The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 18 (Year C)

“The Cost of Discipleship”

A sermon by guest preacher, Ginnie Glassman

In today’s Gospel, Jesus gives us some tough guidelines for following him. He tells us:

  • “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.”
  • “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.”

We have all heard this Gospel before but what does Jesus really mean by it? It sounds like he is trying to discourage people from following him with these difficult statements.

  • Jesus is the one who told us to love our neighbors as ourselves and even to love our enemies. But now he is telling us to hate our families?
  • What does carrying our cross mean? Do we need to die for our faith?
  • How can we give up all our possessions and still live our lives? Aren’t there things we need?

I want to look at each of these with you in the context of the time and circumstances in which Jesus said them to see how they apply to our lives today.

As the passage tells us, there was a large crowd following Jesus. Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem knowing that is where he would be put to death. He was looking for strong disciples to support him on the rest of his painful journey and to carry on his work. These crowds following him were not disciples but people who wanted to see what all the talk was about, people who hoped to see him perform another miracle like the loaves and fishes, people who wanted to be on the winning side when Jesus conquered the Romans and became their king, or people who just wanted to see Jesus for themselves. Jesus knew they are more curiosity-seekers than true followers. He wanted to get their attention and have them think about what it would take for them to become believing followers. He was challenging them to become true disciples, willing to follow him, support him, suffer with him, and give it all they had.

So why did Jesus tell them that they must hate their families? The word hate had a different connotation at that time. Hate was not a term to describe emotion but rather it was used to show perspective and preference. They would say they hate one thing and love the other, like hating the Yankees but loving the Red Sox. Chances are you would watch both teams but prefer one team over the other. As Jesus said “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matthew 6:24)  It means that you value one thing above the other.

For the people Jesus was speaking to, loyalty to family was of utmost importance. Jesus is not anti-family but telling them that this is serious business. They must value their relationship with God and follow him above all else including loyalty to family. He is speaking against anything that gets in the way of our total commitment to God. As one preacher put it: “Love me more than you would even love your family, as important as that is to you. Love me more than whatever holds first place in your life, whatever matters most to you.”

At the time, having a Christian in the family was dangerous. The Romans were thorough in their persecution of those following Jesus. If they found one believer in the household, they would arrest everyone, making it dangerous for the whole family. Turning to Jesus then really meant turning away from your family, whether you wanted to or not.

When I chose to join the Episcopal Church in 1995, I know it upset my parents. They were devout Roman Catholics but I was troubled by some of the teachings. I needed to find a way to worship and follow God as I knew him. I have always loved my parents and thank them often for giving me the gift of faith. But to live my life fully, I had to put my relationship with God first and find the best way for me to believe and follow his calling. I’m not sure my parents ever understood but today everyone in my extended family knows where I will be on Sunday mornings. They respect my commitment by planning Sunday events later in the day. I don’t hate my family and I do love being with them but I give my Sunday morning time with God my first priority.

Then Jesus tells the crowd that they must be willing to carry their own cross. Just as Jesus had to carry his cross to his crucifixion, he means a disciple must be a loyal follower even though it may lead to death. When a soldier joins the military, he or she knows that the possibility of dying in that job exists. Jesus is talking about commitment. He wanted them to think about the price of discipleship. Once we commit to following Jesus, we cannot turn back when things become difficult. Jesus told us “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Mark 8:35-36).

Of the twelve apostles, only one died of natural causes, the others were killed by the authorities for their preaching of the faith. Discipleship is serious business, not for the casual follower or the curious.

The Gospel reading this morning concludes with one more part of the commitment: “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”  It reminds me of the rich young man who asked Jesus how to gain eternal life. Jesus tells him he must follow the commandments. The man says he always has. Jesus then tells him there is one more thing “sell all your possessions, give the money to the poor…then come and follow me.” (Luke 18:18-23) The young man goes away sad because he was very rich. I think many of us would feel the same way at this daunting thought. How can we live our lives if we sell everything? Aren’t there things we need?

When my daughter was in third grade, I met weekly with her class through Junior Achievement. One of the topics we discussed was the difference between “needs” and “wants”. We talked about the things they said they needed to identify whether they were something needed to live or something that would be nice to have. Sometimes it is good for us adults to look at needs and wants too. We often look at others who have more than we do and feel that we do not have enough, that we are just getting by. For perspective, we need to remember that the poorest people in the US are better off than 85% of the world’s population; many of whom survive on less than one dollar a day.

At a retreat, I heard a speaker talk about “holding things lightly” and the concept has stayed with me. There are many things that we possess that we can’t or don’t want to live without. Holding things lightly would mean to loosen our grip on these things. Use what we need but be willing to share them with someone who needs them more. Like the manna in the desert, God asks us to take what we need for the day and not try to store up for the next day, not to trust in our own wealth. He asks us rather to trust in his provision for us, trust in his abundance. In this time of ongoing shortages and economic uncertainty, this is difficult. Jesus is asking us to use our possessions but not to be possessed by them.

I was going through my closets the other day in an effort to pare down what I had. I remember looking at one sweater I had particularly liked at the time I bought it and thinking, “I don’t want to give this away. It still has tags on it. I never even wore it. Maybe if I lose another five pounds, I can get into it.” Then I thought, “While it is hanging in my closet, someone else who may need its warmth is not getting the chance to wear it. Give it away. You have other sweaters that you like that fit now. How many do you really need anyway? This one can keep someone else warm, make them happy and give me room in the closet.” I find as I am getting older, I am thinking more of cleaning out than accumulating more. With age comes wisdom?

Discipleship means committing all of our life to God. If it was easy, everyone could do it. The commitment is not a once and done event but a daily decision to continue to be lead by the teachings and example of Jesus. There are those like the apostles and the saints who are able to leave their nets and follow immediately. More of us, I think, are on the path of “mixed motives and divided devotion” as Rev. Kate Heichler shares. It is a slower, messier road but being on the road and committing ourselves makes all the difference.

I want to close with the thoughts of another preacher on this Gospel passage. Even though this service does not include the Eucharist today, I believe these words apply:

As we come to this Table, prepared for all who desire to follow Jesus, he invites you to count the cost. Don’t come out of habit, or because you want others to see you doing the right thing. Don’t come to prove yourself righteous, because none of us is righteous on our own. When you come to this Table, come to offer yourself, body, mind and soul, to the One who died to save you, who rose again to redeem you, and who will come again to claim you as his own. When you come to this Table, having counted the cost, come as a true follower of Jesus Christ, ready to leave behind everything you ever thought was important, so that you can take up your cross and follow Him.  Amen.

(Rev. Jo Anne Taylor

Collect: Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts; for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Moses said to all Israel the words which the Lord commanded him, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”

Psalm 1

Beatus vir qui non abiit

1 Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, *
nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seats of the scornful!

2 Their delight is in the law of the Lord, * and they meditate on his law day and night.

3 They are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; *
everything they do shall prosper.

4 It is not so with the wicked; * they are like chaff which the wind blows away.

5 Therefore the wicked shall not stand upright when judgment comes, *
nor the sinner in the council of the righteous.

6 For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, * but the way of the wicked is doomed.

Philemon 1-21

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.

For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love– and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother– especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

Luke 14:25-33

Now large crowds were traveling with Jesus; 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. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, `This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”