The Cost of Discipleship
In my freshman year in college I had a Dr. Barr for history. The class was packed. It was the first day. Dr. Barr came in, looked at the class, and announced, “My name is Dr. Barr. Barr is French for bear and in this course you’re going to find out that the name fits.”
He stressed the requirements of the course and then he began to lecture. He taught the whole period. And as he talked, he paced up and down in front of the class. It was one of the most miserable days I ever spent in college. Honestly, I almost got nauseous watching him pace up and down and drone on and on. Miserable.
By the time the next class rolled around, there were several empty seats as students had rushed to drop the class. I was there however and it turned out to be a delightful class. He never again spoke harshly, nor did he ever pace again. He had accomplished his purpose. He had gotten rid of those students who had just signed up for credit.
When I read today’s text and began to meditate on it, one of the first things that came to mind was Dr. Barr’s history class.
Jesus is popular. Great masses are following him. He has taken on the stodgy religious authorities. He has defeated demons and diseases. The word is, that he may be the Messiah, the promised Savior who would free Israel from Roman domination. It must have been a great parade of excited, enthusiastic followers—would be disciples.
Suddenly with blazing eyes, Jesus turns and cries out to the dancing crowd, “Whoever does not hate his family and friends cannot be my disciple; whoever does not carry his cross cannot be my disciple; whoever does not give up everything cannot be my disciple.”
And they are stunned. You can almost see the crowd melt into the countryside—returning to their homes and businesses and every day lives.
What would you have done?
This same dumbfounding call finds us this morning.
I began preaching around the age of 19. Today’s text was one of my favorites in those early years. It calls for courage, commitment, sacrifice. It beckons us to a heroic following of Jesus no matter the cost. In my youthful enthusiasm, I just knew that I would do it and so could every other believer.
But quite frankly in later years, I haven’t returned to this text as often. However, one of the great advantages of preaching from the lectionary is that you just can’t keep avoiding certain texts—even those that you are now afraid of.
Jesus uses strong language to affirm the high cost of discipleship. True discipleship cannot be done on an impulse. It must involve careful deliberation. Jesus knows that the cross looms ahead—and not just for him.
Jesus gives two examples of the kind of deliberation that being a disciple of his requires.
The first is related to a building project. Most commentaries assume that the one who is thinking about building a tower is a vineyard owner. A tower would enable him or a hired hand to look out over the vineyard to insure that animals or thieves would not sneak in and damage it.
Most of us, if we have traveled very much, have seen abandoned foundations; projects that were started, but never finished.
The second is related to a king considering waging war against a neighbor. He can’t allow his emotions to get in the way of cool deliberation. Does he have enough military might to defeat his enemy of not?
Jesus is saying that before we enter into discipleship we need to understand the cost. Again, successful discipleship cannot be done impulsively; it must involve careful deliberation.
Family values are important in America—or at least in parts of the population. Politicians love to espouse family values. They will use their families in their political campaigns. They want people to at least believe that they are committed to their families.
I’m not sure we really get ‘family values’ from the teaching and life of Jesus. “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, . . . cannot be my disciple.”
It is as simple as this: if we value our families more than we value God’s Kingdom, we will never succeed as disciples. Jesus says, “Think about it. Which do you really value more?” If the desires of your family mean more to you than the will of God then discipleship is not for you.
Sometimes it is family issues that we must consider as we look down the road of discipleship. Other times it is personal issues.
Jesus said, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
Jesus faced a literal cross. He was walking headlong to Golgotha. He knew that many of his disciples would also face crosses or other forms of persecution and death. So, he said that they should count the cost; before the executioner, will you still confess me.
Jesus does not use the ‘deny yourself’ phrase this time, but of course that is in essence what ‘take up your cross’ means.
So, as we consider being disciples, we have to ask ourselves are we willing to die for the sake of the Kingdom; or perhaps better, are we willing to live for the Kingdom and not for our own personal gain?
Then Jesus closes our text with a third consideration; “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
I like the way Emilie Townes describes this. “In the process of becoming living disciples, we must, as Jesus states, also learn to give up all of our possessions—our need to acquire, our yearning for success, our petty jealousies, our denigrating stereotypes of others, our prejudices, our hatreds.” [Feasting C4, p 46]
I asked you earlier; had you been in that crowd that day, what would you have done?
The truth is that the ancient warning that Jesus sounds is just as true and frightening today as it was then. The call is still before us—hate your family, bear your cross, give up all you possess.
Well, before we leave the church, shaking our heads, to never return let me say a bit more; four things in fact.
1. Anyone who understands how language works will realize that Jesus is using hyperbole or exaggeration in this passage in order to make the crowd stop and think. For example, Jesus did not literally mean disciples must hate their families—just that God and God’s kingdom must come first. Now don’t think that lets you entirely off the hook. The questions remains; what do you value more, your family or God’s kingdom?
2. The road of discipleship is rarely a straight line. Peter left all to follow Jesus, but later in a Jerusalem courtyard, under pressure, he denied that he ever knew him. And John Mark went out with Paul and Barnabas, excited and thrilled to be going on a missionary adventure, but somewhere along the way, he left them and returned home.
Both of these men stumbled or perhaps got on a side-path. But both of them found their way back. Failing at discipleship is only a total failure if we quit trying.
3. A quote from Alister McGrath. “To become a Christian is to encounter and embrace the reality of God; to become a disciple is to allow this encounter to shape the way we think and act.”
I believe that McGrath is correct. I have taught for years that becoming a Christian and being a disciple are two different things. All disciples are Christian, but not all Christians are disciples. We are saved by grace through faith. We grow in discipleship by grace though faithfulness and love.
4. I mentioned the Didache to you last week. It is a book of Christian instruction written shortly after the time of the New Testament. I share with you two sentences from it.
“If you can bear the Lord’s full yoke, you will be perfect. But if you cannot, then do what you can.”
That sounds more reasonable doesn’t it? But do not mishear the words. The writer did not say do what you are willing to do or do what you want to do, but do what you can! Do what you are able to do.
For most of us, I suspect that that is more than what we are doing at present.