The Demands of Discipleship

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Gospel Reading

“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the Cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian and pastor, wrote these words in 1937; a few years later, he was executed by the Nazis. Bonhoeffer knew the cost of discipleship, and he was willing to pay the price.

In today’s reading from Luke, Jesus speaks of this cost in words that are both startling and intimidating. He enumerates three demands of those who would be his disciples: 1) hate your family, 2) carry the cross and follow him, and 3) give up all your possessions. Jesus goes on to tell two parables, one about a builder and one about a king, the point of which is “Don’t even start what you can’t finish.”

If we wish to call ourselves Jesus’ disciples, it behooves each of us to consider these three demands and to ask ourselves, “Can I finish what I have started?”

keep-calm-and-hate-family.pngJesus’ first demand is disturbing. He asks us to hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters. What on earth are we to make of this? How can we reconcile this teaching with Jesus’ demand elsewhere to love not only our neighbors, but also our enemies. Surely, if we are to love our enemies, we should also love our families! What of the teaching that love is the fulfilling of the Law? The key, I think, is the word here translated as “hate.” In Greek, the word means pretty much what we mean when we say “hate,” but in Hebrew and in Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke, the common word for “hate” had a wider range of meaning. On the one hand, it could mean to abhor and detest; on the other hand, it could mean something more like “to love less.” For example, in Genesis, it says that Jacob loved Rachel, but hated Leah. But in the context of the story, it is clear that this so-called “hatred” does not signify detestation, but rather “assignment to second place.” So, when Jesus asks us to hate our families, he is, in essence, merely asking us to love him more. But even so, this may mean that we will be called to renounce the ties of family for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Jesus is no advocate of “family values”! For a disciple of Jesus, families come second—and in many respects, are replaced by one’s brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus.

Next, Jesus tells his would-be disciples to carry the cross and follow him. cross-crop.jpgFor us Christians, the image of the cross is a pious symbol of our faith. We see bejeweled crosses that are beautiful works of art. We see crosses from Latin America with colorful faces of happy children painted on them. On Easter, we adorn a cross with calla lilies and make an instrument of death into a floral decoration. Too often, the cross loses the horrific aspect that it would have had for Jesus’ original audience. Imagine, if you will, that Jesus had said instead, “Sit in your electric chair and wait with me.” By asking them to carry the cross, Jesus is asking his disciples to be willing to accept the most extreme cost of discipleship: a painful and humiliating death. It seems unlikely that any of us here today will be called to die a martyr, though we should all be mindful that there are Christians being martyred every year. Nevertheless, each of us is called in our own life-context to evince a radical, costly, and self-sacrificing love. “Carrying the cross” means being willing to live a life of suffering in service to others. It means being willing to live our lives in nonviolent protest to the death-giving violence of the world that surrounds us. It means being willing to take the ultimate risk for the sake of Jesus, whatever that may be for us.

Last, but not least, Jesus asks his disciples to give up all their possessions. I’ve looked at the original Greek carefully, and this is, by and large, what the text says. Literally, it says that his disciples should “say good-by” to all their possessions—but it amounts to the same thing. Why does Jesus ask this of us? Unfortunately, Jesus never explains, and we are left to speculate. Some have argued that personal property should be renounced because, like family life, it makes demands on the disciple that interfere with ministry. Our Junior Warden, who looks after our communal property, could undoubtedly attest to the fact that maintaining property of any kind takes a lot of time and hard work.

This call to renouncing private property has been understood in different ways in different times. In the Acts of the Apostles, we are told that the early Christians banded together to form Christian communes in which private property was given to the Church for the benefit of all. But this early experiment in Christian communism did not last long. Later in the history of the Church, monastics revived this idea of renouncing private property in favor of communal sharing. But by the time of St. Francis, the monasteries of the Christian West were so fabulously wealthy that they made a mockery of holy poverty. Francis responded by founding a nonmonastic movement that advocated personal poverty in response to Jesus’ demand to renounce one’s possessions. But the Franciscan ideal of holy poverty for all Christians was eventually condemned by the Bishop of Rome as bordering on the heretical.

To a large extent, the Church today has de-emphasized the high cost of Christian discipleship. For example, in the Episcopal Church, we are asked neither to share all our property in common, as did some early Christians, nor to accept literal poverty, as did St. Francis. Instead, we are asked merely to tithe, to give ten percent of our income for the building up of the Kingdom of God. And to be honest, even that can seem like an awful lot to give away! Even so, it is but a baby step in the direction toward the greater goal of dedicating all that one is and all that one has to God’s mission, acknowledging that we own nothing and are but stewards of God’s gifts.

Now, I am the first to admit that Jesus’ demands are not reasonable! They are not practical! And on the face of it, they are not even desirable! Be that as it may, they are the demands that the very Son of God has set for those who would call themselves his disciples. All of us here have made a good start as disciples of Jesus Christ; that’s why we bothered to come here today—because we would be his disciples. We are called to continue the good work that we have started, striving toward the final goal of total and complete dedication of self to God, no matter the personal cost. And when we fail in our discipleship, as all disciples sometimes do, let us repent and turn to God for forgiveness. When we put family or work or recreation above Jesus Christ, let us repent. When we drop our cross and turn away from self-sacrifice, let us repent. And when we find ourselves seeking security in money, as if it had the power to save us, let us repent. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was right: “cheap grace” is a cheat, and true discipleship is costly. But paradoxically, we are also taught that saving grace is a free gift for the undeserving from a most merciful God. And therein lies our greatest hope when we fail in some way to live up to the demands of Christian discipleship. “For as the heavens are high above the earth, so is God’s mercy great upon those who fear him.”

© 2016 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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