This is where the rubber hits the road, really.
Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, and people are flocking around him. There is great enthusiasm, excitement, and lots of anticipation about the changes that Jesus might bring to their world. Jesus is about to burst their bubble.
Luke’s Gospel isn’t just a story about Jesus – it is also a teaching about what it means to be a servant – specifically, a servant of Jesus. When we read it, or listen to it, or teach about it, that’s one of the things we need to keep in mind. What does it mean to be Jesus’ servant? We also need to remember that the Gospel was not written primarily for non-believers. It was written for a community that already had faith in Jesus, perhaps in Great Antioch in the mid 80’s. But the church of that time had gone through a lot of pain. Remember, the first disciples of Jesus were Jews, and were still part of the Jewish religion. The Great Temple had been levelled in 70, tearing the heart from the Jewish religion, and no doubt hitting the new Christians hard, too. The temple had been at the centre of the Jewish religion and of Jewish identity – the very life of the Jewish people flowed through it and revolved around it. In order to regroup, the party of the Pharisees took control of what was left of Judaism, and moved the emphasis from temple to synagogue. At the same time, they sought to expel from Judaism everything that wasn’t consistent with their understanding of the faith. The new Christians were expelled, hunted and exterminated. Those who survived fled, or went into hiding. They were hiding, too, from the Romans, because for the Romans the Christians were just Jews, and were a threat to the consistency of the Roman Empire – they wouldn’t worship in what they considered an acceptable way.
So Luke is writing to a community of Christians who are somewhat seasoned by trials, but are still enmeshed in them. Adversity is part of their life as a community, but they’re also, as a community, not ‘new’ believers. They need teaching about how to mature in service of Jesus.
If, when you go home, you have a look at the passages around this one, you’ll find that there is a remarkable consistency in them. Jesus is teaching how to live as his disciple, and what it will cost. Some of the teachings are directly to his disciples, some to the crowd. In any case, the teachings are for us, and they apply to us just as they did to Luke’s immediate audience, such is God’s grace in giving us God’s living word in the Scripture.
In this passage Jesus is clearly telling the crowds around him – and us – that the price of being Jesus’ disciple is high. So high that we need to consider carefully whether we’ll be willing to pay the price before we begin.
The price is to prefer Jesus, and Jesus’ call, above everything else. The word translated as ‘hate’ in the reading means ‘to turn away from’ or ‘to detach yourself from’. It carries nothing of the emotional content we associate with the term ‘hate’. But that doesn’t make the gravity of it any the less. In order to be Jesus’ disciple we need to reorder our priorities to make him the centre of our lives. He will be more important than family, more important than possessions, more important than occupation and identity. More important than life itself. When we put Jesus at the centre of our lives family, possessions, occupation, identity, church and life are put into a new perspective. We love and care for our family in a sacrificial and total way, because Jesus sacrificed himself for us. We spend wisely and care for our possessions not because of what they are, but because they can build up the kingdom of God, or support us as we build the kingdom. We work not because it is good in itself, but because it further’s God’s action in the world. We attend church not because it makes us feel good, or it is a nice safe place, but to be challenged, to learn, to grow and to be in fellowship with one another – to support each other, and to have our ‘rough edges’ knocked off. We find our identity and our reason for being in Jesus, not in anything that the world says is important.
The knowledge that following Jesus means such a radical reordering of priorities, and the reminder that following Jesus means being willing even to die, must have been a big shock for those following him. It should be a big shock and a wake-up call for us, too. Following Jesus is not just about wandering off to church each week, and popping money in the collection plate. It is about making a real choice to reorder our priorities so that we can be Jesus’ disciple.
In this reading Jesus teaches us that this is such a weighty matter that we need to consider whether we’re really willing to do it, because being Jesus’ disciple is not just about being the member of a club – it is about changing the substance of our lives for something new and radical.
Jesus also mentions ‘carrying the cross’, which is certainly a reference to being willing to sacrifice ourselves as disciples, just as Jesus did. The very early Christians understood this about the cross, but they also understood the cross as a place where seemingly irreconcilable things become joined and form something new. The goodness and love of God, and the brokenness of human beings meet together in the cross and form something new – God’s family of daughters and sons, disciples of Jesus. Being willing to carry the cross means, for us, being willing to take the substance of our lives – the good bits and the bad bits, the pearls and the manure, and lash them to the life of Jesus within us. We can’t keep them separate if we’re going to be Jesus’ disciples. We need to let Jesus touch our lives, and bring about change. A change which leads to renewal and transforming things which were previously disconnected into a new nature.
So we have three linked themes here. Know what you’re getting into before you follow Jesus, because the cost is your life. Put Jesus before everything else, being willing to live everything in the light of Jesus. Bring your whole life before Jesus and work with him to make it into something new.
The link is ‘everything’. Jesus demands nothing less. I think, very often, we listen to sermons or read letters, articles or books, and hear ‘give your life to Jesus, he wants everything’, and we scale it back, because we think we live in the modern world, and other values apply. They don’t. What Jesus is saying here is that this is an all or nothing situation. You either love him, follow him and give up everything in order to grasp life – or you don’t. There are no half measures. That’s why following Jesus is different from the thing we often call ‘Christianity’, by which we largely mean a social system for running a church. Following Jesus is costly and requires total dedication. And it is radically different from belonging to ‘the Church’. It is entirely possible to be a good church person, and not to be a follower of Jesus (and vice versa), so disconnected have these things become in our modern world. We’re not good at making and forming disciples anymore – in fact we’re terrible at it, partly, I think, because we no longer emphasise that this is a weighty whole-of-life commitment. It becomes something we can play at, rather than live in.
One of the keys to this passage is that Jesus is telling us that this is not an emotional matter. We’re to measure our willingness to pay the price dispassionately and objectively. We’re to make the choice based on that, and then live as disciples. This isn’t a matter of feeling – it is a matter of choice, and requires that the choice is made over and over again, perhaps each day, perhaps a dozen times each day.
Because the live of the disciple means turning to Jesus again and again, choosing to follow him in the good bits of our lives, and the rough bits. Knowing that because we follow him we share in his joys and his sorrows.
The key to all of this is a commitment to continual conversion of life. Making a decision about following Jesus isn’t just a one off thing. It is a continual sitting at his feet, as Mary did, and listening to his words. It is a continual reordering of life to put him at the centre, and putting his teachings into place in our lives.
Is Jesus at the centre of your life? If not – do you want him to be?
Being a disciple of Jesus is certainly hard, full of serious commitment and, at times, really hard slog. But the promise is that life with Jesus is better than anything else on offer, and anything else we could dream of. Life with Jesus is a life of joy, love, peace, forgiveness, transformation and fulfilment – all of these in ways the world can’t dream of, and although it seeks to offer substitutes, they’re pale shadows of the real thing. That’s the life that is on offer when Jesus counsels us to be sure we want to walk on this path. We’re asked to give up everything for that. I think it is a good deal – do you?