St George’s, Belleville—Luke 14:25-33, Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Philemon 1-20
They say a preacher’s job is to both comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. Brenda occasionally tells me I do a little too much afflicting and not quite enough comforting. I don’t know; she may be right. For the last several weeks, at least, the appointed scripture readings have tended to be challenging, and lend themselves to calls for decisive action and sacrificial behavior. The problem is compounded by the fact that a preacher never knows exactly who’s going to show up on any given Sunday morning, and what baggage they’ll be bringing with them—especially a preacher like this one who’s in front of a different congregation every week. In my experience, from time to time, someone walks through the doors of the church who is a virtual blank slate in terms of Christian faith or practice. When this happens, chances are the person is in some sort of internal crisis, or is at least seriously disturbed about his or her place in the world. And among those who attend regularly, I’m certainly aware that behind smiling faces there is a tremendous amount of pain, fear, and guilt. All these folks need to hear about a Jesus who not only says “Follow me,” but goes on with something like, “and I will give you rest.” They need to hear good news of deliverance, pardon, and hope. And, fortunately, deliverance, pardon, and hope make up the mother lode from which we mine the treasures of the gospel of Christ.
Now, a Jesus who says “Come unto me, and I’ll make you feel a whole lot better” is going to be a popular fellow, especially if he backs up what he says with miracles of healing, free food in the wilderness, and wholesome advice on pleasing God and dealing with family and social issues. These things would tend to build him a base of followers that would keep growing and growing. So, as we might expect, Jesus had quite a following. The more he ministered, the larger the crowd grew.
Christian preachers and teachers and Christian churches are correct and wise when they pay attention to people’s needs and desires, and to how a relationship with Jesus Christ in the company of the church can meet those needs and desires. We are not dishonorable or hypocritical when we address the “What’s in it for me?” question. And, from time to time, churches that are very good at answering the “What’s in it for me?” question attract a huge base of members, and become very large. By just about any standard, they could be considered “successful” churches.
There are also, however, those who come to church in any given week who are not in acute personal crisis at that moment; who have their doubts, but are essentially people of faith; who have their share of sorrows and anxieties, but are not suffering inordinately. Yet, as people of faith, as practicing Christians, they may be…what’s the polite way to say this?… they may be slacking off. They could be more faithful in worship, they could be more disciplined in their prayers, they could be less fearful in their stewardship, they could be more focused in the discernment and exercise of their spiritual gifts. And when a pastor looks out over a congregation and sees these people, he or she thinks, “Here is someone who needs to be challenged; here is someone who needs to be prodded; here is someone who is perhaps a little too comfortable, and needs to be a little bit more afflicted. Here is a complacent soldier who has forgotten there’s a war on, and all hands need to be at their battle stations. To these folks, Jesus says, “Follow me,” and then adds stuff like we find in today’s gospel:
If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple.
In fact, this theme of “costly discipleship” runs through the readings from Luke’s gospel that we’ve been encountering over the past several weeks. They definitely represent an “afflict the comfortable” approach, don’t they? Today, Jesus tells us point blank to “count the cost” before making a decision to become his disciple. “If you’re going to hang around me,” he says, “I can promise you that it’s going to be tough sledding. So don’t sign up if you haven’t got the stomach for it.” Now, this would undoubtedly have the effect of tending to thin out the crowd of Jesus’ groupies. In fact, one of the commentaries I consulted suggested that Jesus was manifestly nervous around crowds, and didn’t like them, and said these things intentionally in an attempt to make some of them go away. In any case, he no doubt disappointed many of those who had great expectations for him. He would not make a very successful politician, with his message of surrender and sacrifice and counting the cost.
So, just what does it cost a person to be a Christian disciple today? I could give you a sophisticated long answer with lots of twists and turns and nuances, but the short answer is this: It costs us everything. You’ve probably seen those phony IRS forms that contain just one question: “How much money did you earn?” and one instruction: “Send it in.” Well, that’s a nice joke about taxes, but as far as Christian discipleship is concerned, it’s the dead-on truth. Following Jesus requires the surrender of the whole of our lives, all that we are and all that we have.
The first outward and visible act of surrender a Christian makes takes place in Baptism, and it’s ratified in Confirmation. On those occasions, we give God a signed blank check. Only the amount is not filled in. We just tell him, “Whatever it takes, it’s yours. If I have it, it’s yours.” The actual cost will be revealed only as time goes by. It’s only as time goes by that the precise amount gets filled in. We would certainly never do this for a contractor to work on our house, or a mechanic to work on our car. But we do this for Jesus, because it’s what he asks of us; it’s what he requires of us. Following Jesus comes with a cost.
As we grow into the Christian identity we were given in baptism, we give Jesus all that we are—our core identity, our sense of self. Many years ago, a friend sought my pastoral counsel on a matter of great importance to him. He had just finished his doctorate in music, and had a nice job as a university professor and choral conductor. But he also felt very deeply a call to Holy Orders, to become a priest. And he had, in my opinion, the right set of gifts and skills to serve quite effectively as a priest. The problem I saw was that he wanted to script how it was all going to happen; he wanted to be a priest/professor. He wanted to direct the university choir and then be able to hear his students’ confessions and give them absolution after they poured out their hearts to him, as people are prone to do with someone of his apparent empathy and personal magnetism. But what I told him was that he needed to be willing to take “Doctor” and place it on the altar and let go of it in order to become “Father.” That was the “cost” he needed to “count” if he was going to respond to his vocation to be a priest. I further told him that I suspected the Lord would probably give “Doctor” right back to him, and that the academic priesthood he imagined for himself would indeed come to pass. But first he needed to surrender, fully and without reservation, that title that he had worked so hard and so long to earn. He needed to count the cost of following Jesus.
And sooner or later, we discover that, as cost-counting disciples of Jesus, we reach the point of giving him our affection and our emotional loyalty. For some, this comes naturally and easily. For others, it’s a habit that needs to be cultivated intentionally. But how blessed we are, as disciples, when we can say simply, “I love Jesus from the bottom of my heart.” Learning to love Jesus is part of the cost of discipleship.
Eventually, we learn that what Jesus asks of us is all that we are and all that we have. We give him our time, which is an incredibly precious commodity in our culture of constant busyness and demanded productivity. We give him our money—checking, savings, investments, cash in the mattress and the contents of our piggy banks and in the case of Philemon in today’s epistle, a “human asset” named Onesimus. Not to worry, though—he gives us back 90% of it to cover the expense of getting through life on this planet, but we need to come to the point of realizing that even that 90% isn’t really ours. God just lets us use it so we can learn gratitude and discipline and faithfulness and all those good things. In the end, he’s even going to want that part back. A cost-counting disciple knows this.
And, we also give him our relationships. The phrase “forsaking all others” that we associate with the marriage service applies even more directly and appropriately to a disciple’s commitment to Jesus as Lord.
And now, the moment we’ve all been waiting for, the answer to the question I’ve alluded to but never answered: Just what is in it for me? Why would anyone want to become a disciple of Jesus when it costs so much? Here’s the answer: When we surrender all, no strings attached, God gives us back those things that are necessary for our welfare and our happiness. But in doing so, he first repacks and re-labels all those things. He puts them in a context that gives them transcendent meaning. He makes our lives like a graphic presentation generated by a certain popular software program—our lives have Power and they have a Point! As a result of following Jesus, our lives have purpose and direction. Minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, as we are conformed to the cross of Christ in and through all our doubts and fears, in and through all the guilt and pain that we carry around, we are also conformed to the love of God the Father. We are conformed to the power of God the Holy Spirit. We discover that by letting go of everything to follow Jesus, we have followed the advice of Moses to the children of Israel camped in the wilderness: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life.”
Indeed, choose life.