If I ask you the question, “Who do you believe?” I’m not asking what idea you think is true. I am asking how you actually live. We can say we believe anything or believe anyone, but our belief is called into question if it doesn’t follow through in the way we live. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a protestant pastor in Hitler’s Germany, called that “cheap grace.” He said that when we believe something but it doesn’t have anything to do with how we live, that comes without a cost, or in his words, cheap. Costly grace is the kind of grace that requires some sacrifice on our part and some willingness to mold our lives in a way that is not convenient but is sacrificial. In his choice to be a steadfast dissident against Hitler, he was a constant target of hatred, and eventually, it cost him his life. That is what you call costly grace.
I bring all this up in relation to the set of Scriptures for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time. The beatitudes from the Gospel of Luke present us with a set of values and beliefs that aren’t really reflected in most of our lives. Most of us don’t see being poor or hungry or sorrowing as a state of being blessed. Most of us, if we’re on the receiving end of evil and insult and hatred, don’t feel particularly blessed. And when Luke offers the other half of the beatitudes, our lives are certainly out of sync with those. When Jesus uses the word “woe,” He insinuates that being rich, satisfied, happy or laughing or having people speak well of us are all states of which we should be aware. That certainly doesn’t seem to be the way most of us are living. How can this Gospel and the accompanying Scriptures help us embrace costly grace?
Jeremiah the prophet tells us that trusting in human beings will cause us to dry up and die, while trusting in God will bring about abundant life. Are we trusting the values and virtues that God sets before us, or are we trusting the values and virtues that human criteria for success offer to us? Are we willing to voluntarily empty ourselves and become hungry? Are we willing to take some of our possessions and empty ourselves for the sake of others, even if it is costly to us?
St. Paul reminds us that belief in Christ might free us to live a life of costly grace. Do you believe that Christ has been raised from the dead? This question, asked by St. Paul, isn’t only a question seeking a factual answer. This is a question that demands a life response, not just a verbal response. If Jesus has been raised from the dead, then we have been given all that we need to be completely in union with God and others, all of creation. And yet, how many of us worry about our existence, our possessions, our security and our position or prestige? If Jesus has been raised from the dead, the Scripture tells us that the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead is in each of us, leading us and guiding us all the steps of our way.
How much defensiveness is present in your mind and heart? Do you live in the security that God has you in the palm of His hand? Do you treat yourself and others as if you were made in the image and likeness of God? Are you willing to sacrifice some of what you have and who you are not just for people who agree with you or have something to give you in return, but also to those who are your enemies and those who hate you?
This might be a great time for each of us to listen to what we say we believe and ask ourselves if those beliefs affect how we live. None of us want to be hypocrites in the world, especially as we proclaim to be disciples of Jesus. Where in our life can we move from cheap grace, doing what’s easy and convenient, to embracing the costly grace of discipleship, some way of living that more clearly shows Jesus in the world today? My experience says that if we tell God we are willing to do that, He will place before us many opportunities to be who we say we want to be. Give God the go-ahead in your life.
Father Wester is pastor of All Saints Parish in St. Peters.