As you listened to the Gospel being read today, I’m willing to be that there were some words and phrases that tripped you up. Mentally, you were scratching your heads and thinking, “Is that really right? Is that really Jesus speaking there? Because it sure doesn’t sound like him!” Let’s start today by identifying those stumbling blocks.
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). Now, we’ve always understood that Jesus was all about love. He told us that the two great commandments are to love God with all our heart and to love our neighbour as ourselves. How can he then turn around and tell us to hate our parents, our spouses and children and siblings? What’s that all about?
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 in this church thinking and praying about being open and friendly and 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 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?” After all, 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, and preferably a house with a good furnace too! Is Jesus now saying that we all have to become beggars like St. Francis if we want to follow him?
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 used to hear this cross language a lot in the Christian tradition; a devout Christian would receive a diagnosis of a terminal illness and describe it as “the cross I have to bear”. Or someone with a difficult relative – someone they are trying hard to act lovingly towards - might say, “This is the cross Jesus has laid on me”. Over hundreds of years Christians developed the tradition of using this cross-language for any suffering they had to go through; they were trying to express their desire to offer up their suffering to the Lord, and to try to be faithful to him as they went through 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 not used to execute Roman citizens; they were reserved 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? I can imagine him explaining it to them like this: “You need to understand that I’m starting a revolutionary movement – the kingdom of God. This kingdom is about God’s justice and peace spreading over all the earth. It’s about doing what’s right rather than what will make more people wealthy. It’s about keeping promises and caring for outsiders and including the weak and the small and not just the strong and powerful.
“So what’s the problem? Isn’t that good news? Well, not everyone will hear it that way. Herod and Pontius Pilate probably won’t want to share their power. Many of the rich probably won’t want to have to share their wealth with the poor. Those who nurture hatred and resentment won’t want to hear about loving their enemies and forgiving 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”.
This is in fact still happening to followers of Jesus today. In the aftermath of 9/11, when the mood for vengeance was strong in the western world, there were some voices who questioned whether bombing the Muslim world into the stone age was the wisest response. Some of the most influential of those questioning voices were the voices of mainline Christians. Not all of them were pacifists by any means, but all of them were speaking on the basis of the teaching of Jesus – which many people in the western world were continuing to claim as the spiritual foundation of their civilization. What does it mean to claim to follow a Jesus who taught us to love our enemies and pray for those who hate us? How do we practice that message in the dangerous world that we live in?
These are serious questions that all thoughtful followers of Jesus struggle with – and rightly so. But back in 2001 when they were raised, the response to those questions was often not thoughtful at all. No – the people who raised these issues were described as traitors; “If you’re not on our side, you’re on the side of the terrorists”. Taking up your cross and following Jesus means not being surprised when accusations like that are levelled at you.
Let’s understand what it means to be a Christian. It means that you and I have taken out citizenship in another kingdom; we are dual citizens - of Canada, and of the Kingdom of God. Other Canadians around us may 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 ‘the Christ’ – which means ‘the 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? 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; we say that something is ‘wicked’, but we don’t really mean that it’s ‘wicked’ in the literal sense of the word! 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. In our day many people might not be quite so shocked by it; if they’re honest, they have things they’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. To many people, wealth and success and prosperity are sacred.
So what about our loyalty to our possessions? The kingdom of God is a kingdom of valuing people, not things; a kingdom where everyone has enough and no-one has too much. But the reality of the situation is that a huge percentage of the people 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 badly 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.
So our leader gathers us all together before we begin. “Okay”, he says, “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.
That’s what Jesus is doing. The Kingdom of God is not a book discussion group, complete with expensive drinks from Starbucks. The Kingdom of God is a movement to rescue the world from evil and bring it back to the God who created it. The Kingdom of God is a revolutionary movement, and in a revolution, not all the participants survive.
How is this good news? What’s the Gospel in this passage? The good news 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 organizations, getting absolutely no material benefit from it for themselves, because they believe in the goals and values of those organizations.
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?
Are you ready for that commitment? Am I? The honest answer, of course, is ‘Sometimes I am, and sometimes I’m not!’ There are times when we all find joy in giving ourselves wholeheartedly to following Jesus and sharing his love in our words and actions. There are other times when it’s more of a challenge for us. This is true for all of us, without exception. So let’s all today pray for the daily grace to choose this life of faithfulness to Jesus, and for the strength to be follow through with it, day in and day out.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.