Two years ago in China I met many pastors and church leaders who had suffered terribly during the years of the Cultural Revolution under Chairman Mao and his fanatical following of students. Their churches had been shut down, and they had been sent to years of harsh living away from home and family for what was called re-education on the factory floor or in the rice paddies of rural villages. Some watched family members sent off to prison, and many endure chronic health problems today resulting from the brutal treatment they received in those awful years.
All had productive years of ministry stolen from them. Yet, none of the people I visited spoke of those times with bitterness or resentment. None of them held up their personal experience as cause for special commendation. It was simply the cost they had to bear in their time and place for being a disciple of Jesus. One old pastor put it well: "God used those years in the fields to help us learn how to be a church of the poor. Before that, we had been a church of the educated, of the intellectuals. Now we know how to be a church for the poor." His simple eloquence reminded me of Joseph, after his father's death, meeting the brothers who had tried to kill him. "You meant it for evil," he told them, "but God meant it for good that an entire people might live."
"Large crowds were following Jesus," Luke tells us. Each, no doubt, is seeking some kind of blessing.
* A teaching that may help make sense of the hard and tragic nature of life.
* A healing for illnesses borne over the years.
* Forgiveness and acceptance in the face of moral failure or social rejection.
* Vindication in the face of tolerated but unappealing religious authorities or even the hope of a restoration of political independence from Roman occupation.
* The intuition that this man might be the long-awaited Messiah.
Large crowds were following Jesus then, and large crowds continued to follow, for many of the same reasons.
Other reasons, of course, have been added as today's church shoppers seek an engaging youth program for their teenage children or an inspiring preacher or a choir to sing in or a place laden with comforting tradition amid the turmoil of change or a group of activists prepared to share a passionate justice agenda. Crowds followed Jesus then, and crowds still follow Jesus today.
And to the crowds, which is to say to us, Jesus gives one of his hard words. "Whoever comes and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple?. None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions." A hard word, almost incomprehensible to crowds of Christians for whom discipleship rarely seems to mean more than the occasional inconvenience, like dealing with the awkward family conflicts over Sunday morning soccer.
We're helped in understanding Jesus' words by the parable of the banquet that precedes our text. The invitation is extended to the banquet like the call to discipleship, and everyone pleads a prior commitment.
* I just bought some property and need to get started on renovations.
* I just got a new SUV and want to give it a test drive.
* I just got married. Call me after the honeymoon.
Well, something like that. The sad truth is that none of these three will ever taste the dinner, for the invitation-the call to discipleship with both its costs and its joy-comes to us in a moment, requiring decision. Everything that makes responding inconvenient, every well-reasoned excuse, every possession and seductive attachment, adds to the risk of being left behind, safe but hungry.
This hard saying of Jesus reminds us that Christian discipleship is more than being part of the large crowd of good church members. It means being ready when God pulls us alone out of the crowd and confronts us with what the hymn writer calls "the moment to decide in the strife of truth with falsehood for the good or evil side," confronted just as Jesus found himself alone only a few chapters later in the Garden of Gethsemane in his own moment of decision. Who knows when that moment or those moments will come for us? But rest assured, they will come.
In a world where racism pervades almost every corner of life, those moments will come. In a world where violence has become the default mode of response to conflict, whether in our family or on the streets or between nations or even in the church, those moments of decision will come. In a world where prejudice and the bigotry of homophobia hides behind slogans like "defense of marriage," those moments will come. In a world where greed has a hold on all of us, where indifference to the poor is sanctioned in the boardrooms and legislative halls at the highest levels, those moments will come. In a world where betrayal of those we love for the sake of advancement or pleasure is rampant, those moments will come. In a world where the exercise of imperial power by our own nation is sanctioned by many in the church for the sake of their own security-regardless of the insecurity it rains down on others in such a world-those moments will come.
We can imagine the faces in the crowd, perhaps even our own now turning to one another and asking, "Where's the good news in this?" That's a question easier answered by observing disciples than by theological persuasion.
I think, for example, of a Palestinian woman, a Quaker, living in the walled city of Rammalah on the West Bank, who risks her life and her family's freedom of movement by condemning the brutal and futile Israeli occupation as well as the violence of terrorism, making more enemies than friends, yet who blesses every encounter with joy.
I think of a Mennonite in Colombia who risks his life protecting vulnerable, rural pastors against the violence of guerilla, paramilitary, and government soldier alike, who is willing to negotiate with leaders whose violence he despises for the sake of peace, even at the risk of his own reputation, yet who clings to an exuberant and joyful hope even in the face of disaster. Or I think of an elderly United Church of Christ woman who regularly pickets against corporations in New Hampshire, corporations that help construct nuclear weapons, our own weapons of mass destruction, frequently getting herself arrested in the process, yet who wins over judges with her winsome joy even when they find themselves obliged to sentence her.
And in each I think of Jesus, as we read in the Letter to the Hebrews, "who for the sake of the joy that was set before him, endured the cross."
"Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple." There is a cost to discipleship, a wholehearted living that leaves no room for excuses when the moment of invitation comes. Jean in the West Bank and Ricardo in Bogota and Ruth in New Hampshire and my pastor friend in China do not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, even life itself. At least they don't "hate" these things in the way we normally think of the word "hate."
But they do know, that in the moment of decision, God expects us to be ready, to be ready for doing justice in the midst of oppression, to be ready for peacemaking in the midst of dangerous conflict, to be ready for affirming life and resisting the culture of death. In those moments there is no time for hesitation, no time for delay, no time for belated preparation or tidying up affairs back home. God expects wholehearted living in spite of its cost, because God also promises joy to those who follow. How many of us have missed the joy of wholehearted living because we have been too afraid of the cost?
Probably the most famous book on the meaning of discipleship was written in the 1930s by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian who tried to lead his church in resistance to the Nazis and who ultimately was martyred in 1945 for his part in a conspiracy to murder Adolf Hitler. A few years before being hanged in a prison yard in the closing days of the war, Bonhoeffer wrote:
Where will the call to discipleship lead those who follow it? What decisions and painful separations will it entail? We must take this question to him who alone knows the answer. Only Jesus Christ, who bids us follow him, knows where the path will lead. But we know that it will be a path full of mercy beyond measure. Discipleship is joy.
We do not know when the moment will come for us; undoubtedly, there will be many moments. And as Bonheoffer put it in another place, we will always be tempted to try to "extricate ourselves from the affair," to make plausible even heroic excuses for half-hearted living, for clinging instead to the comfort and security of all manner of cherished possessions. Half-hearted living may enable us to avoid the cost of discipleship, but in the end we will miss its joy and find ourselves on the outside looking in when the banquet begins.
Let us pray: Save us, O God, from a timid, half-hearted faith that shrinks from the Cross. Help us to leave behind the privilege of respectable and secure lives for the sake of those who are so often oppressed by the respectable and made insecure by the powerful. Give us courage in the moments of decision, that we will accept the cost of discipleship with Jesus and thus learn to know its joy. Amen.