The Cost of Discipleship

By Chuck Alley

Reading from the Gospel of Matthew, 16:21-28

21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? 27For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”


In a sinful world, obedience to God requires repentance — a turning away from our fallen, “natural” ways of thinking and acting, and a turning to the purpose and direction of God in the world. This path of obedience for the Christian involves a death and a resurrection. We must die to selfish ambition and self-centeredness and be raised to the new life of Jesus — a life enacted in service and love toward God and our neighbors.

And the direction of repentance is meant to take us all the way to God, with no remainder. There is no neutral territory where humans may simply do as they wish. Any works that are not of God come from Satan.

Someone once asked the British scholar and author, J.R.R. Tolkien, how he felt about the acclaim that his epic Lord of the Rings trilogy was receiving. Tolkien reportedly said in effect that even the nose of the most modest idol cannot help but be tickled by the sweet smell of incense. It is both the tickle of praise and affirmation, as well as the pain of criticism and disapproval, that provide an opportunity for us to depart from the path of obedience. Whether in the form of discouragement away from what God has for us, or encouragement toward what God does not have for us, any offer to ease the cross of obedience from our shoulders is not of God, no matter how well-meaning its source. The death and resurrection of Jesus removed the punishment for our disobedience, but not the cost of our discipleship in this world. They made both the costs — and the rewards — far more dear, the choice much more clear.

Chuck Alley is a retired Episcopal priest and an adjunct associate professor of anatomy on the medical faculty of Virginia Commonwealth University. He and his wife, Scottie, have three children and nine grandchildren.

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