If anyone came here this morning, including me, ready to claim the title “disciple of Jesus Christ,” I guess this morning’s Scripture lesson shatters that illusion. According to the criterion set forth by Jesus in the Gospel of Luke, the vast majority of people are not particularly close.
Unless, of course, there are people in this sanctuary who have willingly cut themselves off from family because family members have prevented them from pursuing their God given call. Or if there is anyone in this sanctuary who has spoken out so stridently against powerful institutions of church and state that they have received death threats because of it. Or if there is anyone here who has recently given away all their earthly possessions so that nothing gets in the way of dedicating everything non-material in their lives to God.
Back in the day, being a disciple of Jesus Christ was no joke. In fact, given the demands set forth on the disciples in this morning’s Gospel lesson, it’s surprising that anyone qualified. The tight restrictions and guidelines make you wonder how the early Christian church was supposed to grow without lowering the disciple bar so that more people might be eligible.
Fast forward to the twenty-first century and the messaging around discipleship has changed significantly. In Jesus’ day, discipleship was portrayed as life threatening. Today, the prevailing message is that discipleship isn’t that dangerous at all. These days, the popular opinion we hear and preach so often in churches asserts that everyone can be a disciple. Give it a try…what have we possibly got to lose?
Moreover, if you live as a disciple of Jesus Christ, then contemporary messaging tries to convince us about the rewards that come along with discipleship. If you are a disciple, you’ll sleep better at night. You’ll have closer, stronger relationships with your friends and family members. You’ll be healthier in body and mind and spirit. You will feel happier and make better decisions and live longer than you might have otherwise.
In the first century there was no such thing as feel good, watered down, discipleship “lite.” The disciples of Jesus gave up everything in order to follow their teacher. Meanwhile, Jesus never sugarcoated his expectations. Coincidentally, Jesus offered compassion and courage and hope to all kinds of people without recruiting them to become disciples. Jesus healed a blind beggar by the side of the road, he reached out to a woman whose flow of blood could not be stopped, he raised one of his dearest friends from the dead. But none of those people became insiders.
Count them up in the Gospels and you will find twelve named disciples. And there could have been a few others who weren’t named. The point is there weren’t a whole lot...for good reason. Even when large crowds of people followed Jesus from place to place and it seemed as though Jesus had a ready-made group of candidates ripe for the picking, Jesus often warned people in those crowds about the dangers involved in staying by his side.
The most ardent, committed followers might have stuck with Jesus as far as the village of Chorazin. Or maybe the town of Bethsaida. But in the end, enthusiasm wasn’t enough to insure success for any would be disciple. Just as Jesus predicted, the dangers of following him increased exponentially when Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem. As the Roman authorities lined up against Jesus inside the city gates, even the actual disciples couldn’t hang in with Jesus. Never mind the followers outside the inner circle…
Which brings us back to the fourteenth chapter of Luke and what you and I in today’s church tend to do when we are confronted with hard sayings of Jesus. For the most part, our collective response to Scripture lessons like this one falls into one of two categories. The first option is to avoid Scripture that makes us feel uncomfortable or unworthy. Even if ignoring certain Scripture forces us to accept the reality that we aren’t quite the committed Christians Jesus wants us to be.
The second option is to soften lessons like the one in Luke’s fourteenth chapter by convincing ourselves that Jesus didn’t really mean what he said. For instance, when Jesus said this morning that we have to hate our families in order to follow him, what he really meant was you can’t let your family run your life. You have to stand up for yourself and assert your own personhood.
That part about carrying a cross? That doesn’t really mean we have to go out and march against white supremacists or volunteer to help with needle exchange programs or lobby against child trafficking. What it means is that we should be ready to do something hard if God asks us to. Like one or two hours a month would be fine.
Not to mention the part about giving up all our possessions. The soft version of the problem tells us it isn’t really the stuff we have. The problem is getting too attached to the stuff we have. We can keep our stuff as long as we don’t get overly enamored of it. If we’re willing to give away some of our stuff from time to time to those less fortunate, so much the better…
Would the Christian church have survived all the way to 2019 if Christians accepted everything Jesus said at face value? Or over time did Christians have to soften and modify the extremism of Jesus in order to remain viable?
Maybe the answer to those questions lies with the people who heard Jesus in those large crowds. People who listened carefully to the words Jesus spoke, but knew in their hearts they could not follow Jesus from place to place day after day. Some of them had families they loved too much. Some of them had possessions that meant something to them and they weren’t prepared to give them away. Some of them couldn’t imagine actually, physically carrying a cross for Jesus.
Instead of following Jesus to nearby towns and villages and all the way to the city of Jerusalem, lots of people in those crowds simply went home… Then again, it would be a mistake to simply write those people off.
Yes, lots of people in those crowds went home knowing they couldn’t follow Jesus the way the actual disciples did. Still, guess what those people in the crowd talked about at dinner when they went home? They talked about what Jesus said to them. They talked about where following Jesus might lead and why following Jesus was so hard and maybe a few of them harbored a little regret they couldn’t be among the chosen.
Call them “friends of the disciples.” People in the crowd who went home and settled back into their regular lives. However, when their children were sick or their family members were quarreling or their parents were losing memory and physical ability, they remembered Jesus. And they reminded themselves that the most important things in life went deeper than what they were seeing.
And when something went on in their town that wasn’t quite right. Most people in the town were content to let it pass and not get involved. Yet a few of those friends of the disciples recalled what Jesus said. And they started working together to change what was happening in their town.
Other people who were in the crowd heard about some people from a neighboring village who barely had enough food because of a drought. So they loaded up a wagon with sufficient food supplies to last for a few weeks and they took the time to deliver the food door to door to those in need. Because that’s what Jesus would have wanted.
To be sure, every so often someone from the crowds who went home would go and do something radical. Like sell off everything they owned. Or rail in public against the Roman authorities. Those people wound up joining Jesus and the other disciples on the front lines.
Most of the people from the crowd stayed behind and were content, though. They went to work and had babies and worshipped each week and tried to do the right thing. And they told others about the Jesus they had seen and heard while they were at it, inspiring new legions of Christian disciples and Christian “friends of the disciples.”
Those friends of the disciples did not follow Jesus to Jerusalem. At the same time, they didn’t turn away from Jesus either. Knowing that Jesus changed their lives also, they chose a third way. They kept Jesus’ vision of discipleship before them and in their hearts, where it served to motivate them and disturb them and provoke them and reassure them as they served Christ’s people…
Make no mistake, this world needs disciples who are willing to drop everything and risk their lives and take up the cross of Jesus Christ on the front lines wherever he goes.
Still, the same Gospel Jesus entrusted to the disciples is the same Gospel Jesus also entrusted to Jesus’ friends. People like you and me who know how much Jesus has done for us. And people who believe that our faith in Jesus has the power to save and transform and redeem.
Go then from this place this morning and be a friend of Jesus. Amen.