Sermon - 4th September 2016
The cost of discipleship
Scripture - Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Luke 14:25-33
[An audio version of this sermon is available via the link at Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
As I’m sure many of you know, a lectionary is a list of scripture readings set for worship on a given day or occasion. It sets a pattern of worship throughout the year and is generally very helpful in service planning. In common with a lot of Churches the morning congregation here at Wilbraham St Ninian’s generally follows the Revised Common Lectionary. Now one of the criticisms that is occasionally levelled at the lectionary is that it sometimes seems to shy away from what might be considered some of the more difficult and challenging passages in the Bible. For me, this is not one of those weeks. Luke 14 verse 26: ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters – yes, even their own life – such a person cannot be my disciple. “
Last week I sat in the congregation (here) at the afternoon service and listened to Lee preaching on the text "Love your neighbour as you love yourself". She reminded us that we were told to do this no less than nine times in the Bible.
Surely this is the God of Love that we want to hear about, isn’t it? Yet here we are, seemingly being told that if we don’t hate our own life and the people who are normally most dear to us, our own family, then we cannot be disciples of Jesus? We are told repeatedly throughout the Bible of the importance of love and loving one another.
So surely there must be something else going on here?
I’m sure I’m not the only one who finds this statement from Jesus to be both challenging and somewhat shocking.
The Good News Bible translates verse 26 very differently. It says:
“Those who come to me cannot be my disciples unless they love me more than they love father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and themselves as well.”
So here there is no mention of hate but there is a comparison of sorts, and this is consistent with the commandment to Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength, which is the first commandment before "Love your neighbour as you love yourself".
The passage from Luke begins and ends with Jesus making extreme demands; He seems determined to shock. When Matthew tells this story it is more like the version in the Good News Bible; According to Matthew, Jesus says, ‘Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me...’ (Matthew 10.37). So he does not use the word hate as Luke does, although there is a verse in John 12: ‘Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life’ (John 12.25).
So this is a real challenge from Jesus. But he then follows this up with another striking challenge: “whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
As if all that wasn’t challenging enough, the passage ends with Jesus saying that we cannot be disciples if we do not give up everything we have.
Because these three radical sections of the passage are so challenging it would be easy to overlook the two short parables that sit in the middle. These seem almost to counsel caution but to me they help to explain what Jesus is really asking of his disciples and why he is being deliberately provocative. He is speaking to a large crowd who are following him but he is making it clear that to truly follow him, to be a true disciple, is not an easy option. It’s not as simple as just going along with the crowd but requires genuine commitment.
His challenges make clear to the crowd the enormity of what he is asking of his followers. That discipleship is not an easy option, something to be entered into lightly on a whim, and with the parables he is underlining that disciples need to have really thought things through and understood what’s required. Discipleship needs to be considered carefully and planned for. The true cost must be reckoned and only be proceeded with if it can be afforded if people are prepared to see it through – and in some cases that cost will be very high indeed.
And let’s not underestimate the challenge that sits in that statement about carrying the cross. From where we are today it’s easy to forget that to the early Christians this was not some vague metaphor or easy choice. This wasn’t “do I want chips or should I just have the salad?” Crucifixion or other forms of execution or harsh persecution, were a real possibility, As the first Christians reflected on the significance of Jesus’ death, this would have carried a very real message to them: to follow Jesus was to risk all.
But that’s not to say that the cost is necessarily high for everybody – only that the commitment has to be there and the risk accepted.
Now it’s no coincidence that the reading from Deuteronomy is paired with the scripture from Luke in the lectionary so let’s turn to that for a moment:
Here we have Moses calling all the people of Israel together as they prepare to enter the promised land. Moses knows he will not be going into the promised land with them so what follows is almost like a graduation speech, releasing his students into their bright new world with some final words of wisdom, both encouraging and warning them as he reminds them of the laws passed down to him on Mount Sinai.
All of this is set out as choice between life and death. He exhorts them to choose life by choosing to love the Lord God. Yes, long before “Choose Life” became part of a famous speech from Danny Boyle’s film “Trainspotting” or a Wham t-shirt, Moses got there first “choose life, so that you and your children may live”.
I understand that the words in verse 15, heard today as ‘prosperity’ and ‘destruction’, in the original are in fact simply ‘good’ and ‘evil’. And in this case these words have a clear meaning: Good is loving God and walking in his ways. Evil is turning astray.
Scholars suggest that Deuteronomy was written in the seventh century BC, hundreds of years after the events it tells us about and that its authors were convinced that the covenant with God forged in the wilderness should remain at the centre of national life. The choice between life and death was as relevant as ever. Just as it was for the early Christians. Just as it is today.
Today’s lectionary Psalm, Psalm 1 – True Happiness, seems to see the basic choices (and benefits) as quite straightforward:
Happy are those
who reject the advice of evil people,
who do not follow the example of sinners
or join those who have no use for God.
Instead, they find joy in obeying the Law of the LORD,
and they study it day and night.
They are like trees that grow beside a stream,
that bear fruit at the right time,
and whose leaves do not dry up.
They succeed in everything they do.
But evil people are not like this at all;
they are like straw that the wind blows away.
Sinners will be condemned by God
and kept apart from God's own people.
The righteous are guided and protected by the LORD,
but the evil are on the way to their doom.
As it says, the wicked ‘are like straw that the wind drives away’ (1.4). The righteous, by contrast, are ‘like trees that grow beside a stream’ (1.3); they are rooted in God’s love, and delight in God’s law.
Which sounds straightforward enough, but as we’ve heard, the choices called for in both Luke and Deuteronomy are potentially not easy ones. Together they call for choices as individuals, as communities, and as nations.
In Deuteronomy, Moses is speaking to all the people en masse. Whether in formal legislation, or in informal social norms, nations make choices about their priorities, but whose interest wins out?
In Luke the challenges and parables are directed at individuals. Jesus’ shockingly blunt statements make clear that discipleship is not necessarily an easy option and can involve considerable personal sacrifice.
Now, I know I come from a very privileged background. I am a white, heterosexual male. University educated, professional qualifications, steady job; Raised in a loving family, I now live in a suburban semi-detached with a wife, two children and two cats; I have grown up a Christian in a nominally Christian country. On the face of it, I couldn’t be more stereotypically middle-England “normal” if I tried, so not surprisingly, no I cannot pretend to know what it is like to be on the receiving end of serious prejudice or persecution, or to suffer genuine hardship. Yes, like everyone I have my frustrations and enjoy a good moan, but even during a long period of unemployment twenty years ago which was tough enough, even then my family were never on the breadline – we had a roof over our heads and food on the table.
So the reality is I have not had a hard life, I have not had tough life-threatening choices to make. For me, choosing to be a Christian is not putting my life on the line! And believe me, I do not take any of that for granted. I am truly grateful, because I am only too aware that that was certainly not the case for many early Christians and importantly, crucially, neither is it the case for many Christians today. I’m sure there are many in the afternoon congregation who know only too well what it means to face real persecution and real harm for their beliefs and for who they are.
There have been exceptional individuals in Christian history whose call to discipleship has led to poverty or martyrdom. But let’s be realistic, had all disciples literally carried their cross, the Christian movement would have died out. We all make judgements about what we are or are not prepared to give up, and the parables give us permission to do that. We all have to reckon the cost of our discipleship and for some the cost will be higher than for others.
Choosing the right path involves careful thought, but be in no doubt: our identity will be shaped by the choices we make and ultimately, to choose to follow God through Jesus is to choose life.
[With acknowledgment to rootsontheweb.com]