“Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” To which the disciples responded, “Uh, you could have just told them to bugger off. And besides we were all under the impression that you wanted to gain followers here?”
OK so maybe I took some creative license there with the disciples’ response but what is Jesus on about with this startling saying? I mean, alright, maybe some of us heard that gospel reading and were, “hate my siblings? OK, alright, no problem there. I kind of do hate my brother actually.” But then we hear, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple,” and, “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up everything you have.” I mean, we know that these bits are in there but we tend to gloss over them as we read them assuming that Jesus doesn’t really mean it.
But friends, one of the things that we learn from our gospel reading this morning is that there is a cost to following Jesus, and it is not cheap.
Of course, as far as hating ones family goes Jesus is making a rhetorical point not a literal one. After all, Jesus knows the commandment to honour ones mother and father. The point is that following Jesus is a radical choice that requires a shifting in priorities and allegiances. Those whom Jesus calls to follow him are called to an exclusive attachment over and above all worldly attachments. And we know that throughout history and even today in various parts of the world Christians have literally been willing to die for their faith in Christ knowing that even in death, especially in death, Christ is very near to them indeed.
Now none of us have been killed for our faith though perhaps some of you have had to pay a price. If not disowned by some family members maybe your faith is the butt of a family joke or two? Perhaps you have had to say no to a job opportunity because you felt it would have compromised your conscience in some way? There’s at least one cost that we all have to pay and that’s being stuck here with one another. Normally we might not chose to associate with one another but in baptism Christ has bound us to himself and also to one another. We might prefer it another way—wouldn’t it be nice if I could follow Jesus without him or without her, you might think to yourself.
And so even in times and places of peace we are still called to martyrdom, still called to “carry the cross and follow.” Only in times of peace the form that martyrdom takes is self-denial. And so the call of Christ is the same to everyone everywhere at all times: come and die. Or as the contemporary theologian Stanley Hauerwas put it, “Christianity is simply extended training in dying early.” Or as the fourth-century saint Basil the Great put it, Jesus calls us to a crucifixion via baptism. Or as the Apostle Paul put it, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me,” (Gal 2:20). Or, simply, as Jesus put it, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
At any rate, the point Jesus is making is this: following him will turn your world upside down so you’d better hold on to him for dear life. He isn’t interested in taking your old life and improving it. He is interested only in you and I laying down our lives for his sake that he might raise us to new life in him.
And that new life is characterized by obedience to Christ, whereby we come not only to know God but to love Him as well. And this is true freedom, to love God and to love all of the other good things in the world in relation to the One who made them.
And this is why following Jesus is so costly, because those whom Jesus calls to follow him he makes an exclusive claim on. You are mine, you belong to me, I have bound you to myself. In the words of the Psalmist, “You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me,” (139:5). Your life is not your own. You are God’s creature and you exist from Him and for Him and he demands your highest affection for himself. And it is Christ Jesus who shows us the way and that way is the way of the cross.
Yet in an age where the Church in the West is in decline would it not be better to smooth out this edge a little bit? Should we not, at least, place the emphasis of the Christian faith elsewhere? Is the call of Jesus to come and die not too difficult a burden? Do we risk sending people home with the uncomfortable feeling that it is too hard for them to come to Christ?
These are fair questions and in response to them the Church may at certain times and in certain places be tempted to preach Christ without the cross in an attempt to make the gospel more palatable to the world. We want Christ but without his suffering and certainly without his rejection and our suffering and rejection along with him. This is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls cheap grace. But the grace of God is not cheap it is costly and we need only look to the cross in order to know this. And so to take up our cross and follow Jesus will not cost us less.
Perhaps you like I are inclined to resist Christ’s call to carry the cross and follow him? If I am honest with you, my inclination is to daily resist this call. And yet Jesus never asks anything of us without giving us the strength to do it.
I hear Jesus’ call and immediately I am confronted with my own poverty, my own inability to follow and obey. But we need not be discouraged because the Lord grants us the aid that we need, indeed he gives us the Holy Spirit.
No one at all walks through life without carrying some sort of burden. Those who come to Christ find that the burden of the cross is much lighter than a burden of our own choosing, the burden of our self. And so Jesus comes to us and offers us an exchange—let go of all of your heavy burdens and give them to Christ. In return he will give you a share in his burden, the cross. You will find that, despite not knowing the way, Christ will lead us on a road of boundless mercy, for the way of the cross is not misery and sadness but is peace and refreshment for the soul, the highest joy! Discipleship means joy (Bonhoeffer).
Thus, what at first seems overwhelming and exceedingly difficult is revealed to be a word of grace. For in denying ourselves and carrying our crosses the Holy Spirit begins to adjust our sight so that we behold not simply the challenge of the journey but the beauty, love, and mercy of the one who leads us, Jesus Christ. We learn that in calling us to come and die, Jesus seeks not to destroy our life, but to strengthen it and heal it, to raise it up with him and make it new. If you are in a particularly challenging season in your Christian faith—and we all experience those seasons—ask the Holy Spirit to train your attention and affection more acutely on Jesus. This will not erase the challenge but you will see that Christ is with you and you will know his joy and his peace.
“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” To return to where we began let me say that we ought to resist the temptation to minimize the cost of following Jesus. Following Jesus is costly! We ought to instead continually proclaim this message with both boldness and humility, as a people who have been so called and are learning what it means to live into this reality. And in doing so we will be salt.
At our Wednesday Eucharist last week we commemorated St. Aidan. In the 7th century pagan invaders swept through northeastern England and destroyed all of the churches there. Aidan was an Irish monk and bishop who was sent there, into this ruinous destruction, to help restore Christianity. We’re told that, “Aidan used to travel everywhere on foot…in order that, as he walked along, whenever he saw people, whether rich or poor, he might at once approach them and, if they were unbelievers, invite them to accept the mystery of the faith; or, if they were believers, that he might strengthen them in the faith, urging them by word and deed to practice almsgiving and good works,” (Venerable Bede).
Might I suggest that our situation in the West today is not that much different. Here we are, like Aidan, living amongst the ruins of Christianity in the West. We can lament this fact and we probably would be wise to do so. But what we shouldn’t do is downplay the cost in an attempt to turn the ship around. Rather, we have the opportunity to really be the Church—to be like Aidan, boldly sharing the faith and encouraging one another to good works.
So let us commit together to carry the cross and follow Jesus, and continue to proclaim Christ crucified, calling all people to repentance and faith in him. Let us continue to encourage one another in the faith and deepen our allegiance to and love of Christ Jesus. God may just bless such a witness and use it to renew not only the Church but the world as well. Amen.