Sermon - 8th September 2013
The cost of following Jesus
Scripture - Luke 14:25-33
[An audio version of this sermon is available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
Today’s reading is another one of those sections of Luke’s Gospel which leaves us feeling uncomfortable. Jesus’ words are blunt and, on the surface, He seems to give very harsh conditions on what we need to do to be His follower: firstly, to love Jesus more than we love our families and others – some Bible translations use the verb “hate” instead and say we cannot be a disciple unless we “hate” our families; secondly, to carry our own cross; and thirdly, to give up everything we have.
Such strongly-worded statements can cause our attention to be distracted from the other aspects of the passage including the opening words: “Once when large crowds of people were going along with Jesus…” Who were these people? Some Bible commentators say they were pilgrims on the way to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, just as Jesus was intending to do. I will return to this point later.
When we read Jesus’ words in the Gospel, we often see He uses hyperbolic language, that is exaggerated language. Hyperbole or exaggeration is common-place: we say things like, “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times…” “I have been stood waiting here for hours…” (when we mean a few minutes) Another example, some gay men are known to exaggerate certain measurements or vastly under-report their age.
But here’s another example from Jesus: He said, “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out…. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off…” Jesus was certainly not advocating self-mutilation, but mere teaching through hyperbolic or exaggerated language the importance of addressing sinful behaviour.
Here in this passage, Jesus is exploring the level of love and commitment between members of a family and saying that the love and commitment as Christians towards God should be even greater. Putting this into an historical context, the family unit in 1st century Palestine was central to everyone. The family of several generations would have lived in the same house or houses close by; they would have mostly been in the same line of work, whether that was a family-run farm, or fishing business, or as in the case of Jesus’ own earthly family, a carpentry business. In an age of no pensions or state welfare, the family would have supported the old or sick members of the family. And unlike today, where families join as people fall in love, marriages were often arranged for business purposes. And so it is into this context Jesus says that a disciple’s love for God must go beyond love of family and even self.
Let us reflect for a moment on our own lives: whether we like to admit it or not, we all have a priority order of the people most important in our lives. And pain within our relationships usually arises as a result of this, when one person feels they are less important in another’s life than they would wish it to be. Jesus’ teaching, nevertheless, is a difficult one, and says that our love for our God, for our Creator should be number one in our lives.
The second difficult teaching raised in this passage is that we should take up our own cross. Again, looking at how the original listeners to these words in 1st century Palestine would have understood this. They would have all seen crucifixions, a brutal method of capital punishment used by the occupying Roman forces. They would have seen convicted criminals forced to carry their own cross, their means of execution, through the streets. Jesus, in His words, is equating following Him with becoming like the worst of criminals. At this point, even though Jesus was aware of His own forthcoming death on a cross, these words to the crowd would have been very difficult to take on board.
For the first almost 300 years of Christianity, until the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine, Christians were persecuted, even killed, and we know from the Acts of the Apostles in the Bible and other historical sources that this was the case. So becoming a Christian was not a safe thing to do! Moving forward into the 21st century, for many Christians around the world is still not a safe thing to be: here are some examples from this month (and we are only on the eighth day):
- In India, in a wave of Hindu nationalism, there have been many violent clashes with Christians
- In Syria, the minority Christian communities in Maaloula near Damascus have been attacked by both Syrian government forces and the Islamic opposition forces
- Christians in Egypt since the fall of the elected government have been the subject of violent attacks on a level not seen in centuries
- In China, 4 Christians have been arrested for running a Sunday school
- In Vietnam, around 3000 police and military were used to attack Catholic Christians, resulting in many arrests and injuries
- In Nepal, Christians are being denied the right to bury their dead in state-run cemeteries
- Since the Islamic coup in the Central African Republic 5 months ago, Christians are a constant target: churches destroyed, many priests and believers killed
- In Eritrea, 30 Christians have been imprisoned for simply attending an Evening Prayer service
- Last Wednesday in Nigeria, 5 Christians were shot in cold-blood
- In Kazakhstan, a Christian was fined for “illegal missionary activity”, after he texted a friend inviting him to a prayer meeting
- In Pakistan, 4 Christian families were brutally tortured when one of their sons ran away with a Muslim girl, as they had fallen in love
As we see from these examples, being a Christian in some parts of the world is not easy. They certainly know what Jesus meant by taking up their cross. The fear of exclusion, violence and even death are daily realities for some Christians, yet they remain faithful. Why?
When I last preached, I asked and invited you to respond to the question: why are you a Christian? People gave a number of responses. I wonder what these persecuted Christians I mentioned would have said in answer to the question?
The central part of the reading gives the examples of building a tower and a king fighting an opposing army. If you have every studied any economics, you will know that these are examples of opportunity cost. For every choice we make, we are at the same time accepting that we are rejecting other choices. Here’s an example: three different friends ring you and invite you out next Saturday. (1) shopping and lunch in Manchester, (2) go for a nice walk in the hills, or (3) a day trip to the zoo. Whichever option you choose, you forego the other two. And so it seems with Jesus: His teaching is radical and uncompromising. He sets out how it should be. But just like Jesus and the large crowd in the reading – they were all on a journey – and we are on a journey, a spiritual journey towards Jesus’ radical call. Each day, in faith, we move a little closer.
The final challenging statement in today’s reading is that we should give up everything we have in order to follow Jesus. St Francis of Assisi did this in a very public way, when he renounced his very wealthy family, even stripping himself of all his clothes in the market square. This again is an example of hyperbole, that is going to the extremes. Let us look at a more moderate narrative, as told in the Acts of the Apostles, where the early Christian believers shared what they had. Each week in our service, when we “Respond to God”, we resolve to give back to God some of what we have received in terms of money. Many people also contribute to our Food Bank, to share with those who have little.
I said at the start of my sermon that I would return to the large crowds who were travelling with Jesus. How do you think they would have felt after hearing Jesus’ words? If they wished to follow Jesus, they were told to put God first and put the security and comfort zone of their loving family into second place. They were told that their faith would put them in danger, putting them on a level with criminals who were executed. And finally, they were told to give up everything, that is to put oneself last.
We cannot accept Jesus as just a good man, or a moral teacher: His teachings are radical and go to the very root of our human relationships and call us to re-order our priorities. But why does He do this? What do we get for putting Him first, above our families, friends and ourselves? His part in the deal is that we get the most amazing thing ever: we get reconciliation with our Creator God, and we get eternal life.
I am going to finish today’s sermon with a musical reflection, taking us back to the very start of the Bible and to the book of Genesis and the Garden of Eden. Whether we accept this story as factual or not, it is a very helpful allegory: it tells a story to make a point.
Eve was tempted by the Devil, the Snake, to eat the apple – even though it is never called an apple and thus gain the knowledge of Good and Evil. Eve then offered the fruit to Adam.
This song “World Without You” from the musical “Children of Eden”, written by Stephen Schwartz, the composer of the more well-known “Godspell”, looks at the moment of decision for Adam. Adam is torn in two: does he stay innocent in the Garden with God, or does he eat of the fruit and go with Eve?
Today’s Gospel reading in many ways put us at a moment of decision, just like the large crowds following Jesus. Will you join the journey Jesus invites us to take? Which way will you turn?