September 8, 2013
Note: There’s a newer (and I think better) sermon on this text here.
As we prepared to move to New Ulm, Bruce became an expert at selling things on EBay. Books and other items we had accumulated over the years went out the door each week, and Bruce’s PayPal account grew accordingly. The people who shop on eBay are constantly looking for deals, but they also search for one-of-a-kind items that are simply not available anywhere else. For example, Bruce once sold an out-of-print book to the author who had written it. On eBay, any item is worth exactly what the market for that item will bear. It’s worth what the buyer is willing to pay – no more, and no less. EBay shoppers know how to count the cost.
A high school economics teacher summarized her subject to a group of parents by telling them, “Everything has a cost. Everything has a benefit. In this class, students learn how to weigh the benefit against the cost, with the goal of gaining the greatest benefit at the lowest cost.” Even high school students know how to count the cost.
I am not a “shopper.” I don’t really enjoy strolling through store after store, admiring merchandise and looking for deals. But I have friends who like to shop, and when we get together, we inevitably end up at the mall or in a department store. Once, as we browsed through an exclusive furniture store, I did see a chair that I liked. I looked for a price tag, but couldn’t find one. My friend nudged me and whispered that familiar adage: “If you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it.”
In today’s passage, Jesus explains the cost of true discipleship to his followers. Jesus is on the move again. He has left the hospitality of the Pharisee’s table, and is headed once again toward Jerusalem. The crowds are gathering. Can you imagine what it must have been like to work out in the field and see this cloud of dust rising from the road off in the distance, to see the swarm of people moving along that road, and to hear the distant buzz of their conversation? It wouldn’t take much to compel you to run in that direction, just to see what all the commotion was about, would it? The question is, once you got close enough to see and hear Jesus, to realize who this must be, and to listen to his teaching, would you mosey back to work, or leave it all behind to join the crowds that flocked after him? Hear the word of the Lord, from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 14, verses 25-33.
25 Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26 “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. 27 Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30 saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
Wow. It almost sounds as if Jesus is trying to get people to stop following him, doesn’t it? Have we ever heard Jesus be so negative? Ten times in these few verses, he uses the word “not” – three of those are in the phrase “cannot be my disciple.” Jesus has seen the crowds growing behind him, and he knows that some of these followers are only tagging along to see another miracle, especially if that miracle includes getting a free lunch! Some of them are following only because they’ve been caught up in the mob mentality that has begun to develop around Jesus and his disciples. With the noise of this growing rabble rising, I’m sure it was difficult for Jesus to talk with his true disciples along the way. So he turns to the crowd and says, in essence, “Unless you’re serious about following me, go away!”
It reminds me of walking to school with my older sister when we were young. Though our mother had asked her to watch out for me on the way to and from school, she wanted no part of this assignment. As soon as we turned the corner, and were out of my mother’s sight, my sister would make me walk behind her – and the farther behind her I could get, the better! “You’re too close!” she would say. “Stop following me!” To her credit, she would always wait for me at the curb when it was time to cross the street. To her relief, I’m sure, we only lived four blocks from school.
But Jesus is not trying to get rid of followers. He just wants them – and us – to know what is involved in being a true disciple. The cost is high, and we need to know what we’re getting into when we say we want to follow Jesus.
This brings us to another problem with this passage: the word, “hate.” Specifically, Jesus says we must hate our families if we want to follow him. This was pretty strong stuff in a culture where family was everything, and loyalty to one’s family was the highest loyalty expected. So let’s take a look at that word, “hate,” to see what Jesus means.
To quote Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, “ You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” First, we must realize that this kind of “hate” is not an emotion – it’s an attitude of perspective. Keep in mind that the Greek vocabulary Luke used had relatively few words in it. Fewer than 6,000 words or word stems can be found in the New Testament. By comparison,
“the Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words. To this may be added around 9,500 derivative words included as subentries.”
Rather than creating new words for every nuance as we do in English, first century Greek gave each word a broad range of meaning. So, the Greek word miséo can be translated as “hate” but it also means despise, disregard, be indifferent to, or love less. In this particular instance, Jesus is offering a comparison between the devotion one would normally hold sacred only for family members and the devotion required to become one of his disciples. Jesus is saying, “Love me more than you would even love your family, as important as that is to you.” To us, he says, “Love me more than whatever holds first place in your life, whatever matters most to you.”
Not only must we be willing to put Jesus ahead of all other priorities, he raises the price of discipleship even higher. “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple,” he says. Keep in mind that, at this point in his ministry, his own cross wasn’t even on the horizon yet. His original listeners would not have been aware, as we are twenty-one centuries later, of the connection between this challenge and the suffering Jesus would soon experience at his own crucifixion. To them, taking up one’s cross was a general expression of accepting the burden of great suffering, suffering that would surely end in death. It was the same responsibility a soldier would accept, going into war. If following Jesus meant taking up a cross, it meant staying loyal to him through certain suffering, to the point of death.
Jesus must have seen the joyful faces around him become more somber as his words started to sink in. When Jesus found that his teaching was too hard for people to hear, he often turned to one of his favorite strategies – parables.
“If you were going to build a tower, wouldn’t you first figure out if you could afford it? You wouldn’t want to become a laughingstock because you failed to plan your project well! And if you were a king going into battle, wouldn’t you first figure out if your army had the strength to defeat the enemy?”
But here’s the thing we may miss if we gloss over these little parables too quickly. In both cases, the building and the battle, Jesus indicates that the cost is too high for the resources available. No matter what accounting system you use, no matter what assets you think you have, when it comes to following Jesus, you don’t have enough to pay the cost on your own. Your resources are not sufficient.
This is where God’s economy takes over, and our attempts to balance the books fall woefully short. If we are willing to commit everything we are and everything we hold dear to the purpose of following Jesus, God will be faithful to do what he has promised. God has already offered us his entire Kingdom. God gives us eternal life with him.
Jesus isn’t finished. “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions,” he says. Remember the rich and foolish farmer from a month ago? The one who decided to tear down his barns in the middle of harvest, to build bigger ones? It seems we are back where we started, with Jesus preaching a stewardship sermon. But he isn’t talking about our tithes and offerings. Another way to translate “give up” might be “leave behind” or “bid farewell.” Bidding farewell to all we have, leaving it behind us, might be an appropriate image, given the setting of Jesus on the road to Jerusalem. But here’s another Greek lesson for you. Present tense in Greek doesn’t just mean “now.” It also means that the action has not yet been completed, that it is continuing, in progress. When Jesus says you have to leave behind everything that matters to you, whether it is family, or good standing in the community, or the things you own, he means you have to leave it behind now, and keep leaving it behind.
Our response must be all or nothing. All those lessons Jesus has been teaching us the past few weeks about hypocrisy, letting our fears get the best of us, placing a higher value on material wealth than spiritual wealth – it all boils down to this: go all in, or go home.
The cost is high, but the cost of not following Jesus is even higher. The theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote “The Cost of Discipleship” and I recommend it to you if you have never read it. Bonhoeffer practiced what he preached as a member of the Confessing Church in Germany, a group of clergy who resisted Hitler’s regime. Bonhoeffer was executed near the end of World War II for his participation in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer knew the cost of remaining loyal to Jesus, but theologian Dallas Willard takes it a step further. In his book, The Spirit of the Disciplines, Willard considers that the cost of NON-discipleship is even higher than the cost of following Jesus. Yes, Jesus asks us to leave everything else behind, to make him our first priority, but what price do we pay if we decide to not follow Jesus? What is the cost of refusing to be a true disciple? Willard writes:
Non-discipleship costs abiding peace, a life penetrated throughout by love, faith that sees everything in the light of God’s overriding governance for good, hopefulness that stands firm in the most discouraging of circumstances, power to do what is right and withstand the forces of evil. In short, it costs exactly that abundance of life Jesus said he came to bring.
So what does it mean to be a true disciple? What does it look like? How do we do it? Following Jesus is an ongoing process that begins with doing the things Jesus did, and caring about the things Jesus cares about. Bishop Bruce R. Ough says in his September column on the Minnesota Conference website:
“The scriptural imperatives to cultivate spiritual vitality, reach new people, and heal a broken world are more than a vision for every United Methodist congregation in Minnesota; these imperatives are Jesus’ very methodology for fulfilling his mission.”
Friends, it’s hard to reach new people and heal a broken world if we haven’t already begun to cultivate spiritual vitality first. Let’s start there, and see what God might do among us as we become more and more like Jesus. Here are some possibilities:
Jesus prayed. A lot. To be a true disciple, we need to maintain an ongoing conversation with God through an active prayer life.
You could join the prayer team. Every endeavor of this church must begin and end in prayer. Otherwise, we are not being faithful disciples who do the things Jesus did. Maybe you think you don’t have any special gift or talent to offer the ministry of this church, but every single person here can pray. For some of you, this is your spiritual gift. We need you to be on the prayer team. I urge you to prayerfully consider being part of an active and vital prayer ministry here at First United Methodist Church. Check the prayer insert in your bulletin, and contact the prayer team coordinators.
Jesus knew the Scriptures, and referred to them often. His true disciples need to be students of the Word.
New Bible Study small groups are forming for October and November. See Dennis J. for more information. Better yet, tell him you’d like to lead a group. During October and November, on the table in the narthex, you will find study questions for the day’s sermon text, and the text for the coming week, so you can go deeper into the Word with other disciples. Our hope is that there will be groups meeting throughout the week, so you can find a time that works for your schedule. If you’re already involved in a Bible Study group, be faithful in your attendance and participate actively in the discussion of Scripture. The Word of God is not just marks on a page – it is God’s living, breathing means of showing us how we can be transformed into the people God created us to be.
Jesus enjoyed fellowship – table fellowship whenever possible! – and true disciples also enjoy spending time with other believers.
You can participate in the Wednesday night Family time. There’s no better way to do that “fellowship” thing than over a meal! Come share food and life together as we grow more and more into the church God calls us to be.
If you are not already a member of First United Methodist Church, think about joining the church. Bruce and I would like to invite you to join us after worship on Sunday, September 22 – that’s two weeks from today – for brunch and an opportunity to learn what it means to belong to this congregation. We’ll talk a little about what it means to be a Methodist, but mostly what it means to follow Jesus in this place with these people. If you are curious and want to know more, just make a note of that on the friendship register – have you signed the friendship register in your pew today? Please do, whether you’re a member or not.
Which brings us to service.
Jesus served others through acts of compassion, mercy, and justice, and he calls us to find ways to serve others. Help cook a Wednesday night meal. Help with one of the many Wednesday night activities. Volunteer in the nursery. Mentor a confirmand. Serve on a committee. Join me next month at Ridgeway on 23rd for a hymn sing with the residents of the memory unit. Carry communion to someone who isn’t able to come to church. Be the hands and feet of Christ.
True disciples do what Jesus did, and care about the things Jesus cares about. Are you willing to commit to a life of following Jesus? Can you leave behind the things that matter most to you, and make the things that matter most to God your highest priority? The cost is great, but the cost of non-discipleship is even greater. The choice is yours. What’s it worth to you, to follow Jesus?