The Cost of Discipleship

by Fr. David Kirk, of blessed memory, founder of Emmaus House in Harlem.

When I was a young man of eighteen, working with Dr. King in the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, I read these words as a newly baptized and chrismated Orthodox Christian, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” I set out joyfully, like one of the seven dwarfs, like the Gospel said to me; I gave away my possessions and set out to serve the poor.

But I had no idea what the cost of discipleship could take from me. I had no idea that forty years later I would be a battered man, crushed again and again, but never broken; crisis, day in and day out, but never giving in, never giving up. I had no idea that the words I prayed at the holy table would become real: “This is my body broken for you.” I had no idea how my health would be broken again and again at Emmaus for 25 years. It all became very real.

I had no idea that eventually, even as I rode out each storm, I would be battered by those I had accepted and loved and they would try to crush me, the final knife of the Evil One; but the strength of God was always there with my weakness, and I never gave up and never gave in. Snakes still slither through the grass waiting to attack, but the Mother of God keeps stepping on their heads, and the poor still get the Good News of new life, the hungry are fed, the homeless housed, the sick cared for, the mercy of God still shining like a light on a hill.

If I had known what was coming would I have followed him? I don’t know, but I believe that I would still have chosen this way, because I know that resurrection is just around the corner, if only I can just make it around the corner. I knew that whatever task He asked for me to do, there was sufficient grace to do the task—just enough grace—and that there would be plenty of joy with the suffering. I always saw this life, this world we live in and love, as a terrible struggle between good and evil, and for the good to resist evil meant self-sacrifice.

And when I was young, I was crazy and would take any risk. That was why I was beaten up by white guys and left in a lonely ditch for dead. But I crawled out, ready to go again! And in Selma, Alabama, when I was being interrogated, and all the policemen spat in my face, the face of the white nigger-lover, and only grace kept me from spitting back—grace plus common sense, for I knew I would have been a dead white nigger-lover. I sat in Birmingham jail with Dr. Martin Luther King as he wrote “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” And I sat in jail in New York with Dorothy Day, when the city demanded all go under desks for a nuclear attack rehearsal. We knew no desk was going to save us and so instead we just sat out in the open on the benches of Washington Square Park until they arrested us. And in our first year at Emmaus, the Black Panthers came and asked us to work with them, saying, “We’ve heard you the only white preacher who might work with us.” Big, big lugs with Afros almost as big; and I was scared, but history told me that I had to take the risk. And I fasted for a month on water with Catherine DeHueck Doherty and Abbe Pierre on the steps of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on behalf of the homeless...

I knew somehow that to take up a cross and follow Jesus meant risk and perhaps even death, because Christ Jesus had come to show us how to live, and how to die. I knew that our early Christians for four hundred years, Orthodox Christians, were often martyrs who went against the system of their time, a system based on evil rather than God. Most of our early saints were jailed, killed, beheaded, frozen in lakes, eaten by animals, and they bore their cross, their suffering, with joy.

Carrying the cross may take many forms. It may mean “bearing your brothers burden,” it may mean renouncing everything and living with the poorest of the poor, the worst afflicted, and the hungriest of the hungry. It may mean “if any man comes after me and does not hate his father and mother and yes, his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” A hard saying, but it means to me that I left my family at eighteen and traveled a different road, a road that most of my brothers and sisters hate. “Look at you, living like a bum! You got all these degrees and you have no money and live among criminals and addicts. What a waste!”

It may mean that you will be persecuted and your name reviled. But let me tell you: If you are persecuted with evil slander, you have found your cross, you are a Christian: The Kingdom of God is yours. The Church is the salt of the earth, but too often it has lost its taste. The Church is the light of the world, but too often that light is so dim you cannot see it.

Real Christianity is not cheap; it costs and it costs a lot. Your feel-good, happiness-and-prosperity churches demand no cross. They are selling the Gospel cheap. Don’t reach for the cheap churches — they demand no metanoia, no repentance; they demand no discipline; they will not ask that you pray three times daily and fast; they offer forgiveness without acknowledging your sins. What you have seen so far in this ancient church of Antioch, Jerusalem and Africa is the exterior. The treasure is hidden in the field. You have to dig and dig and dig.

To discover the pearl of great price, you’re going to have to leave your old ways and sell all you have to buy it. It is protected from the world and its ways. It is not thrown to the dogs. Jesus said, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” So let’s become the Church of Jesus Christ here at Emmaus as it is in the radical Gospel and as it was lived out in early centuries. Like Mary Magdalene, let’s become saints. Like Peter, even if we fall down over and over again, jump up and start again the next hour. Like Stephen, instead of getting stoned on drugs and alcohol, let’s be willing to be stoned, even verbally, because we live out our faith. Like Zaccheus, let’s stop coveting things and instead hunger for justice. Let it be said about us what they said about early Christians, “See how they love one another,” not “see how they pass the buck,” or “see how they water down the gospel.”

“You’re either busy being born or busy dying,” sings Dylan. Let’s get busy, as Arsenio used to say, “dying to our old ways and being reborn.”

Don’t count the cost; pay your dues, carry your cross.