Sunday, September 04, 2016

The Steep (and Complicated) Cost of Discipleship

16th Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 18 (Year C)
Deuteronomy 30.15-20; Psalm 1; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14.25-33
Sunday, September 4, 2016 – St. Paul’s Emmanuel, Santa Paula

Well, I guess we all might as well just go home. After all, Jesus begins today’s Gospel passage with “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.” And he ends with “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” I think it’s pretty safe to say that each of you have people in your life that you love. Your families and your friends. I know I love my mother. I love my sister – most of the time. And I love all of you. So we all fail on that count. And I’m guessing that most of us love being alive. Okay, there may be days when life may not be that great, but for the most part, I hope we all enjoy being alive. Again – fail. And then there are the possessions. We all have “stuff.” Since we are not sitting here buck naked, I can say with absolute certainty that none of us here is completely free of owning at least some possessions. It may not be a whole lot, but at least we have the necessities of life and maybe even some creature comforts. So again, we all fail. So how can we be followers of Jesus?

The description normally given to today’s Gospel passage is “the cost of discipleship,” as it describes in no uncertain terms just what discipleship – what following Jesus – entails. And from what we hear today, I think most of us would say that the cost is way too steep.

When I was in seminary, we spent a lot of time discussing difficult issues and debating the finer points of scripture and theology. Invariably, someone would ask questions that sought a black and white answer, boiling things down to a very simplistic understanding. At such times, my New Testament professor was famous for responding, “It’s more complicated than that.” And so it is with what Jesus says in today’s Gospel. If he demands that we hate everybody, that we hate life itself, that we give up everything we own, how can we possible hope to follow him? For that matter, with those conditions on discipleship, why would we even want to follow him? Well, it’s more complicated than that.

So, there just might be a little hope for us yet. When compared with other things that Luke writes both in his gospel and in Acts, and when compared with what the other Evangelists write in their gospels, scholars are fairly certain that here the Lukan Jesus is using hyperbole. He’s exaggerating his point for emphasis. That being the case, our challenge is how to take Jesus’ words seriously without necessarily taking them literally. To do this, it helps to break down today’s Gospel passage into digestible pieces and to analyze what is really behind each statement Jesus makes.

First regarding relationships. The statements Jesus makes today are in contrast to numerous other statements about loving one another. His consistent message throughout his ministry, both in his words and his actions, is about love. Love of God and love of others. So today’s statement about hating our family and life itself is anomalous. It is a blip that actually provides evidence of his use of hyperbole.

In fact, Matthew records this same monologue in his gospel, but uses slightly different language. “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Mt 10.37). In this version, Jesus is not denying the love of family. He is not condemning love of family. He is acknowledging this reality. He is rather saying that in order to follow him, we must love him above all else. Even loving him more than family. For he is the son of God, the source of all that is. The source of all that we are. The source of our salvation and of eternal life. Isn’t that worthy of loving him more than our other relationships? Even by a little?

In our love of him, there is also a recognition that being a follower of Jesus means moving beyond comfortable relationship ties with those we are close to, and to develop new relationships with those who are similarly committed to Christ, thus becoming a new family. In following him, we are not losing our family. We are gaining a new family. A family comprised of all those who love Jesus above all else. A family that supports each other in living into that ideal.

Now as to giving up all our possessions. That is a little more complicated. Jesus actually does talk about this in other places in the gospels. But the consensus of scholars is that it is more about what we do with those possessions. It is about what we do with our resources. A little earlier in Luke, Jesus tells the people, “Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys” (Lk 12.33). He is talking about using our resources to benefit others, particularly the poor. And while in today’s Gospel Jesus commands his followers to give up all their possessions, in Acts Luke commends wealthy Christians for giving alms and for their financial support of the community. They are not condemned, but praised for their generosity. Generosity that is only made possible because of the possessions they have and use to benefit the community in an ongoing way. So it is really about how we use our wealth. If anything, Jesus is condemning holding onto our possessions for personal, selfish reasons in favor of using our resources to further the work of the kingdom.

But there is another aspect, as well. Renouncing our possessions is not just about the physical stuff. It’s also about our mental and emotional stuff – our beliefs, attitudes, biases, and loyalties. Following Jesus means getting rid of all those beliefs and attitudes and loyalties that are contrary to his message and ministry. Following Jesus means aligning our hearts and minds with his.

Tying these two together – the injunctions about relationships and about possessions – are the two parables Jesus tells in the middle of all this – about building a tower without making sure to have sufficient resources to finish the job, and about a king preparing for a war without having adequate troops. These point to the need to be sufficiently prepared when undertaking any course of action. So it is with following Jesus. He is warning us that if we are going to enter into relationship with him and be his follower, we need to be sufficiently prepared for what that entails. We need to be prepared to go the distance.

Jesus speaks frankly about the high cost of discipleship. He is letting those who seek to follow him know from the outset that following the path of discipleship will ultimately mean renouncing all other allegiances. Allegiances to family and allegiances to our possessions – material and otherwise. Of course, this is contrary to what we are taught by society. Jesus’ statements remind us that to follow Christ is to live by the countercultural values of the Gospel.

Those who seek to follow Jesus must agree to renounce anything – anything – that might get in the way of fully following him. That get in the way of a complete commitment to the Gospel. We are called to make profound decisions about establishing priorities in our lives. Just as Moses on our Old Testament lesson exhorts the Israelites, poised to enter the Promised Land, to make a choice between life and prosperity or death and adversity.

Jesus reminds us that following him means that we are totally in. We cannot be wishy-washy in our commitment. To follow him means being absolutely committed believers in his mission and ministry. And being willing to live that out in our everyday lives. When our personal interests come into conflict with those of the Gospel, discipleship takes precedence over our other concerns.

Just as Moses exhorts the Israelites to choose life, Jesus promises that following him also leads to life. It leads to an abundance of life. As Jesus tells his disciples a little later, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life” (Lk 18.29-30). Following him brings a richness that our relationships and our possessions cannot provide. And truly following him and living according to the Gospel even adds to the richness of these relationships and possession we do have. This is about a call to not trust in our own ways and resources, but rather to trust the ways and resources of God. That God’s ways and resources lead to far greater blessings.

In the midst of our Gospel passage, Jesus invokes carrying the cross as an image of following him wholeheartedly. This is an image for obedience to him and to God. Just as he was obedient in carrying the cross through the streets of Jerusalem to Golgotha. Just as he was obedient in submitting to death on the cross. As Paul writes, “he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil 2.8). Our hope is in the cross. For it was on the cross that Jesus gave up everything – gave up his life – for our benefit, for our salvation. This is certainly not hyperbole, but the absolute truth. He believed in each of us enough to think that we were each worth saving. That we were each worth dying for. In this act of faith in us, he is asking that we likewise have faith in him. That we trust him enough to follow him wholeheartedly.

Yes, following Jesus is complicated. And the cost is indeed steep. But the benefits far outweigh the cost.

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