September 4, 2016
Pentecost 16 Year C
Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33
What do we really think about the cross? And what do we really mean by discipleship?
Last week we began a kind of mini-series of gospel readings from Luke which talk about the qualities necessary for entrance into the Realm of God. Last week it was humility. This week there are two words: awareness and renunciation.
I read some statistics once that suggested that 100% of services rendered to the Christian community are performed by 13% of the membership. That’s everything – from financial support to teaching Sunday School, working with a youth group, serving on vestry, serving on various diocesan committees, visiting the sick, reading Scripture in worship, running a bazaar – everything. I’d like to think we at St. Peter’s do a little better than that. The fact remains, though, that those who do volunteer work for the church give a great deal of their time, energy, and skill.
But discipleship is not the same as volunteering. One of the benefits of being a volunteer is that there is always the option to take a break, to “sit this one out”, or even to quit. Discipleship, on the other hand, is not periodic volunteer work, on one’s own time or at one’s own convenience. Nor is discipleship the same as church work. Many years ago, I heard a very helpful distinction between church work and the work of the church. Church work is what I’ve described earlier – teaching, administration, assisting in worship, and so on. Church work is important and necessary, but not as an end in itself. The purpose of church work is to build up and equip the Body of Christ to be the church and to do the work of the church. What is the work of the church? Some would say, and I wouldn’t disagree, that the primary work of the church is to worship and glorify God. But for today, I want to suggest that the work of the church is to share in building the Realm of God in the world. As the gospel reading for today makes abundantly clear, discipleship is total, unconditional, limitless commitment to following Christ and trying to live as part of the reign of God. Integral to discipleship is the willingness to be converted daily to Christ in one’s words and works, daily to become more Christ-like, and to persevere even at the cost of suffering and death.
Last week’s gospel reading took place indoors, in a private setting, at a party. This week we move outdoors, to the public arena. On his way to Jerusalem where he will teach the ultimate lesson of discipleship, we see Jesus addressing a great crowd. To put this in context, Jesus has just told the story of the man who gave a great banquet, and when those who were invited refused to come, he sent out to the highways and hedgerows to fetch the blind, the lame, and the poor. So it would seem Jesus’ words are addressed to those people. What an invitation! But now Jesus warns against accepting too easily. The crowds are enthusiastic, almost carried away with excitement. It’s as though they’ve jumped on the “Jesus bandwagon”. Sometimes our view of discipleship might be coloured by stories of people responding quickly. Jesus calls, people leave their nets or their tax posts, and follow immediately. Luke tells us that the crowds are following Jesus because of all the wonderful things they have seen and heard. Time to temper enthusiasm with a dose of caution. Those who are invited to the messianic feast will also be called to drink deeply of the cup of Jesus’ suffering and death. It’s significant to me that the call to discipleship is not given only to Peter, or to the Twelve, or even to the seventy-two whom Jesus had sent out as evangelists. The call to discipleship is given to the multitudes. Discipleship is not the special vocation of a chosen few; it is the vocation of all who believe in and want to follow Christ.
What then does Jesus teach us here about discipleship?
- “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.”
That’s a shocker. Jesus’ own ethic of love makes it unthinkable that anyone could actually hate his or her own family. Jesus is exaggerating to drive home the point. “Hate” does not mean anger or hostility, but detachment in the strongest possible terms. The claims of discipleship come before everything else. There is no duty higher than one’s commitment to Christ and to being his follower. Disciples of Jesus know that their first priority is to “seek first the kingdom”. “Hating” simply means loving Jesus first and foremost, above family, and above self-preservation.
- “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
The willingness and ability to bear one’s cross flow from the complete and total love of Christ. But we do not always appreciate what bearing our cross involves. It doesn’t have much to do with living with chronic illness, painful physical conditions, or difficult relationships – all of them more or less beyond our choice or control. Bearing our cross is that which we do deliberately, willingly, and freely because of our commitment to Jesus Christ. It is the daily renewing of ourselves in his love and service. If the cross is only for our personal salvation, we’ve missed the point. Bearing the cross means intentional sacrifice and exposure to risk in order to follow Jesus, who above all others exposed himself to risk and sacrificed himself to release others from their burden of exclusion, sin and separation from God. Our commitment is not simply to a way of life or a teaching, but to a person. Without such commitment, one cannot be his disciple.
- Count the cost.
If we are going to be disciples, then we need to begin with a clear understanding of what is required and with the intention of persevering. Like the person who undertook to build the tower, a disciple needs to determine sensibly what is required to complete the undertaking. In the case of the tower, the calculation is relatively straightforward – money, materials, plans, labour. In the case of discipleship, the calculation is also straightforward, but the price may be counted too high. Our discipleship is not to be a partial response. The only outlay worthy of discipleship is the complete and entire gift of ourselves. That is what we mean when we talk about stewardship – our gratitude and loving service in response to God who has given us everything, even God’s own self. Jesus’ life was based on complete commitment to his task of bringing us back into right relationship with God. He asks no more of his followers than he himself gave. Following Jesus costs not less than everything. To know this at the outset is the beginning of responsible discipleship.
- Be realistic about the work to be done.
Only an inept fool would risk the lives of his 10,000 men by sending them headlong into battle against 20,000. By underestimating the opponent’s strength, the king would have lost both the battle and his army. Far better to make peace through strategy. Discipleship requires wisdom, foresight, and a realistic assessment of the task at hand. The assurance of success, certainly as defined by the world’s standards, is a luxury to be foregone. Even when we are unequal to the task, disciples are called not to shrink away, but to persevere and trustingly give our all. Anything less is unworthy of the one we follow.
- “None of you can become my disciples if you do not give up all your possessions.”
Note that Jesus does not say you cannot become a disciple, but that you cannot be a disciple apart from complete commitment to following him. Love of Jesus claims us totally. Whoever would be exposed to this love should consider what they are signing up for. The necessary equipment for discipleship is to have nothing.
In summary, then, there are five lessons about discipleship:
- Renounce all other claims to your allegiance.
- Bear your cross of willing sacrifice.
- Count the cost before you start.
- Know your task.
- Renounce material possessions.
Over and over again, like a refrain, comes the word “renounce”. It can be a harsh word, but it is true. Obedience and faithfulness landed Jesus on a cross. If we are faithful we can expect no less. Christian life is cruciform. It means sacrificing the sweet dreams we all cherish of getting somewhere, being somebody, having something. Can we give ourselves in love and not give our all? Love does not hold back. Follow Christ, and the word is “Renounce”. Well guess what, that’s one half of our baptismal promise. Do you renounce Satan? Do you renounce the evil powers of this world? Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you away from God? I renounce them.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose book Life Together is the first of this year’s adult Christian formation series, is most famous for his book on the cost of discipleship. And it sounds like a very daunting cost indeed. But as one commentator asks, is it cost or is it choice? When it’s about cost, it’s about what you give up, what you sacrifice, what you deny. But life itself is costly. We are always confronted with choices, with weighing costs. Discipleship is certainly a decision and a commitment that needs to be renewed daily. But we need to remember that discipleship is first and foremost a gift. Disciples are created, shaped, and formed by the divine potter. As Jesus says in John’s gospel, “You did not choose me; I chose you.”
When discipleship is a choice, it is about life with all its choices and decisions. It is commitment to a way of life that has as its goal and purpose bringing about the Reign of God. And before we ever make that choice, the life of discipleship is already gift and grace that will show us the path and strengthen us to follow it.
So, in the words of Deuteronomy, “Choose life!”