Bible Passage: Mark 1:14-20 Pastor: Pastor Schlicht Sermon Date: January 28, 2018
It’s no secret that Christianity is declining in America, but that’s necessarily a bad thing. The fastest shrinking category in American religion, which also happens to be its largest category, is something called “nominal Christianity”—people who self-identify as Christian, but whose faith is not a central part of their lives. Yet, while this is sad, as a reflection of an increasingly secular culture, in some ways, it is a good thing for the Church. Christians will have more of an opportunity to distinguish themselves from the world. Followers of Christ should look different and now they increasingly will.
But in a country like America, where comfort is king, the danger of nominal Christianity will always exist. We often talk about the dangers of living in a zealous, violent religious context like regions in the Middle East. Living as a Christian in those places can cost you your life. But living in a nominal religious context, like we do in Wisconsin, while it may not put your neck on the line, can endanger a believer in ways that are just as deadly on an eternal scale. There’s the danger of embracing a comfortable Christianity. You see, one thing about nominal Christians is that their faith doesn’t cost them anything. It doesn’t ask them to give up anything, they don’t let go of guilty pleasures, they don’t give their time, talents, or treasures to the Lord and his Church. They don’t suffer; they don’t sacrifice; they don’t vulnerably share their faith with others. Nominal Christianity doesn’t cost a thing.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, sometimes referred to as a “Lutheran Saint,” was a Lutheran pastor, theologian, and author who was known for the integrity of his faith. Due to his active opposition of the Nazi regime he was executed in a German concentration camp. In fact, he hung just two weeks before the Americans liberated his camp. He wrote many books, but perhaps his most well-known title is The Cost of Discipleship. One of the famous lines is “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Now, that doesn’t sound like the most attractive outreach message, but it is true. We cannot escape the fact that the demands Jesus makes on those who follow him are extreme. He doesn’t call nominal Christians; he calls disciples. Being a disciple is not a Sunday morning religion. It is a hungering after God to the point that we will surrender our lives if need be. It is a conviction that replaces our foundation, reorders our priorities, and far surpasses our love for even friend and family. Being a disciple will call us to leave behind the comfortable and the ordinary; it calls us to sacrifice and to suffer. It is a costly thing to be Jesus’ disciple.
Today, we count the cost of discipleship in Mark 1 and determine if it is worth the price. Starting in verse 14, After John was put in prison, Jesus went to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God. “The time is fulfilled,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near! Repent, and believe in the gospel.” We get a summary of Jesus’ preaching. He proclaimed the Kingdom of God near and called for repentance and belief in the Gospel, the exact same message that got John thrown in prison and eventually beheaded. In fact, just in the first 5 words, we have a clear picture of the cost of following Jesus in John’s imprisonment. Continuing in verse 16, As Jesus was going along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea, since they were fishermen. Jesus said to them, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” The question “why” naturally arises. Why did Jesus choose them? They have no qualifications, they have no ministry experience, we don’t know anything about them! Why did Jesus call them? Mark doesn’t tell us.Look at verse 18,Immediately they left their nets and followed him. Wait a second, why? Again, why did they do it? What reason do they have? What was their relationship? Was there any more conversation? Did they ask some questions? What was it about Jesus that compelled them to leave immediately? Mark doesn’t mention it. Let’s continue, verse 19-20: Going on a little farther, he saw James the son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat mending the nets. Immediately Jesus called them. Again, why? We don’t know! And then, you guessed it, They left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants and followed him. Why do they leave everything and follow Jesus? We can’t say for certain. Mark remains reticent. The only details we have, as Jesus walks away with his first four disciples, are the things they abandoned to follow Jesus, a few forgotten fishing boats and a father holding half-mended nets, gazing after the sons he may never see again.
Mark wrote this for a reason; the Holy Spirit knows what he’s doing. We listen to the haunting news of John imprisoned; we hear Jesus preach the same dangerous message of repentance, and we stare in astonishment as Jesus’ disciples abandon livelihood and family to follow him. As readers, we are forced to consider the cost of discipleship.
At first glance it seems like the cost is unreasonable, doesn’t it? Even biblically unjustifiable. As a father and a husband, as a pastor, I have God-given responsibilities. I watch those fisherman walk away from everything and I know that cannot be what God wants for me. Are we supposed to quit our jobs? Are we called to leave our family? Certainly not, right? So what is the cost of discipleship? Well, it is going to look different for each one of us, but we do know that when Jesus tells us to follow, he is just as serious; the price is the same.
Jesus explains in Luke 14, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26) Jesus uses the word “hate” here. That’s a strong statement. How can he say that? I mean we aren’t even allowed to hate our enemies! How can Jesus say “hate”? Jesus spoke a Semitic language, using the word “hate” not in an active way, as we commonly use it in English, but in a comparative sense. It is an extreme way to show just how supreme our love for Jesus should be over anything in this world, even people, even our own life. Jesus speaks like this to expose how much we truly love this world, how chained to it our deepest desires have become. So what is the cost of discipleship? It adds up to nothing more and nothing less than being able to let go of anything in this world, even our relationships, even our own physical life, if it would prevent us from following Jesus. In the lives of four single fishermen, that cost was actually leaving behind occupations and family to follow Jesus. What will it cost you?
What do you need to leave behind? Is it your reliance on your wealth? It’s one thing to say you trust God more than your money, but another thing to actually follow through. The rich young ruler wanted to be saved, but when Jesus asked him to give up his possessions, we saw the chains materialize. He could not follow Jesus because he was enslaved to his money, it was his true master. How about your children—do you care more about their relationship with you than their relationship with Jesus? Will you take a loving stand on God’s Word if they turn down a sinful path? Will you call them back, or out of fear of rejection, simply let them wander away? Will you feel the chains of family tighten around your neck, or will you be free to walk after Christ? What about that addiction you plan on stopping? Are you willing to deny yourself and get help so that you are free to follow Jesus and become the person he has called you to be? Or will you attempt, once again, to convince yourself that you can still stop whenever you want? The chains are rattling. You see the cost of discipleship is high, but there is another kind of price tag for nominal Christians: freedom itself.
In 5th grade, we read the book “Where the Red Fern Grows”. It’s about a boy named Billy and his two dogs. It’s a great story. I won’t ruin the plot for you, but one thing from this book that has stuck with me is the way Billy’s grandpa taught him to catch a raccoon. He told him to find a log and drill a hole just big enough for the raccoon’s paw to fit inside. Then hammer two nails diagonally into the log and drop a shiny object into the hole. That was it! The raccoon reaches his paw inside, wraps his fist around the object, and just like that, he is trapped! Can he escape? Of course, if he just lets go. But as long as he holds on to that shiny object with his fist he can’t pull his hand out because of the nails. The raccoon chooses to remain trapped because he is not willing to let go of the captivating object. All he needs to do is open his hand, drop the object, and he’s free. But he won’t. He’ll hold onto it all night until Billy arrives the next morning with his dogs. The raccoon becomes a slave to that object; it steals his freedom and eventually costs him his life.
Now, we would never be so foolish as a raccoon, but if your heart is clenched around some part of this world, you might be caught in the same trap, ensnared by your own refusal to let go. It might be a sinful idol, it might also be a something good that replaces Christ and becomes a master in your life. If what we love most is not Christ himself, we are in chains that trap us, control us, and ultimately lead to eternal death.
That’s why Jesus’ call is so drastic. That’s why discipleship costs so much! He wants us to completely let go of this world so we can follow him in freedom! That’s what we see as those disciples leave behind their boats: We see freedom! Freedom to sacrifice, freedom to follow Jesus, even to the cross. After all, Jesus left behind everything to be your Savior. He took your sin and died your death. And when he rose from the grave he welcomed you into heaven forever! Yes, as his disciple, you may be asked at times to do difficult things, unpopular things, costly things, but the question really is not “Can you afford the cost of discipleship?” but “Can you not afford to follow Jesus?”
Before I finish today, I want to remind you of two important things to remember about the call to follow Jesus.
#1: Jesus’ call to follow is developmental. These four disciples, as good as they look in today’s Gospel, were not perfect followers. Far from it, in fact sometimes you wonder if Jesus could have picked less able followers. It took three years of his direct teaching and witness of his miraculous power, including his death and resurrection, to turn them into the stalwarts who started the Christian Church and died for his name. Don’t be discouraged if there are days when you slip up or have difficulty following. Remember the blood of Jesus provides forgiveness and his call to follow is always heard through the Word. It’s always the same, “Repent and believe the Gospel.” Time and time again, each day, recommit yourself to the developmental call of discipleship.
#2: Jesus’ call is not only to follow but to fish. He called his disciples to be “fishers of men” and the same goes for you and me. We are asked in the same breath to both follow Jesus and lead others to him. Maybe you don’t think evangelism is your gift, but you have all that you need. Remember, Jesus poured his life into twelve close friends. The people he lived with were the ones he turned into fishers of men. You too can work with those you already pour yourself into. Fish for Christ in your closest relationships. Share your hope whenever possible and live as an authentic follower of Jesus And as they see you sacrifice, love selflessly and joyfully, as they see you freely serving them, they will count the cost of discipleship and hear Jesus’ call to follow.
My friends, the decline of nominal Christianity is not the end of the Church. It is an opportunity to highlight the value of following our Savior by gladly paying the cost of discipleship. Martin Luther said, “A religion that gives nothing, costs nothing, and suffers nothing, is worth nothing.” I thank God that we proclaim a message worth dying for. I thank God that when he calls us to “follow,” the cost of discipleship is worth it.