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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

The Fullness of Discipleship - 09/04/2016

I don't know about you, but whenever I hear this story from Luke, a picture forms in my mind of these large crowds. I imagine they are people engaged in conversation, and that they are rather spirited and energetic for a group of people traveling through a dry and hot land. I think they repeat the scriptures for one another and then talk about what they reveal about God and this Kingdom of God their leader and teacher Jesus has been trying to bring to life in their minds and in their hearts.

I imagine this crowd looks rather like a group of rebels. They are not a rich or powerful people by any standard measure, so they draw from the scriptures that name them as beloved children of God. They allow these scriptures to guide them, on how they present themselves to those who are rich in earthly powers.

I think it is safe to assume they would feel empowered and hopeful in the Good News Jesus brings and teaches them … “We are going up to Jerusalem!” they shout. “Jesus has his face set on that Holy Hill! He will bring justice and relief at last for all of us!”

Pretty soon you would probably hear someone say something like “When we succeed at Jerusalem and win our freedom and liberty – when Jesus sits as King of Jerusalem – I hope he will let me sit at his side.” Others might start talking about who deserves to be included in this Kingdom of God and who does not … “The tax collectors? OK,  let them in. But the scribes? The Romans and other Gentiles? I don't know... maybe some of them.”

Someone must have said something to make Jesus quickly stop like that, to refocus the gaze of the people on him, to begin turning around and looking people right in the eye, as he delivered this rather difficult and attention-grabbing lesson … ¿hate your parents, your spouse and children, your siblings … even your own life? ¿Carry on our bodies a cross … the very symbol of what holds us down and prevents us from experiencing God's promise of abundance and dignity? ¿And give up all our possessions … all these things we need or might need later?

It's a jagged pill to swallow, my friends, because we are a lot like these disciples. We have been following along with this journey to Jerusalem for nearly the whole year now. We have become an extension of these large crowds from Luke we read about.

And like the disciples, our understanding of just how wide and inclusive God's welcome is in Jesus has been pushed to its boundaries and beyond. And we are better people for it. We've seen this radical welcome extended to a Roman Centurion with a sick servant, a desperate widow escorting her dead son to the graveyard. It has been thrown open to a sinful woman of the city; to  a demon-possessed man from another country; the crippled woman in the synagogue; the man with dropsy … thrown open … to you and to me.

We also have the advantage of having been born on the other side of the cross than those disciples in our story today. We live in the enduring light of  what has been revealed in Jesus by God: that God loves us so much that Jesus came to us to teach us, to break bread and drink wine with us, to die for us and to rise from death so that we may live freed from the bondage of our sin.

And so we begin to say … “God's grace is free and abundant! … God's grace comes down … there is nothing I can do to make that happen, it simply does because that's what God wants for me. I don't have to do anything … the victory is won!” Right?

And Jesus stops quickly. He refocuses our gaze on him and begins turning around, looking each of us in the eye, as he delivers this rather difficult and attention-grabbing lesson today … hate your parents, your spouse and children, your siblings … even your own life. Carry on your bodies a cross, a burden … a symbol of what holds you down and prevents you from experiencing God's promise of abundance and dignity. And give up all your possessions … all these things you need or  you might need later.

Because, yes, this whole life-altering journey we've been on with Jesus and the disciples is about what happens in Jerusalem just as the disciples hoped; and, yes, it is about our ability in 2016, to live confidently in our salvation won solely through the Grace of God  … and while it is about these things, it is also about so much more.

So let's unpack this story a little more.

First of all, I think we have to attend to some of the language Jesus uses in what he says to us today. “Hate” is a strong word. It's a word deemed a curse word in our home, especially when the kids were growing up.

So now you tell me, what does hearing the word “hate” bring to mind for you? ….

(violence, bitter and toxic feelings, enemies, division, hurt, anger …)

Our associations with this word are often negative, powerful in harmful ways, damning. So it's important to realize that we take this perspective of ours with us when we read this scripture too – in other words, we understand Jesus' use of the word “hate” in the 1st century through our 21st century perspectives.

Now since the lion's share of Jesus teachings tell us things like “love one another … even your enemies,” and “do not fear,” we have to dig a little deeper here because Jesus seems to contradict himself when he uses the word “hate.” And the key, I think, is in the difference between Jesus' time and our time. 

Make no mistake, Jesus does use the word “hate” here and it's a strong word. But remember that Jesus is walking with a large crowd and he needs to get their attention, he needs to re-direct their gaze so they can hear this new lesson. He succeeded then and he succeeds now.

Further, it's helpful to know that the word “hate” used here had a broader meaning than we give it. It surely meant all the things we said, but it also meant to love less. It was used to compare things … so one should love God more than all else and love all else, less than God … things like family and loved ones, even our very lives.

This is not an easy thing, but it is what Jesus asks of us.

And then we have this: “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” (14:33)

It's another difficult teaching to hear, because let's face it, for the vast majority of our species, we like our stuff and we get attached to it. 

So perhaps a better way, a fuller way of understanding what Jesus is asking us here is to see this “giving up” as an act of “letting go” of our possessions. Being disciples of Jesus costs us these possessions because the more we mature in our faith, the more we discover just what it is we must “let go.”

In the life of a disciple we do not enter into lives of no possessions, but rather lives in which those possessions do not rule over us, lives in which we are generous in sharing what we have because we understand it all as gifts from God that have been entrusted to us for the betterment of humankind.

This fuller understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus gives us a new frame through which we see the world and ourselves. We “let go” of the old frames of our work, our riches, our success, even our families and loved ones. We love less the worldly things and we love God more. We answer the call of this costly grace that asks us to sacrifice that which doesn't last and place at the center of our lives that which lasts forever – God and God's way.

This is what we mean in the language of baptism, which we hear again in our community of disciples as we baptize Derek Lewis this weekend in the waters of Superior. In baptism Derek will die, will let go of his old life, his old self, and be born into a life anchored in Christ. “God, who is rich in mercy and love, gives us a new birth into a living hope through the sacrament of baptism. By water and the Word God delivers us from sin and death and raises us to new life in Jesus Christ,” we will say.

***

In the NRSV translation of this story, it is called “The Cost of Discipleship.” A man named Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote of this cost in the 1940s. Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazi’s for his role in how he felt called into this full sense of discipleship – specifically to free the church and Jesus' Gospel from zealous nationalism and to stop Adolph Hitler's deadly work. He wrote a lot about the danger of cheap grace and the gift of costly grace, which is what we are talking about today. All of us are welcomed into baptism, welcomed to this table. At the same time, we are called to be different in the world because of that grace. We are called to be Jesus-centered people in this world, not to win our eternal lives, but because eternal lives has already been won for us.

So I'll end with a summary of something Bonhoeffer wrote on this matter of costly grace, which I think is quite powerful and quite beautiful.

“Costly grace is the grace of Christian discipleship. It is costly because it calls us to follow. It is costly because it costs our very lives. It is costly because it condemns sin. It is grace because when we are called to follow, the call is to follow Jesus. It is grace because although it costs us our life, it is also the source of ... true and complete life. And it is grace because, although it condemns the sin, it justifies the sinner.” (Greg Ligon, Bonhoeffer's Cost of Discipleship (Shepard's Notes, Christian Classics) (1998, Nashville, TN, Holman Reference) Loc. 369)

Amen

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~ contact@edenonthebay.org

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