The Cost of Discipleship

When Susanne and I returned from vacation so that I could officiate at the funeral of our beloved Ann Gardner last week, one kind parishioner asked me at the reception, “Did you know what you were getting into when you agreed to be interim Dean here at Trinity Cathedral?” I think she meant that we have had more than our share of funerals in this parish over the last eight months or so…but, of course, I did ‘know what I was getting into.’

I’ve been ordained for nearly forty years and I know well that parish ministry is not only preparing sermons and presiding at the Eucharist season by season throughout the Church year, but an ongoing cycle of baptisms and weddings and hospital and nursing home calls and, yes, funerals as well for those of our parish family whose earthly sojourn has ended.

On the other hand,  I have sometimes in my life made a commitment to an organization or a committee without first finding out all that would be expected of me, or how much time and energy would need to be expended. Haven’t you ever done that? Well, in today’s Gospel (Luke 14:25-33) Jesus is warning his followers not to make that same mistake if they plan to be committed to him and to his way of life! He’s talking today about what Dietrich Bonhoeffer once called “the cost of discipleship.” The cost of being a follower of Jesus.

To illustrate his point, he uses some practical examples: a construction project which might get launched before anyone got around to estimating the cost of materials and labor. Or the folly of declaring war without estimating the troop strength and fire power necessary to assure victory for the home team. Those would be pretty obvious mistakes (even if we know that they actually do happen in life!) but Jesus does not want his would-be disciples to make one like that as they
consider following him!

And, in today’s Gospel, he talks about putting our faith above even family if necessary; about carrying our crosses; and about prioritizing our relationship with him over material possessions. I think the way Jesus speaks of these things may be, to some extent, examples of what scholars call “Middle Eastern hyperbole.” It’s a sort of style in Arabic languages and in Hebrew to use strong and dramatic language in order to make a point.

You remember Saddam Hussein talking about the “mother of all battles” or some Iranian dictator talking about “destroying the United States” as if either of things were possible or within their reach. Or, more to the point, Jesus himself talking about it being easier for a “camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.”  I think it must be that sort of exaggeration Jesus is using when he talks about ‘hating’ one’s “father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself.”

He’s clearly making the point that our relationship with God is more important even than family relationships, but surely one who was committed to the Commandment about ‘honoring father and mother’ and once described his mission as bringing “life abundant” to all, cannot literally mean that we should hate our families or our lives.

Similarly, not many of us will be carrying literal crosses to our death as he did (even though Peter and Andrew and perhaps some of the other apostles were indeed crucified for their faithfulness!). And not everyone is called to “give up ALL our possessions” like monks and nuns and missionaries sometimes do. But we are asked to value God above money and to be generous in our giving and our sharing with those who have less than we do.

Now, none of us can know for sure whether we will be equal to the task or whether we will indeed be able to fulfill our commitment to being a disciple. Jesus is not asking for a guarantee of complete faithfulness in advance. If that were the case, perhaps none of us would qualify to be a disciple. But, through these parables and teachings, Jesus is asking us to consider in advance what real commitment to him requires.

If you listen to some televangelists or some mega-church preachers today, you might think they were trying to sell you a car or a kitchen appliance rather than the Christian gospel! In some parts of Africa this is called the “Prosperity Gospel” – just come to Jesus and you’ll be rich and famous! We certainly have our own versions of that in our own country (in fact, we actually exported it!) These charlatans make the gospel sound as easy as possible, as though no real commitment was required. Jesus’ call is far different. He was not looking, and is still not looking, for superficial commitment or a crowd of tagalongs. Instead he asks for our total commitment if we are to become his followers.

I tried to be pretty clear about that in the class of confirmands I prepared earlier in the year. I shared with them The Episcopal Church’s catechism including the part which defines “the duty of all Christians (which) is to follow Christ; to come together week by week for corporate worship; and to work, pray and give for the spread of the kingdom of God.” (BCP, 856)

We require all our baptismal candidates and confirmands to commit to the Baptismal Covenant which not only invites belief in God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; but continuing in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and in prayer. To resist evil and confess our sins when we fall into them. To proclaim by our words and the examples of our lives the love of God we’ve experienced in Christ. To look for that Christ in all people, so that we can love our
neighbors as ourselves. And to strive for justice and peace and to respect the dignity of every human being. (BCP, 304-305)

Those are lofty goals and we may not attain them perfectly. But we need to be clear about what Jesus asks of us from the get-go. That’s why I tried to emphasize that with our confirmands. That’s why we have over sixty young people in our parish this weekend participating in a Happening weekend where they are learning some of these things.

That’s why we will be launching our new Sunday School program – for children and adults – next Sunday and why I PLEAD with you as parents and godparents and grandparents to make sure that you and your young people are here every Sunday you possibly can be throughout the year!

This is not a casual commitment we are asking you to make, dear friends. We are asking you to be prepared to pay “the cost of discipleship.” There is really nothing more important!

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