It’s readings like these when we hear about hating your family, carrying your cross, and giving up all possessions that when I say “the Gospel of the Lord” and you all respond with “thanks be to God” I want to say “really?!?” Do you really mean it when you say “thanks be to God I am being asked to turn from my family, carry my cross, and give up everything I own! This discipleship thing was just made super easy, Jesus! Why didn’t you say that’s what I needed to do in the first place!?” I think a better response for today’s reading would have sounded like this “the Gospel of the Lord” followed by “oooookkkkkaaaayyyyy……..”
I think anytime the Gospel talks about sacrificing things, giving things up, or selling all your stuff we all get a little nervous. We might prepare ourselves for a large heaping spoonful of guilt. Pastor is going to guilt you into opening up your wallet a little larger, loosening those purse strings, and make you feel guilty for owning whatever it is you own that you think I should make you feel guilty for. I’m not going to do that at all. See, this text convicts me as much as it might convict you. I don’t stand up here and preach to you. I stand up here and preach to us. I need to hear these messages as much as I need to deliver them. What this scripture is telling us today is this: being a disciple is hard, probably the hardest thing that you will do. It isn’t for everyone, yet it is demanded of everyone. How will we all rise to the challenge?
Let’s set the scene a little bit. The first sentence tells us a lot right away. There were large crowds following Jesus. They might not have known where they were headed, but Jesus did. Jesus knew he was headed to Jerusalem and that waiting for him there was a trial and ultimately, his death. This was not your average road trip. It was as if Jesus was saying “look, it’s fine and good that you want to follow me and be my disciples, but do you understand what you’ve really gotten yourselves into?” Being a disciple is going to be like swimming upstream. Being a disciple means that the most important priority in your life must be Jesus. Being a disciple means leaving behind all relationships, possessions, and self-identifiers that will call to you, maybe even discourage you from being a disciple. Discipleship is more than just being a responsible, nice, giving human being. This is a complete and total emptying out of self. Part of our call, then, perhaps, is acknowledging that doing what Jesus expects of us is challenging, and, at times, scary.
Following Jesus and claiming the title of “Christian” should actually be a little less popular than it actually is. I know that I tend to only claim the title when it is convenient for me to do so. Show up and help build a habitat house? Yep, count me, the “good Christian” in to help! Visit a known criminal who committed the most heinous crime known to humanity while he or she is serving a life sentence? Uh….I don’t know. Donate items to our food pantry? Totally, the “good Christian” does that! Stop and give a buck or 2 to those people who stand on the corners in Davenport? Ugh….can’t those people get a job? Open the door for an elderly person using a walker? Sure! The “good Christian disciple does that.” Tell someone at Wal-Mart that they have a trail of toilet paper stuck to the bottom of their shoe? No way! That’s just funny.
The problem, my brothers and sisters, is that when we were baptized, we were sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. This means that our identity, which is grounded in the promises of baptism, cannot be removed. All of the baptized members of the body of Christ share in Christ’s cross and his resurrection. The journey of discipleship starts and ends at the waters of baptism and shapes (or at least should shape) how we see the world. In those waters, Christ claimed us which means that despite our greatest temptation to only claim Christ as the center of our world when it is convenient for us, we are always the center of Christ’s world.
Discipleship is not for the faint of heart. It’s not the popular thing to do. It’s countercultural. Some might even say it’s practically un-American. How far are you willing to go to proclaim your allegiance to Christ? Are you willing to sever relationships that make it difficult for you to do so? Are you willing to carry the cross and suffer the criticism that accompanies that? Are you willing to give up some of your material possessions that can easily become the center of your worship instead of God becoming the center of your worship? This is all countercultural because we live in a time when who we know, what we own, who we are, what we do, where we live, all define who we are or at least define how others think of us. When, in reality, the only thing that actually defines us is the cross on our foreheads.
Again, I don’t know about you, but everytime I set out to consciously do a better job of being a disciple, of putting Christ first in my life, of spending “quality time” with God, I fail: repeatedly. I am too quick to judge. I want the world to operate the way I think it should (verses the way that God may think it needs to be). I too often only worry about myself and forget that others have needs as well. I try and shed the image of “Christian” even the image of “Pastor” when it may mean that I’ll be judged and I’ll lose a friend or maybe even opportunities. Even with this sermon I erased sentences I wrote out of fear that they were too harsh and you all wouldn’t respect me any more. How ridiculous is all of that? But, I think we all do it. We all fall to the temptation of being “Christian when convenient.”
Where is the good news in all of this? Well, first off, we don’t serve a “Christ of convenience.” We serve an “all the time Christ.” This means no matter how many times we may fail at our attempts to be disciples, at the root of the call to be disciples is the invitation into an intimate, life-giving relationship with God in Christ. This dedication and obedience to God isn’t just a blind following; it requires dedication, asking and wrestling with hard questions, and the deepening of our faith. But, discipleship also includes salvation. That, my brothers and sisters, is the good news in this challenge to be disciples. God, who claimed us in baptism, will also claim us in death. We should take the call to discipleship seriously. The cost of discipleship is great; it cost Jesus his life. But from that death comes our life and freedom. From the cross poured out forgiveness and mercy. His flesh was torn for love. Those thorns pierced his head and nails pierced his hands, all for you. Our freedom was purchased with the blood of one man. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said “The call to discipleship is a gift of grace and that call is inseparable from grace.” (Cost of Discipleship, 55) The call comes with grace and grace comes with a call to discipleship. Thanks be to God that despite our temptation and active participation in being Christians of convenience, that we serve a God that is a God of love and second chances all the time, not just when it’s convenient.