I'm here to tell you that discipleship is demanding!
There was something exciting and magnetic about the personality of Jesus of Nazareth that drew huge crowds wherever he traveled. Most likely it was the power of God behind His every word, or the authority with which He spoke. Or, maybe it was just that He brought good news in a bad time. Wouldn't that be why the Greeks would call His gospel, "eungelizomai," meaning, "good news"? Yes, there was something very captivating about this Jesus and His message. That being said, however, it is important to note that not everybody who followed Jesus was there for the same reason. Some followed Him because they were curious onlookers and some were spies from the camp of the day's religious and government leaders. They wanted to see what He might do that they could report back at headquarters. Some people came looking for healing and some looking for hope. And some followed after Him because they had committed themselves to being His disciples and to gleaning some new life direction from every message He preached. Now, when I use disciple in this context I'm not speaking exclusively about the 12 disciples who were first called out by Christ and whose names we know. No, I'm speaking about the masses who joined Him as He went from town to town preaching His message. There were droves of them and what they believed about Jesus is not exactly clear. Yet, they had this one thing in common: They had committed themselves to following Him and to learn from Him as He journeyed along. No doubt, among the masses were some new converts as well as others who were contemplating the possibility of becoming disciples. In that context, Jesus addressed the multitude in no uncertain terms about just exactly what being one of His disciples entails. He emphasizes the difficulty of discipleship by using three strong "cannot" statements:
* First, "If anyone comes to me" Jesus says, "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." Strong words indeed. And they are followed by more like them:
* For a second, He says, "And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple."
* Third: "Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple."
Strong words! Tough talk! Hard sayings! Demanding conditions! What do we do with them? Can you imagine any pastor trying to grow a church saying, "Come this Sunday and we'll tell you how hard it is to join our church"? "First, you've got to hate your family. Then, you must carry a cross like a condemned criminal. Along with that, we expect you to give up everything you have worked hard to have. Do these things and you can call yourself a member of our fellowship." Yet, that is the essence of what Jesus says discipleship requires. Discipleship is demanding. Let's think about it:
The first thing that Jesus says here is, "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."
What does Jesus mean? In the tradition of the church since the Reformation, the most important rule for understanding what the Bible says is that we compare Scripture with Scripture. That is, when we come upon a hard-to-understand passage like this one, we ask ourselves what other similar passages of Scripture might help enlighten us. Scripture compared with Scripture, incidentally, assumes that we view the Bible as one complete whole because it has one divine author, God the Holy Spirit. What we discover is that the Aramaic word for "hate" that Jesus uses here is a comparative verb. It actually means to, "love much less than." It is a word that tells us that the love we have for our closest family members, compared to the love Jesus demands from us, looks almost like hatred. In short, if God and His kingdom are given the proper all consuming love Christ expects then the highest and best of all my other loves-even my love for myself-will seem to be in a far-distant second place.
I recall as a youngster growing up in Ireland once attending a horse auction with my Dad and his brother, my Uncle Jack. My father said, "Now listen, whatever you do, don't scratch your nose at the wrong time, son!" Later he told me, "Never forget to remember this: Any time you go to an auction sale, whether it is for a horse or whatever else it is for, always make sure that you know your upper limit price." Those words have never left me. I've attended a number of auctions of different types in my lifetime, and I must confess that I try to keep my hands in my pockets as much as possible. I find myself thinking, "One suspect move can get you in a lot of trouble!" The great danger for many of us is that we walk into life with Jesus with loose hands and our upper limit set too low. Jesus says here, you cannot set low limits with me. Your calling as my disciple is to a life of unconditional obedience where the price is very high.
Secondly, Jesus says, "Anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple."
I'm sure this demand also must have taken away the breath of some of the people among that crowd following Jesus. In all likelihood, some of them had witnessed the public shame and humiliation of a condemned criminal carrying his cross through the city streets to the place of execution, just as Jesus would do when He took our shame and humiliation upon Himself, or, as the writer to the Hebrews later says, Jesus "endured the cross, scorning its shame." (Hebrews 12:2) Those people got this picture really fast, I'm sure, and they were shocked asking why in the world would Jesus make such a difficult demand of His disciples?
The answer to this one is rather simple when we understand the context in which these words were spoken: Many in that crowd that followed Jesus had been looking forward to the dawning of a new day and now it looked as though it was here. The Kingdom of heaven was at hand, Christ had said as He opened His ministry on earth. And some who heard wrongly assumed that to mean that an age of victory over Rome's occupying forces was just around the corner and that peace, and prosperity would soon be theirs at no personal sacrifice. Indeed, some Christians still imagine this when they first start to follow Christ. We do well to remember the words of then General, later President, Dwight Eisenhower when he addressed the troops on the evening of the D-Day operation in World War II: "There will be," Eisenhower said, "no victories at bargain basement prices!" He was right. There never are. And this is never more true than when we become disciples of Jesus, the Lord of the cross.
Jesus is saying, "If you are looking for a cheap ticket to glory, you are not going to find it with me. The life of my disciple is a life of suffering and difficulty. If you come expecting a free trip along easy street, you will soon go away disappointed."
Thomas Ã Kempis in his Imitation of Christ writes that "Many come following Jesus who love his heavenly kingdom but few come looking forward to suffering. Many admire His miracles but few follow Him in humiliation to the cross." And that is the truth Jesus wanted to convey that day, and this day, to His followers. Discipleship is a demanding thing.
Then Jesus says, "Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.
What a demand is this! Some Christians have experienced it literally. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran confessing church pastor and a leader in the resistance movement against the Third Reich, wrote from a Nazi prison just before he went to the gallows for following Jesus, "When Christ calls a man, He bids him, 'Come and die!'"
It is the truth! "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." The history of the church of Jesus Christ runs red with the blood of those disciples who sacrificed their all for their commitment to Jesus.
There are no discount days in discipleship. Every single day is demanding. Bonhoeffer knew that. So did Jim Elliot, a young missionary who in his journal wrote just a few years before he was murdered by a group of Ecuador's Huaorani Indians he set out to help and evangelize in 1956. Elliot writes, "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose." When word came back to America about the sacrificial deaths of Jim Elliot and his missionary partners, it sparked an interest in Christian missions across the church. Many missionaries serve even until today who were inspired by the sacrifice that was made by Jim Elliot and his friends.
And the list of martyred and persecuted Christians goes on until today. I returned not long ago from a teaching trip to Eastern Europe where I met pastors who had been imprisoned and beaten under Communism. While we were there we met a young pastor, Josep, who in Bosnia was hospitalized for the second time after being beaten and left for dead by a group of drug dealing thugs who felt threatened by Josep's growing ministry in a house church in the middle of what those thugs considered their territory.
Discipleship is a very demanding thing and the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. When Jesus said we should be prepared to give up our possessions, He was calling His disciples to recognize that discipleship is never a cheap thing. What is more, He proved it when He went to the cross in our place. Paul records it this way: Jesus, "being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-even death on a cross!" Jesus knows firsthand what it is to sacrifice, for He gave Himself up for us.
The question is, what can we give in exchange for so great a love as His. What will we give? For you see, two thousand years or so after He lived on earth there is still something exciting and magnetic about this Jesus of Nazareth that draws people to Him. It must be the power of God behind His word, and the authority with which He calls us to serve Him even now. Following Jesus is not an easy thing, but His word is still the best news this world has ever heard for bad times or good, and that is what you and I are called to remember together. Discipleship is a demanding thing. Discipleship is a delightful thing, and discipleship is a determined thing. If you would follow Him, come with all you are and with all you have.
Let us pray.
Almighty God, our Heavenly Father, we come in Jesus name. Amen.