The sermon below is based on Luke 14:25-33 with a short reference to the Old Testament reading, Jeremiah 18:1-11.
The heading in my bible pretty well sums up the message in this morning’s Gospel reading. The heading is: ‘The Cost of Discipleship’.
Imagine a politician campaigning for office who gets up at the rostrum and tells his or her expectant listeners: ‘Vote for me and your life will be more difficult than it is now. If I’m elected, there will be sacrifices to make. You may lose your homes and your family.’ I wonder what the reaction would be to such a campaign speech? I actually doubt that the reaction would be booing or jeering because I reckon that it’s quite possible that the crowd might be stunned into silence. It’s not exactly the kind of thing you expect to hear from a politician.
But the thing is, today’s Gospel reading is not a campaign speech and it’s not a recruitment speech. Jesus isn’t trying to convince people to follow him. On the contrary, Jesus is addressing a crowd of admirers who are more than eager – at least they think that they are eager – to become his disciples.
And Jesus is trying to give them an informed picture of what exactly is involved in following him. Rather than thinking of him as a politician campaigning for office, it might be more accurate to think of Jesus as a mountain guide, leading an expedition through the mountains to bring life-saving supplies to a remote village. Jesus is not threatening us, but simply informing us of the very real costs of being his disciples.
And what is the cost of being a disciple of Jesus? At least according to this passage in Luke? The cost is that we are called to prefer the way of Jesus to the way of the world. If circumstances require it, Jesus is exhorting us to bear our own cross for the sake of his name.
Hate Your Family?
Before we go any further, I want to take a side-track for a minute and focus on verse 26, where my text reads (NRSV) ‘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.’
I think that we need to understand the word ‘hate’ the way that Jesus’ hearers would have done. There was a Jewish expression that went: ‘I love A and I hate B’. It was a way of expressing a strong preference. So, if you were to say ‘I love the Japanese and I hate the Chinese’, it wouldn’t mean ‘Every time I meet a Chinese person, I become filled with fury and upset and it’s just about all I can to do keep from punching that person the face.’ The expression would have meant something more like ‘I have a strong preference for Japanese people over Chinese people.’
So, I want to caution us against thinking that Jesus wants us to hate the members of our family. Such a message does not make sense in the light of Great Commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves nor does it make sense in the light of the commandment to honour our fathers and our mothers.
Bearing Our Crosses
The warning that we are being given from Jesus – our guide who is leading us across a perilous mountain path so that we can bring necessary aid to a suffering world – is that his disciples are to be willing to give up the comforts of this world, our families and our possessions, if we are called upon to do so for the sake of the gospel.
More specifically, we are called to bear the crosses that we are given.
As I think I’ve said before, the biblical concept of ‘bearing our cross’ is about what we are willing to do for the sake of Christ and for the sake of being true to the Gospel. In the bible, the concept of ‘bearing our cross’ does not refer to persevering in the face of illness or tragedy, even if we use the expression in this way today.
It is about sitting lightly to the values of this world in order that all our focus may be on the values of the Kingdom of God. We can certainly enjoy all the blessings that God has given us, but we are to understand that these are not ends in themselves. Christ asks us to be willing to let go of them for his sake, if we are called to do so.
But for many of us, this is not the message that we want hear and it’s not the kind of God we want. God calls us to trust in him to guide us to stand up for Kingdom values, but if we’re honest with ourselves, what we want is a magical magician God who will sort things out for us.
And so some people in our culture protest: There cannot be a good God because otherwise, innocent children would not die. They say that if they cannot have the God with the magic wand who spares all innocent children from injury and destruction, then they are not prepared to believe in God at all.
But Christians are guilty of wanting to believe in the Magical God myth as well. In one version of this myth we declare that God will give his followers status, wealth and prosperity in this world on the condition that we ‘have enough faith’. Or another, subtler version of this is to turn our Christian faith into a transaction where we exchange our conversion for an admission ticket into heaven.
But in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is telling us that being a Christian is not about believing in a Magical God. And that being his disciple is not just about some sort of transaction that lets us into heaven. Jesus is telling us that being his disciple might possibly involve turning our backs on the values of our society and choosing to bear a cross for his sake.
We are not going to get our magical God; but we will be called to bear a cross. Every Christian is called to make choices between following the ways of this world and following the ways of God.
In some countries, being a Christian can very literally put your life in danger. In our culture, being a Christian means being called to use our time, energy and money for goals that are different from those of the world. We are stewards of our resources and our goal is the Kingdom of God where justice and righteousness reign. Christians are not meant to use the precious resources we have been given by God for our own fame, fortune or security.
The images used in the rest of this morning’s gospel readings are interesting ones.
Who would build a tower without a proper foundation? The same people, perhaps, who would build a temple as a focus of national pride but where the true worship of God was absent?
What kind of king would prepare for war without considering whether or not he could win the war? The same kind of king who thought that the war that the Messiah was to fight would be a war against the Romans rather than a war against the forces of Evil?
Who would think that following Jesus meant getting on the bandwagon of the conquering Messiah for an easy ride into the Kingdom of God? Who would think that following the Messiah meant fame, fortune and security? Well, probably the crowd of people who were following Jesus. After all, he had to warn them that being his disciple was difficult rather than easy.
These people probably didn’t want to follow Jesus in order to give anything up. The wanted to follow Jesus in order to enjoy what they had and to get more. (Unlike us, of course!) And Jesus is warning them (and us): being his disciple is not like joining a pleasant hike on a rolling hillside on a sunny summer afternoon. To be his disciple is to be called to navigate dangerous mountain paths in order to bring needed medicine to the world.
To be a disciple of Jesus is to be called to imitate Jesus.
To imitate Jesus is to proclaim the love of God to those who are not respectable and to associate with people who others will not associate with. To imitate Jesus is to proclaim God’s message of justice to people who have enough power to destroy us. To imitate Jesus is visit those who are sick and in prison.
All of this is difficult work. All of it is costly. But Jesus told us that to follow him is to bear our cross.
He also told us that we were not capable of doing this on our own but that he would send us the Holy Spirit to help us to imitate him. Using Jeremiah’s image, God will form us into the kind of vessels he wants us to be if we will let him.
When we get it wrong – as we all will from time to time – God will not dispose of the clay, but will continue to work to reshape us until we become the creations that he wants us to be.
In a few minutes, we will come to the table of the Lord, a physical sign and symbol of the Kingdom of God on earth where Jesus promised to be present among us. In the prayer called the Great Thanksgiving which we pray before receiving communion, we remember Christ’s sacrifice for us on the cross.
We remember that, before sacrificing himself for us, Jesus promised to meet our own weakness, pain and suffering with his presence. We remember that Christ is here and that his Spirit is always with us.
As we come to his communion table, I pray that each one of us will ask Jesus to shape us as according to his will. And I pray that we will each be strengthened for the journey as we meet our risen Lord. Amen
 Illustrations of the politician and the mountain guide taken from: Wright, Tom; Luke for Everyone; SPCK, London 2001. p. 180.