Jesus needs a new Director of Communications. Every church I know in the continental United States is asking the same question, "How in the world do we reach young families?" Every church with the resources to do so has revamped their children's area in vibrant colors and Disney-worthy accessories to show how serious they are about reaching and keeping families. Here at Second-Ponce, our beautiful children's space has fake trees and wooden leaves that extend onto the ceiling so that this magical space will remind you that when you drop off your darling into our care, he or she will grow in the faith, just as surely as trees grown in your yard. It's marketing for sure. We want our families to know how important they are and how much we value young families - hoping of course, that they will tell their friends, who will entrust their children into our care, too.
As I said, Jesus needs a new Communications Director. His message doesn't sound pro-family at all. "You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name." For a guy beginning a movement, that will depend on lots of followers to spread the message, this seems like a bad marketing move.
But we are late in Jesus' ministry, chapter 21 of Luke's gospel. And throughout the ministry of Jesus, these disciples have seen the best of what it means to be a Christ follower. They have seen healings and heard teachings that have changed their lives and the lives of others. There has never been anybody like this man - so compelling that they dropped their fishing nets and followed. Wow - what a ride! At every turn there has been life-altering teaching, healing miracles, and crowds. The disciples were in the boat when Jesus said to cast the net on the other side and the nets would barely hold. They couldn't believe their eyes when they saw Jesus heal Simon's mother. A woman stooped over for 18 years - touched by Jesus and walked away upright as a soldier. When they were in Nain, Jesus brought a widow's son back to life. The boy was dead, and by the power of Jesus, he was alive. Who wouldn't want to sign up for a lifetime of following Jesus?
But Jesus knows that following the way of the Kingdom is not all about great catches of fish - sometimes there is hardship. Sometimes healings don't happen. Sometimes deliverance takes a different form. Sometimes bad things come - and sometimes not in spite of being a Jesus follower, but because you are a Jesus follower. For instance, when the powerless get set free, it is usually at the cost of the powerful and they are usually not happy about it.
It is easy to be a follower when you see a multitude fed with five loaves and two fish. It's easy when Jesus calms the storm because the waves and winds obey his command. But how long will you endure a storm that doesn't settle? Will you follow Jesus when it costs you something? How about if it costs you something dear - something that seems ultimately important, like family? "You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name." Did you sign up for that? By the way, I don't think this suggests that Jesus has a low value of the family - just the opposite. I think Jesus has illustrated with a value that we should hold dear as a way of asking, "Is there any value, any commitment that stands taller than your enduring commitment to Christ?"
Several of my pastor friends and I have complained that we were born a generation too late. I'm in my mid-50's and when we were in high school and college and considering vocation, pastoral leadership looked so attractive. The stress that most of our churches were undergoing was whether to build the new education building before or after enlarging the fellowship hall. Churches were full, pastors were esteemed, following Jesus meant catching lots of fish and watching people get healed - who wouldn't want to follow? My college had a vibrant ministerial association - about 20 or 30 of us who were going to seminary somewhere to prepare for ministry. Now, even the seminaries struggle to find men and women who are eager for congregational leadership.
You could say the same thing for lay involvement in the life of faith. There was a day when everybody seemed to be involved in church somewhere. You had to put your church affiliation on your application to join the country club. You couldn't be expected to sell insurance or get elected if you weren't involved in church somewhere. With the decline in the North American mainline church, it now seems more respectable to support your child's travel soccer on the weekends. Those who choose church choose a harder path.
Okay, I know it's not the same. Jesus told the disciples, "They will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name." I get it - it's not exactly parallel. To be a Christ follower in the first century was to risk real persecution. We know that Acts records the fulfillment of this prediction. Stephen is martyred as is James, the son of Zebedee. [Cf. Stephen (Acts 7:54-60), James (Acts:12:1-2)] Not much real persecution going on among the Jesus followers I know, but still, there is a cost. In a day when church is not as in vogue and the Christians who speak for us on television make us look narrow and mean, and churchmanship needs to be explained in the workplace rather than celebrated by the culture - maintaining the life of devotion is a conscious choice of values. There is no wind at our back. We are in a season of endurance and Jesus says, "By your endurance you will gain your souls." There's always a crowd gathered to celebrate a widow's son raised from the dead or when the blind man receives his sight, but when following means hard choices, "By your endurance you will gain your souls."
A woman came up to me after church to tell me that she wouldn't be in church next week. "I'm going to Vermont to spend the week with my parents," she said. I told her I was pleased that she was going to get some time with her folks, and she said, "Pray for me. These visits are never easy; I'm the only Christian in my family. My parents are in their late 70's and I have a sister who lives near them and they all think I'm nuts. And, I so desperately want them to know and have what I have in my relationship with Jesus. It makes for hard conversations, so pray for me please." When she walked away, I thought of this verse, "You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends…"
She is paying a price. Some people do pay a price to be a Christ follower. I have a friend who refused to entertain his out-of-town clients. His clients wanted to go to an establishment that compromised his values. He refused and his boss was not happy. He was not fired, but it was clear that it was time for a job change: he would not advance there.
Some people do pay a price, but Jesus promises, "By your endurance you will gain your souls." I'm not exactly sure what all that means but some in our faith family were willing to be hated by their family. Some were even willing to die the death of a martyr to gain their souls. Is there any value that stands taller than your commitment to Christ? By your endurance you will gain your soul.
Let us pray.
O God, we give thanks for the way your love has transformed us, for all the ways being a Christ follower has enriched us, and on the long and hard days, we pray for endurance, for extra portions of your grace to see to the end our love and commitment to you. We pray in the name of Christ our Lord. Amen.