As some of you can attest, I have been preaching from this pulpit for a long time and I have saved copies of most of my sermons. In looking through those old sermons I could not find one that was for today’s propers! Perhaps this is because I was often away for Labor Day weekend but none the less these lessons require looking beyond the surface.
What harsh words we heard in this morning’s gospel! Hate father and mother, wife and children? Carry a cross, an instrument of painful death? Be ridiculed for not having enough building materials? Consider how many soldiers one has, prior to going into battle? Give up all our possessions in order to become Jesus’ disciple? Hate, cross, ridicule, war, choose becoming poor? None of these are desirable things and perhaps we shake our heads and move onto more agreeable passages.
Or we can stop, pause, and see these harsh words as means to catch our attention and consider what Jesus meant by them.
At this point in Luke’s telling of our savior’s life, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem where he knows he will face the worst that a human being can have happen. He will be ridiculed, spat upon, beaten, abandoned by his closest friends, and put to a painful and shameful death. He knows this is coming and that it must happen. Jesus must die for resurrection to happen. And resurrection is the reason God sent him into the world. Jesus knows this, as he and this large crowd are walking to Jerusalem.
That crowd has seen Jesus perform healings and other miracles again and again. They have heard him speak and listened to his parables and stories. What he has done and said is all very appealing; they want to follow him. Large numbers of people walk with him at this point. But they do not know what will happen next. They do not understand what the cost of being his follower will entail.
Jesus tries to let them know the full story, especially what the next period of his life will involve. He wants them to see all the consequences of becoming His disciple. What he has to offer them is wonderful, but it also has challenges.
Discipleship requires total dedication and is not something to go into on a whim. It is a choice to be made after careful deliberation. It cannot be decided by going along with the crowd. So, Jesus does not lighten it up in today’s passage. He uses strong language to indicate what they may face and that there will be a cost in staying with him.
Jesus begins today’s passage by saying his disciples must put him first, above all else. While I am not a student of Hebrew myself, I have read that in Hebrew there are not words to express a greater or lesser love. The words translate into definite opposites. You either love someone or you hate them. Love/Hate are exact opposites. In saying that they must hate their wife and children, Jesus’ point is that if you choose to be his disciple that must be the first priority in your life. In some cases that may mean losing all your family, or in others it may mean a lessening of relationships that had been close. For many mother, father and so on, will make the same choice to be Jesus’ follower, but that is not a guarantee. He also points out that being his disciple may lead to their death and we know of many martyrs throughout the centuries for whom that was true. Of course, there are far more people for whom it was not the case. Nonetheless Jesus indicates it is a possibility. For the original hearers of this gospel, becoming his follower would be dangerous. Jesus was headed to his own death.
Next Jesus tells the crowd they must carry the cross and follow him. Much has been written about what it means to carry our cross. Study through the ages has made interpretation of this statement. In some eras this phrase has been misused to justify many bad things such as spousal abuse, racism and more. For the purposes of this sermon and its length I will summarize “carrying our cross and following Jesus” to mean we are to obey God even in our pain and loss.
When we face the tragedies and griefs that are a part of life, we do not abandon God; our God does not abandon us. Jesus is with us in our sufferings. He, who experienced the worst pain imaginable, both physical and emotional, understands suffering. Jesus empathy and love come to us most especially when we suffer.
Jesus talks about war and new buildings as occasions to prepare before deciding to go ahead with them. He uses these examples to caution those wanting to be his followers that it won’t be all miracles and high points. The reality is that resurrection comes after the crucifixion.
Jesus ends this reading by stating that to be a disciple we must give up all our possessions. He is not speaking of just things we own, though our need to acquire is certainly a part of this. Other things we need to give up may be our yearning for success, our prejudices, our jealousies, our busyness, and addictions, really anything that pulls us away from placing Jesus first in our lives. It is these things we must put away from us.
Becoming Jesus’ disciple is a process. We are human beings after all. We will try to prioritize him as first in our lives and we will fail. We will ask forgiveness and then try again. Jesus understands this about us. What he said to the crowds of long ago and what he says to us in today’s gospel passage is that embracing discipleship is tough. While the benefits are great, beyond great, there will be difficult times and difficult choices that come with being his follower.
Discipleship is more than being a responsible human being. At times we may have to give up our earthly loyalties and step out of our places of comfort to be a follower of Jesus Christ. This gospel gives us the opportunity to pause and reflect on our own journey of discipleship and ask ourselves how we are doing in giving Jesus the highest priority.
We, living now, have the fortunate place of knowing resurrection and the gift of eternal life that Jesus brings to his disciples. The crowd following Jesus in the morning’s passage did not have that same advantage. With the passage of time, we also know that it is through God’s love we are offered the chance to be Jesus’ disciple and that it is through God’s love we are given the support of living out discipleship. This is our hope, and this is our limitless joy.
Today’s gospel reminds us that accepting Jesus’ call is a serious choice. We know the cost is worth it!
May God grant us peace in reading and understanding scripture.