The Cost of Discipleship
As I read through today’s gospel in preparation for preaching today I found myself asking, “What are the words and phrases that are going to trip people up? What are the things that are going to cause people to scratch their heads and ask, ‘Is that really right? Is this really Jesus speaking here? Because it doesn’t sound much like the Jesus we think we know!’” I’m sure you’ll agree that there are a couple of words or phrases like that in this reading.
The first one is the word ‘hate’. Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (v.26). How can Jesus, who told us that the two great commandments are to love God with all our heart and to love our neighbour as ourselves, then turn around and tell us in the next breath to hate our parents, our spouses and children and siblings? What’s that all about? I expect that, for some of you, it was so disconcerting to hear this that you didn’t really hear the rest of the gospel reading.
The second one is the word that appears in the same verse, the word ‘cannot’: “…cannot be my disciple”. We spend a lot of time at St. Margaret’s thinking and praying about being an open and friendly church, welcoming to everyone. We think – quite reasonably – that anyone who wants to be a disciple of Jesus should be able to sign up. So why is Jesus suddenly setting such stringent conditions on who can and cannot be his disciples? Why is he fencing people out?
The third word is the word ‘all’ in verse 33: “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions”. We hear this, and we quite reasonably ask, “Then who can follow Jesus? Can anyone in North America follow him?” I mean, our cities are designed in such a way as to make it very difficult to get around without a car, and everyone needs a few clothes to keep warm in the wintertime. Do we all have to become beggars like St. Francis of Assisi if we want to be followers of Jesus?
Let’s think about this, and let’s start by considering one more word which probably didn’t grab your attention with quite the same force as those other three: I mean the word ‘cross’ in verse 27: “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple”.
We’ve heard this cross language a lot in Christian tradition. Somebody receives a diagnosis of a terminal illness and they say, “I guess this is the cross I have to bear”. Or someone has a difficult relative who they are trying to act lovingly towards, and they say, “This is the cross Jesus has laid on me, I guess”. We’ve developed a tradition of using this cross-language for any suffering we go through. In using the language in this way we indicate our desire to offer up our suffering to the Lord and to try to be faithful to him in it.
That’s wonderful, but it’s not what the language meant in Jesus’ day! In first century Palestine and all over the Mediterranean world, the Romans used crosses to execute rebels against their empire. Crosses were never used to execute Roman citizens; that’s why, according to tradition, St. Paul was beheaded rather than being crucified. Crosses were used for outsiders, non-citizens, who had been engaged in acts of rebellion against the empire. No empire looks kindly on traitors; and even today many countries around the world have laws allowing them to execute such people. The Romans did it with particular savagery.
So what does Jesus mean when he says that those who want to be his disciples must take up their cross and follow him? He’s saying, “You have to understand that I am starting a revolutionary movement – the kingdom of God. This kingdom is about God’s justice and peace, about doing what is right rather than what will make more people wealthy, about keeping promises and caring for outsiders and including the weak and the small and not just the strong and powerful. Not everyone is going to like this movement. The powerful will not want to share their power. The rich will not want to have to share their wealth with the poor. Those who nurture hatred and resentment will not like to hear that they must love their enemies and forgive those who have hurt them. Therefore, those who follow me must brace themselves to suffer for my name and for my cause. They must prepare themselves for the fact that the world around them may well call them outsiders and treat them as traitors”.
Within living memory this has in fact happened to followers of Jesus. During the Second World War one bishop of the Church of England, Bishop George Bell of Chichester, spoke out against the carpet-bombing of German cities because it involved the wholesale murder of thousands of non-combatant men, women, and children. George Bell spoke as he did on the basis of the teaching of Jesus. He was not a pacifist; he was a believer in the just-war theory. According to that theory, one of the rules for determining whether or not a war is just is that ‘non-combatants must not be harmed’. Bell was speaking on the basis of Christian teaching, and for this he was hated and derided in England; people called him a traitor and a Nazi-lover. In fact, some people think that this was the reason he did not become the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1944; Winston Churchill could never forgive him.
So let’s understand what it means to become a Christian. It means to take out citizenship in another kingdom; you and I are dual citizens, of Canada and of the Kingdom of God. The other Canadians around us think that our religion is just one of our private opinions, and that when the crunch comes, our loyalty to Canada should come first. But we who call Jesus ‘Christ’ – which means ‘King’ – know otherwise. We know that when Canada is just a distant memory the Kingdom of God will be a shining reality. So in baptism we pledge our first allegiance to God’s Kingdom and to its anointed King, the Lord of all, Jesus Christ.
What does that loyalty mean for our family commitments? Let’s be clear – strong, loving families are vital to the Kingdom of God. But what happens when the rest of our family is not happy about our Christian commitment? What happens when they tell us not to be so single-minded about this religion business, or when they try to get us to do other things rather than attending worship? Well then, that’s when we have to be firm about our priorities. Jesus is the Son of God, God’s anointed king; he is the one who has the right to first place in our lives, and in our baptism we have agreed to give him that place.
That’s what the ‘hate’ language means; it’s an Aramaic figure of speech. We use those figures of speech all the time without thinking of them; for instance, we say that something is ‘wicked’ and we don’t really mean that it’s wicked! This Aramaic figure of speech simply means ‘love less’. Our love for Jesus is to be so passionate and committed and single-minded that, compared to it, all other loves in our lives are left far behind.
This was a shocking thing in the Jewish world of Jesus’ day, where family ties were sacred. But I think in our own day we have things we’re far more loyal to than family. For instance, I know people who have shown themselves willing to make their families suffer in order to make an advantageous career move. Wealth and success and prosperity are sacred to us.
So what about our loyalty to our possessions? The kingdom of God is a kingdom of valuing people and not things; a kingdom where everyone has enough and no-one has too much. But the reality of the situation is that 90% of the Christians in the world today live below the poverty line. How do I make decisions about what to do with money in the face of that reality? Do I love the good things that money can buy more than I love the Kingdom of God? When I pray, ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’, am I secretly adding a clause, ‘As long as it doesn’t mean a drop in my standard of living’?
That’s what Jesus was talking about in verse 33, you see, when he said, “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions”. One of the first words most children learn is the word, ‘mine’, but it’s a word we have to learn to grow out of as Christians. The early Christians in Jerusalem pooled all their possessions and distributed them according to need. Later generations didn’t always follow that literally, but they all understood that they were stewards of their possessions, that everything they had belonged to God, and that they were responsible for using their wealth to care for others.
Let me try to tie this all together by using an illustration I found in a book by Tom Wright.
Imagine a politician who stands up at a public meeting to address a crowd. He says, “Vote for me, folks! If you do, you’ll lose your homes and your families! Your taxes will go up and your wages will go down! In fact, you’re sure to lose everything you love best. Now – who’s on my side?” At first sight this seems to be the very kind of speech Jesus is making in today’s Gospel.
But suppose we’ve got our illustration wrong? Suppose that ‘politician trying to win an election’ isn’t such a good metaphor after all? Let’s change it; let’s have Jesus instead as the leader of a relief expedition; he’s guiding us through a high and dangerous mountain pass in order to take sorely needed medical aid to an isolated village. If we don’t get through, the people in the village will likely all die – and those people are our relatives, people we care for, people we’re desperately worried about. Our leader gathers us all together before we begin and says, “Okay, if you want to come with me, you’ll have to leave your packs behind. The path ahead is much too steep for them; you probably won’t see them again. In a moment I’m going to give you all time to send postcards and make phone calls to your family members; this is a dangerous route and there’s every chance that some of us won’t make it back”. We may not like hearing this kind of speech, but in the context of that kind of expedition, we can understand why Jesus would make it.
How is this good news? What’s the Gospel in this passage? The Gospel is that the Kingdom of God is worth this total commitment.
Hundreds of thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen in the Second World War were willing to put their lives on the line, leaving careers and families behind, because they believed the goal was worth it. On a smaller scale, across the city of Edmonton every week, thousands of people offer themselves as volunteers in hundreds of different organisations, getting no material benefit from it, because they believe in the goals and values of those organisations.
The Gospel tells us that the Kingdom of God is a goal so good, so perfect, so beautiful, so compelling, that it’s worth all the commitment we can give to it and more besides. God is holding out to us a future where there is no poverty, no war, no injustice, no oppression. God is holding out to us a future where the people of the world live together in justice and peace, where everyone acknowledges God and where the nations of the world stream to him to learn his ways – a future in which natural enemies like lions and lambs – or Israelis and Palestinians - lie down together in peace. This day is coming, as sure as the summer follows the winter. We have God’s promise on that.
But living into that kingdom is not for the fainthearted. Jesus is calling for volunteers to help make it happen; that’s what it means to be a Christian. And it won’t cut it to say, “Well, I’ll certainly include Jesus in my life, but he’ll have to compete with my other priorities on the same level”. It won’t cut it to say, “I’ll follow him as long as it doesn’t offend with my family or interfere with my weekend leisure activities or significantly reduce my standard of living”.
No – Jesus is calling us to give our primary allegiance to the Kingdom of God, and to make it the number one value of our lives. This means dethroning potential rivals for our primary loyalty so that we can follow Jesus as our Lord. It requires a careful consideration of the cost of discipleship and a realization that we will need resources from God to stay the course, because the road will be hard. How could it be otherwise on the kind of rescue expedition Jesus is asking us to join? So let’s pray for the grace to choose this life of absolute commitment to Jesus, and for the strength to be faithful to his call, today and every day.