. Even in the passage itself, Jesus tells a man to let the dead bury his father. That’s shocking. I don’t understand that call coming from one who also teaches us to honor our father and mother, and provide for them. And practically speaking, I’m not advocating for anyone to act rashly or irresponsibly. I hate it when people use God’s leading as an excuse for their own flakiness and irresponsibility, so let’s get practical.
Practically speaking, one way you can hear God’s call among the cries of our own desires is to wrestle with it. Just like I don’t marry couples who have never had an argument, I don’t ordain people or put people in teaching positions, places of honor in a church, who have never wrestled with their faith, who feel like they are the obvious choice, people who can’t admit both their need of grace and their undeserving of it.
Practically speaking, work out your call to discipleship with fear and trembling. Fight against it. Trust me, God will win the wrestling match. Whenever people walk up to me and tell me with complete assurance they know God has called them to such and such a place or prepared them for some ministry position, I always cringe inside. Sin is always sure of itself. Discipleship is more of a mystery. Don’t believe that you are prepared for, capable of handling, that to which God has called you. God doesn’t call people toward things they can do on their own; we are utterly dependent upon him.
Practically speaking, if you want to hear God’s call in the midst of the cries of our own desires, fast and pray; get the advice of your community and the wisest people you know. Don’t make big decisions on your own. Matthew is alone in his tax booth, and Christ calls him among the twelve. God doesn’t call individuals without immersing them in community.
My last piece of practical advice on this point is to be wary of people who will tell you to pursue a calling because it benefits them. I’ve seen professors encourage students to get degrees which will not benefit them in the least. Principles egging on teachers to try harder for the kids when really they just want better test scores. I’ve seen churches send out church planters, or missionaries, and celebrate them until it gets hard, or they aren’t as successful as everyone had hoped, or the report from the field is anything but positive.
There’s a lot I don’t understand in this, and I didn’t really understand my call when it came. But what I do understand, every day more and more, is the reason why we should follow after Christ in our lives, so I want to end this sermon on the cost of discipleship talking about why. Why we should pay the cost; why Jesus paid his life. Why, when you’ve paid whatever cost is required of you, it feels like everything you laid down was worthless anyway. Why costly grace what we need today.
This chapter is meant to give us reason—Matthew’s reason—to follow Jesus no matter the cost. The ancients believed the cosmos to be separated into different planes, with everything naturally belonging and inclining toward the plane on which it truly belonged. Earth, under the earth, the sky, the spiritual plane, and God’s own reality in the heavens.
This passage is meant to show Jesus’s supremacy over all creation. He begins on the earth curing the sick; then he calms a storm, with authority even over the skies; then he goes so far as to forgive sin, which was reserved for God alone. The why is, Jesus is the only one who is worth our lives. He is the only one who is able to do anything we want to see done in the world, the only one able to change us in all the ways we most desperately need to be changed.
I want you to notice the different ways people respond to Jesus’ work and his call, because through the different reactions, Matthew is asking each of us this morning how we will respond to the work and call of Christ today. His disciples marvel, v.27. They are amazed. They almost can’t believe the wonders they’ve seen, even though they were wrapped up in them. The pharisees question and grumble. The creator of the world is calling, he has come to restore the world one person at a time and they can’t stand it. The crowd, if you notice at the end of the passage, they marvel, too, and praise God for his work in the world.
So what about you? What is standing between you and the costly grace of our creator? Is he calling you this morning? Calling you to know him, calling you to follow him? Calling you out of a tax booth and onto his road, his way? Maybe like me, he is calling you into struggle, even, into doubt, and into an admission that you are one of the sinful, struggling people in the world.
Bonhoeffer asks, “Where will the call to discipleship lead those who follow it? What decisions and painful separations will it entail? We must take this question to him who alone knows the answer. Only Jesus Christ, who bids us follow him, knows where the path will lead. But we know it will be a path full of mercy beyond measure. Discipleship is joy.”
This morning, Christ is calling you. Why else are you here? The question is not whether or not he is calling but whether or not we will respond.