I think sometimes about how it must have been to be Jesus’ disciples. Crazy, epic things going on. Thousands and thousands of people are following him – great crowds. If I were one of his disciples then, I think I’d have been overjoyed, excited – every day was Jesus-palooza if you will. Thousands of people, electric excitement, boundless energy… And just when you were caught up in all that heady stuff, Jesus would turn and ask those crowds with a fiery stare, “Are you really able to follow?”
Sort of a downer! But it’s a necessary question. And a serious one when we understand what he demands. Again this week, it is very hard. Here’s what following Jesus means, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.” That’s a pretty high bar to start. To hate our most near and dear; even our own lives? Surely Jesus can’t mean that, right? What does he mean?
If we look at how Jesus speaks to us in his Word, he says the opposite. He tells us to love our enemies – and if these, then certainly he means that we love the parents he calls us to honor in his 4th commandment. If we are to love enemies, surely he also means that we should love each other. In fact, he does say just this thing about discipleship: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35) And Matthew records Jesus saying this morning’s teaching in a positive way: “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:37)
It’s like it is for those who, after years of waiting and working, finally become United States citizens. Most of us, as citizens by birth, probably don’t think about the oath a naturalized citizen makes. It starts like this:
“I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same…” and so on.
I’m sure most of these naturalized citizens still bear love for their homeland. But the oath of citizenship they took says they will love America more – no other love shall supercede it. Jesus means the same. That his disciples comparatively love less every person, relationship, and thing that is not Jesus.
Perhaps hate is not a bad word to have there though. Perhaps hate is helpful. Because it makes you think about how it will actually be when you love nothing else as much as Jesus. When you actively love your family member less than Jesus – say, when you remind them about communion here, that their membership in a different church, their whole set of beliefs about this or that, this separates you so that you don’t commune together… Might they say, “How hateful are you? Do you think your religion is better than mine?” The parent who tells their child they can’t attend and support their gay wedding, might that son say, “I’m so tired of your hate…”? Perhaps it will soon be here like it is in Finland, where currently a government official is on trial because she spoke what God’s Word says about human sexuality. It wasn’t incendiary, just biblical. They called it hate-speech. It makes you afraid, doesn’t it? Could lose a job or a friend. It brings discomfort. Maybe physical pain or public shame. If we love some of those people, it’s entirely tempting to love them most – and especially if it’s easier. And, isn’t it easier in any situation like that to just love your own life best of all – its comfort, its security, your appearance to others – and to step out from behind Jesus’ path? But every time you step out, you risk not really following Jesus at all. Finally just walking in a direction – your Lord so far ahead, you might as well be going different places. And you will finally.
Into reflection and repentance Jesus calls those who follow him. Acquaints us with the depth of his discipleship when he says, “[A]nyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Because being a disciple of Jesus is not really doing this or that godly thing, primarily. Primarily it’s being so bound up in Jesus’ identity, so closely identified with his willingness to do God’s will all the way to death – that we go with him into his death and we die ourselves to all these other things… Being Jesus’ disciple means feeling the internal struggle of following his way instead of that sinful way – that’s a cross. It means carrying the weight of loving truth more than this world’s enticements – that’s a crucifixion. It means feeling the torment of hurt relationships and the scorn of others’ looks because we proclaim Jesus – that’s a cross. Discipleship means that our daily life and identity becomes something else…it becomes Jesus. Paul said it best in Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.” (2:20) Or in today’s 2nd lesson, “What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ.” (Philippians 3:8)
“Are you able to follow?” Jesus asks, “Because disciples carry the cross – they die to this world and it to them.” And this is not a simple thing, but a lifelong commitment – a daily redirection – a costly endeavor. If loving Jesus most means hating all else, it may cost us much in this world. We may lose our lives. So, rightly Jesus reminds that disciples count the cost in order to assess, “Am I able to follow him?”
Jesus uses some basic illustrations to help us see it. Some among us right now are building homes; some have recently done it. When you do it, you have to ask, “Do we have the funds? Can we complete this work?” At least in part, if you build only half the house, you’re gonna look really dumb. It’s a standing embarrassment – that half-finished thing. In your Christian life, you could ask the same, “Will I build up a Christian life, make the Christian claims, live before my friends, etc. and then fail out?” That would be a shame. Surely they’d poke fun. Our world loves to do it any time any of us publicly fails. “Hypocrite!” they cry.
So, take Jesus’ prodding and do a bit of assessment. When you joined this church and you said, “Yes, I believe these things… Yes, I will follow these things…” Did you understand what you were doing? What it may mean? What it means to those around me here – this close fellowship? Or differently, when I make my wedding vows and I promise lifelong faithfulness and service to my spouse – in my service to Christ – do I understand what I’m saying? What that will mean for my entire life? For my heart and my behavior and family and… Do I think about what it means to be a Christian? And what it will mean if I fail?
Jesus calls us to soberly assess because this following him is a thing of eternal seriousness with earthly ramifications. Do like the king does before going to war. When he finds he is greatly outnumbered, he sends an emissary, sues for terms of peace. Take stock of the situation. Look out over the battlefield. “Count the cost,” Jesus says, “before you follow me – in order to tell whether you are able.”
What if, with a sensitive conscience, and a keen sense of how often we have failed in following Jesus already… What if we say, “I don’t know if I’m able to follow him…” or “I don’t think I can…” Well, that’s actually the perfect place for faith to be… True faith, true discipleship in this Jesus-case, it counts the cost and recognizes its own poverty…
Did you know this parable/saying comes in the midst of a couple others. It’s preceded by some encouragements to show love to the poor. Jesus followed that up with a story of God’s mercy – he invites to his heavenly feast those who don’t really belong: the poor, the crippled, the blind, the lame. After this it’s those parables of the “losts” – lost sheep, lost coin, lost son. Where God is determined not to lose those who have lost themselves in sin. Where God is not like the king who’s watching the horizon for enemies afar; instead he’s like the father who is watching and waiting for his lost son to return, sees him a long way off, runs the distance to close the gap, and encompasses him in love that he does not deserve.
You and I have many sins. We’ve turned away from Jesus time and again. And we ought to be real about it – how often that’s happened. Even that we’re outnumbered and weak. Not to despair, nor to make peace with this world, but to despair of ourselves so that we can know true peace in him. Because disciples who count the cost understand where the power to follow comes from… Rightly and with saving intent Jesus said to his disciples, “Where I am going, you cannot follow now, but you will follow later.” (John 13:36) Jesus was going to the cross – Jesus alone – to bear it for us. He was going to the cross to bear punishment for our sins, to pay them. To be far removed from his own Father, to be our eternal death. To bring forgiveness for our sins and life again. His life alone, his death alone allow us to truly live. Not as ones who follow after all the things here, but as ones who do follow after him and everything he gives.
Rightly, at the end today then, we will sing, “In Christ alone, my hope is found.” We’ll sing it because we know in Jesus’ victory at the cross and from the grave “sin’s curse has lost its grip on you and me.” That “I am his and he is mine.” We are “bought with the precious blood of Christ,” and we have “no guilt in life” and “no fear in death”. In Christ’s love we stand because of his saving work. By faith we stand here in him and we follow where he has gone. So…Carry the cross. Count the cost. Give up on thinking all this is worth so much, and be his disciple. And do it confidently: with Christ’s power, in Christ alone, you are able to follow him.