The Cost of Discipleship
Not long ago, I picked up a newspaper and was reading a column on climate change. The columnist was lamenting the fact that governments weren’t doing enough to address climate change. And there was a line in the article that caught my attention. She wrote:
“and many politicians lack the courage to press the issue of climate change because any serious attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will require sacrifice and change.”
What a contrast with today’s gospel. Because unlike the politicians that the newspaper columnist was referring to, Jesus is not afraid to call for sacrifice and change. In fact, the call to discipleship issued by Jesus in the gospel which was just read is perhaps the most radical call for sacrifice and change that the world has ever heard.
This is a tough gospel. This is a challenging gospel, a profound gospel with powerful implications for the choices we make, for how we live our lives and for who we are.
“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.”
Difficult sayings don’t you think? What are we to do with this?
Well, let’s start by getting some context.
In today’s gospel, Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem, and we’re told that large crowds were coming to him and travelling with him, following him on his way. Large crowds. Crowds of people who had heard the rumours, who had seen the healings and heard his preaching. People who thought that just maybe this is the Messiah, the one who will overthrow the Roman Empire. Surely there was a buzz of excitement in the air as Jesus and the crowds made their way to Jerusalem.
But Jesus knew well the cost of what he was doing. God had given him a mission, a purpose, a vocation, to bring the good news of God’s kingdom to Jerusalem, and Jesus was committed to that mission even though he knew that the consequences for himself would be rejection, suffering and death. Already homeless, already without possessions as he travelled that road to Jerusalem, he knew that upon arrival he would pay the ultimate price and give up his life. His own mother, who followed him, whom Jesus loved, she would suffer the agony of seeing her son put to death on the cross.
And so Jesus, seeing the great crowds traveling with him, turns and tells them to get real. Jesus, knowing all that is about to unfold, turns to the crowds, and says to them, in effect, if you really want to be my followers, if you want to walk with me into Jerusalem and confront the governing powers, unarmed and vulnerable, then you must be ready to face all that will happen to me. You must be ready to suffer. You must be ready to give up all you have, even your own life. You must be ready to see your mother’s tears of agony as you are put to death. Do you really want to be my disciple? Before you make that commitment, count the cost. The cost of discipleship.
Discipleship is not something that is forced on us, and yet it is at the core of our commitment as Christians, as followers of Jesus Christ. You know, that large crowd got smaller and smaller as Jesus made his way to Jerusalem, until, at the foot of the cross, only a few were left. Many turned away as the cost of discipleship became more and more apparent. Following Jesus isn’t for the faint of heart.
Over the past century, I don’t think there has been anyone who understood the cost of discipleship better than Dietrich Boenhoffer. Boenhoffer was a Lutheran pastor, born in 1906 in Germany. As a young man he witnessed the rise of Hitler and National Socialism in Germany, and he also witnessed with sadness and with anger how Christians in Germany failed to speak out against Nazism, how the Church was unwilling to bear the cost of discipleship. He was one of the few church leaders who spoke out publically against the persecution of Jews. In 1937 he wrote a book, “The Cost of Discipleship”. In it, he wrote that “Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ”, and that, “the life of discipleship can only be understood as long as nothing is allowed to come between Christ and ourselves.”
Jesus, on his journey to Jerusalem said to those who came to him, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.” This pretty much sums up what is required of us to be disciples. We must deny ourselves, that is, we reject a life based on self-interest and self-fulfilment in favour of a life based on the model and teachings of Christ, love of God, neighbour. We must take up our cross, that is we enter into a willingness to suffer if need be, not for suffering’s sake, but in order to make the sacrifices needed to pursue our God-given purpose and vocation. And we must follow Jesus, that is, our life journey comes a continual and open-ended commitment. It is open-ended because we don’t know where following Jesus will take us. That’s the risk we take as disciples. Following Jesus will take some people to places of relative safety and comfort. For others, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, it will take them to their death.
Bonhoeffer was a gifted theologian. In 1939 some of his friends arranged for him to have a teaching position at Union Theological Seminary in the United States, as a way of escaping the dangers of Nazi Germany. But shortly after arriving in the United States, he realized it was a mistake. He realized that for him, following Jesus meant returning to Germany to oppose the Nazi regime despite the risk to his own safety. He returned to Germany as a leader of the Christian opposition to Hitler, and became a member of the German resistance. In 1943 he was arrested. Even in prison he openly stated that as a Christian he was an enemy of Nazism, even though he was continually threatened with torture, with death and with the arrest of his parents, sisters and fiancee. In1945, at the age of 39, he was executed by hanging.
We can thank God that most of us in our lifetimes will never be faced with anything close to the sort of decisions that Dietrich Bonhoeffer had to make, nor with the suffering he endured. But each one of us still has to decide whether he or she is ready to make the same commitment that Bonhoeffer made to be a disciple of Jesus. Following Jesus is an open-ended commitment. We don’t know where it will lead us, we don’t know exactly what will be demanded of us. But each one of us as disciples of Jesus will be challenged on a daily basis with the implications of our commitment to love God and to love our neighbour. And even though each of our situations may be unique, the following words of Bonhoeffer still apply to each one of us.
“Every moment and every situation challenges us to action and obedience. We have literally no time to sit down and ask ourselves whether so and so is our neighbour or not. We must get into action and obey – we must behave like a neighbour to him.”
Jesus calls us to follow him, but not without first counting the costs. Discipleship will require sacrifice and change. It will re-arrange our priorities and reconfigure our relationships. It will affect every moment and every situation of our lives, not just our Sunday mornings. The invitation to us this morning is to have our lives shaped by our commitment to following Jesus – in our homes, in our families, at our places of work, in our community.
May God help each one of us to take up the challenge and to follow Jesus.
Homily: Yr C, Proper 15, September 4 2016, St. Albans
Readings: Jer 18.1-11; Ps 139.1-5,12-17; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33