On Wednesday, we celebrated the feast day of St. Alban, who is noted as being the first British Christian martyr. In our gathering, we reflected on the story of Alban, who until converting to Christianity, was a Roman solider who lived during a time when Christianity was illegal, and who had probably in the course of his duties, persecuted, beat, and perhaps even put to death Christians. And yet, what makes Alban’s story worthy of repeating and being remembered in our Christian history, is the story of his conversion. According to Holy Women, Holy Men, Alban “gave shelter to a Christian priest who was fleeing from persecution and was converted by him. When officers came to Alban’s house he dressed himself in the garments of the priest and gave himself up. Alban was tortured and martyred in place of the priest…[according to the Venerable Bede’s account of the trial, when Alban was brought before the judge, he was demanded to identify himself, to which he replied] ‘My parents named me Alban...and I worship and adore the living and true God, who created all things.’” (HWHM, 434).
Something about Alban meeting this priest and hearing his story changed Alban’s heart. Not only did he become a Christian, but he stood in place of his now Christian brother. He gave his life to save the life of another. And while most of us may not be able to imagine making that kind of choice ourselves, we can recognize in this story the power of love that is given freely one to another. And sometimes the purposes of recalling these stories and sharing them over the centuries, is so that they remind us what it means to follow Christ in the way of love.
In the gospel text this morning from Luke, Jesus is headed toward Jerusalem. This is a precarious time for the disciples and those who had experienced the love and healing that he offered. When we read that Jesus has his face toward Jerusalem, we know that he is preparing for the end of his earthly ministry. So when one of his followers says, "I will follow you wherever you go." Jesus’ response is about a willingness to leave everything behind--following Jesus in this ministry meant making the choice to leave everything that felt safe and secure and certain, in order to take the risk to do something bigger in the service of the kingdom of God. It is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls the difference between costly grace and cheap grace. In his book The Cost of Discipleship (43-45), Bonhoeffer defines cheap grace and costly grace this way:
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. Grace is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner.
Alban’s choice to offer shelter for the priest and stand in for him is an example of costly grace. And we too have the opportunity to make these choices in our everyday lives...even if they aren’t as radical as Alban’s choice.
So where have we seen this costly grace being lived out in our more recent history?
The Freedom Riders who worked to bring equal voting rights to blacks in the south, who were beaten, spit on, terrorized and imprisoned to bring about justice in this country, who were working for the coming of the kingdom of God, who sacrificed their well-being for the well-being of others...this is costly grace. And in a more extreme example, the three young civil rights workers who were kidnapped and murdered in Mississippi in June of 1964, having given their life to create just communities where blacks had systematically been denied their voter rights, had been discriminated against and marginalized as Children of God...this is costly grace.
The teachers and school personnel of Sandy Hook Elementary School who shielded children from being killed by a gunman--Victoria Soto, Rachel D’Avino, Dawn Hochsprung, Anne Marie Murphy, Lauren Rousseau, Mary Sherlach--they didn’t set out for school that day knowing that they would be victims of a terrible crime. Their intention was to love, care for and educate children to one day become healthy adults in the world. And in their love, they lost their lives...this is costly grace.
But grace doesn’t always mean becoming a martyr, right? Costly grace--the giving of oneself freely, out of a place of love and care, the building up of another, or as Eugene Peterson explains, the gift of costly grace is, “a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people.” (The Message, Galatians 5:23)
This week there was a video circulating the internet of Angels. And these weren’t the ordinary, chubby little angels of Christmas greeting cards. These were adult men and women dressed in white with huge (and I mean huge) wing panels that came to the the funeral of Drew Leinonen. Drew was a 32 year old victim of the Orland massacre on June 12. They came to stand outside of the funeral gathering to serve as a counter protest to members of the Westboro Baptist Church who had come to yell and spew anti-gay rhetoric at those in attendance of the funeral. The angels far outnumbered the Westboro members and drowned out their protest by singing “Amazing Grace”. Their wings were big enough to hide the Westboro signs from funeral attendees, so that they could grieve in peace. These Angels were the living embodiment of costly grace.
In the Galatians text for this week, we also hear about the gifts of the spirit versus the desires of the flesh. And I’ll admit, some of those desires---well, they’re fun, they’re part of the human condition, and I’m guilty--as I’m sure some of you are as well. But when I read the Message translation of these desires, well, it shifted my perspective a bit. According to the The Message, the desires of the flesh are:
Repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community.
Well, dang it...that’s the human condition right there. And while we all struggle with various parts of these desires, when we make the choice to follow Jesus, we continue that struggle, but with the intention of maturing into a place of spirit, of costly grace...a place where we act not out of our own self-interest, but with that “willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people.”
So this begs the question...who are we called to be? Are we called to be angels, martyrs, protectors, freedom riders? Are we called to follow Jesus in a way that means we strive for justice and peace? Or do we want to continue on the path of self-satisfaction that doesn’t really satisfy? Are our eyes turned toward Jerusalem with Jesus, or are they focused on something else?
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.