“The Best of Both Worlds”

  1. Mk 8.

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

One of my first mentors in the church was the Rev. Canon John Andrew.

For many years, Father Andrew was the Rector of St. Thomas Church in Manhattan; he died last year at the age of 83. I’m thinking of him today because we had a custom for many years of having dinner on March 1st, which was the anniversary of my first day of work at St. Thomas.

Fr. Andrew would never have denied that he loved the good things in life. He was well-known at the best French restaurants in New York City. He had a gorgeous collection of Chinese memorial porcelain. He wore a silk cassock and starched linen clerical collars when he was in church; when he was off duty, he wore shirts from Asprey’s of London. He loved traveling and was always hopping on a plane to go to see friends.

No wonder, then, that some people thought that Fr. Andrew was too “worldly.” Since he was a priest, they thought that he should have lived more simply.

These critics might have felt that he needed to take to heart the teaching of Jesus that we heard in today’s Gospel: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

To the casual observer, John Andrew didn’t seem to “deny himself” very much. Nor did he carry a heavy cross of persecution. On the contrary, Fr. Andrew’s religion seemed to allow a range of creature comforts!

Yet, like many people of his generation, Fr. Andrew was influenced by the writings of the German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And one of Bonhoeffer’s most influential ideas was a distinction he made between “cheap grace” and “costly grace.”

As the phrase implies, cheap grace asks little of us. It sees religion as an easy-to-follow set of customs and rules.

The religion of costly grace is entirely different. For Bonhoeffer himself, it demanded the ultimate sacrifice. Bonhoeffer, by profession, a mild-mannered German theologian became involved in the resistance to the Nazi regime. He and members of his aristocratic family devised a plot to kill Hitler. Unfortunately for them, the assassination attempt failed.

While Bonhoeffer was in prison awaiting trial, he wrote these words about how a Christian should hold to his position of service to God:

“Who stands his ground?”, Bonhoeffer wrote, “Only the man whose ultimate criterion is not his reason, his conscience, his principles, his freedom or his virtue, but one who is ready to sacrifice all these things when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith. This man seeks to make his whole life a response to the question and call of God.”

A few days before the end of World War II the Nazis hanged Dietrich Bonhoeffer; he was 39 years old. Bonhoeffer took up his cross. Like our Christian brothers and sisters in the Middle East and Africa today who are victims of terrorism, Bonhoeffer gave his life for the sake of the Gospel.

And while Father John Andrew was blessed with a long life, he too knew the difference between cheap grace and costly grace. Although he loved the pleasures of this life, he also knew their limits.

And he knew that following Christ in a way meant paying the price of service to God’s Kingdom. So he threw himself into new projects. He generously gave his time to people seeking spiritual counsel. He made himself available to the lonely and isolated. Countless people, young and old, came to God through his ministry.

Athletes express their need to put in the hard work of preparing for competition with the slogan: “No pain, no gain.” In other words, if you can’t bear the training, you won’t succeed in your sport.

There’s a Christian version of this saying: “No cross, no crown.” Just as physical exercises can lead to a strong body, so spiritual exercises strengthen and toughen the soul, they prepare us to receive the “crown” of eternal life with God.

Of course, we especially think about the Cross of Christ in Lent. During this season, we may choose to meditate on Christ’s suffering on the Cross, trying to relate his suffering to our own. Or we can contemplate how Christ’s offering of himself opened to us the gates of eternal life.

One of John Andrew’s books was entitled The Best of Both Worlds. In the introduction to the book, he explains his choice of this title:

“Christians do have the best of both worlds, which, when you consider it, are one. Everyone and all things are one in Christ Jesus, for heaven reaches from the next world into this with his life lived in us: ‘Nevertheless I live, yet not I, but it is Christ who lives in me.’ St. Paul understands and teaches this concept with great power and persuasiveness. It is indeed the best of both worlds.”

The strength of John Andrew’s own faith was severely tested during his last years. He suffered a heart attack and several strokes. He was critically injured when he was hit by a car.

John Andrew’s love of creature comforts couldn’t sustain him during these crises. But faith in God’s Kingdom gave him the inner strength he needed to bear the suffering that life had brought him.

We ourselves may not face persecution – or traffic accidents. But we need to give up any illusion we might have that our personal desires are the most important things in our lives.

We have to dispense with the idea that we deserve a problem-free existence. But then, having taken up our crosses, we’re able to see God at work in this world.

Having accepted the tasks we are given, we’re surprised to find that God blesses us with the best of earth and Heaven.

And now unto that same God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.

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