Scriptures for today are Here.
I believe it was the great preacher and Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor who said, “After reading a great deal about Jesus, I have come to the conclusion that he would not have made a very good parish priest.”
After all, it’s my job to convince you how great it is to be part of this church and part of the Christian faith – we’re warm and friendly! We have great music! Our Sunday school programs are terrific! You’ll love it! You’ll benefit from being a part of it! Whereas if today’s gospel is any indication, Jesus apparently made strong efforts to scare as many people as possible away. Today, he’s not talking about the benefits of discipleship, but about the costs.
Of course, the benefits of being a disciple are eternal and infinite – elsewhere Jesus says things like “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” And, “God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that all who believe in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” In Christ, we have conquered death and we have the promise of life eternal.
But what’s this all about in the gospel today? I mean – hate your father and mother? Go around carrying a cross – which would not be at all metaphorical for the people listening to Jesus – it was an instrument of torture and execution? Give away all your possessions? Raise your hand if you’ve done all 3 of those things! No? Me neither! Somehow this Christianity stuff suddenly doesn’t look very attractive.
So what’s going on here? Well, first of all, this gospel certainly points to the danger of proof-texting: that is, taking one verse or one passage of the Bible, quoting it to other people, and treating it as an immutable and eternal rule for life. People love to do that, either to bludgeon other people who they believe aren’t following the right rules, or to argue that Christian faith is crazy. Jesus says hate your father and mother! Sorry kids, that’s the rule!
The fact is, you can’t understand a passage of the Bible out of context – you need to look at the whole body of Scripture to be able to understand what it’s saying. Jesus said plenty of things to contradict these sayings today – he said, for instance, that the gospel is all about love – Christians aren’t supposed to treat other people with hatred.
To understand what he’s talking about, you need to understand something about the language he is using and something about the context of this story. So first of all, the language – Jesus spoke in Aramaic, a Semitic dialect similar to Hebrew, but the gospel writers wrote it down in Greek, and we have it translated into English. All of these translations involve making decisions about what words to use, words that might not carry the same ideas in the different languages and cultures you’re dealing with. In Aramaic, when Jesus talks about hating father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, even life itself – he is setting up a contrast with what he wants us to understand is most important – being his disciple. He is saying you need to love all these people and things – because the gospel is all about love – he has said that plenty of times – but love them less than him.
Our lives are intended to be oriented completely toward the God of love. When they are oriented toward the God of love, as our first priority, the love we give to other people naturally flows out of the love we share with God. Loving God comes first – all the other loves in our lives come second.
Second – this passage shows us Jesus talking about the costs of discipleship. He wants his followers to understand that the grace of God comes to us free, but not cheap. In the words of Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who gave his life to oppose the Nazi regime, there’s no such thing as “cheap grace.” He said, “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness wo…repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
Too often in the modern world, he believed, we accept the benefits of grace without thinking about the costs. The benefits are easy to see: a loving church community, healing, comfort, prayer, even social acceptance – eternal life, for God’s sake – but Bonhoeffer didn’t always see the grace of God changing people, making them anew.
If we’re honest about it, we are sometimes not all that different – we think a lot about the benefits of Christianity – a meaningful fellowship, eternal life. But it’s a bit harder to think about what that commitment might cost. Yes, the grace of God comes to us merely for the asking – we are saved by God’s grace before we ever earned it or deserved it – God gives us forgiveness we don’t deserve and eternal life we could never earn. But Jesus asks for commitment as our response to him – full-time commitment.
That’s because he’s on his way to Jerusalem, where he will pick up his cross and carry it to his own place of death, and give his life so we can live. The closer he gets to Jerusalem, the more crowds gather around and follow along. They’re watching a spectacle like they’ve never seen before – people being healed from lifelong illnesses by his touch, people being fed by the thousands. As he marches toward Jerusalem, people are saying he’s the Messiah. Many of them probably think he’s going to Jerusalem to start a rebellion against the Romans, many of them hope for advancement and high positions in the new kingdom they think he’s going to set up. The disciples are actually arguing on the way about who will have the most power in his kingdom.
And in the middle of this circus, here is Jesus, knowing they have it all wrong. They’re talking about the benefits – he wants them to understand the cost. He knows that he is going to suffer, and he knows that many of them will too. And he is probably exasperated with the thrill-seeking crowds who act like they’re watching a three-ring circus. He wants them to come down off the bleachers and join in the action themselves. The cost will be different for each of them, Jesus says – but if they truly want to be his disciples, being a disciple has to be the most important thing in their lives. More important than family obligations, which were everything in that world. More important than possessions– the pursuit of wealth and advancement that we spend so much time on has to mean nothing compared to following Jesus. More important than life itself – for some of his followers, they literally will give their lives for their faith; for others, they will simply dedicate their lives to spreading the good news of Jesus and doing his ministry. For every single one, picking up their cross and carrying it will mean figuring out how to commit themselves deeply and completely to God’s kingdom.
And what does that mean for us? I think it means that for each one of us, we need to ask what carrying the cross is going to mean in our lives. What does the cross mean? Eternal life, the love of God brought to earth, freedom? How does that change us?
Following Jesus, if we do it right, should make big difference in how we live and act. What that difference is, each one of us is going to have to figure out. We’re going to live that commitment out in every single decision we make every single day. The author Annie Dillard said, “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.” The accumulation of a lifetime of decisions becomes the meaning of our life. What’s clear is that a true commitment to the cross and to becoming a disciple of Jesus will affect everything about how we live and work and make decisions and own property and care for the world around us.
For an example of the changes Jesus brings, look at our New Testament lesson – Paul’s letter to Philemon. What’s going on here? We have an entire letter from Paul to his friend Philemon, a Christian Paul is writing to from prison. Philemon is a wealthy property owner and he owns a slave named Onesimus. Strictly speaking, Onesimus isn’t a name, but a label – it means “useful.” But Onesimus is useless to Philemon right now, because he has run away from his owner and come to Paul. With Paul, he has become a Christian and like a son to Paul – and to Paul, he is very useful. Paul sends him back to Philemon with this letter begging Philemon to do the right thing. Either free Onesimus, or welcome him back as a brother instead of a slave, or send him back to Paul. It’s not clear exactly what Paul hopes will happen – but Paul wants Philemon, based on his newfound Christianity, to understand that the old categories of master and slave don’t apply any more. Onesimus is to be loved as a brother – which is what he is.
In other words, no matter what decision Philemon makes, his Christian faith has changed his life – has changed his treatment of what he would consider his property, has changed the ordinary decisions he makes as a citizen, has changed his relationships with the people around him. If followed through to natural conclusion of freeing not just Onesimus but all his slaves, his commitment to Jesus will change the very way he lives and does business.
Those same questions apply to us too. Following Jesus changes everything. It changes the decisions we make. It changes how we do business. It changes how we treat other people. It might require us, like Philemon, to look at other people we think of as lower class, different, not as deserving as we are, realizing they are brothers and sisters. It might require changes in how we use our possessions, how we live our commitment to love. Because if we are Christians, we are citizens of God’s kingdom first – citizens of every other kingdom and commitment second. Christian faith is not a Sunday commitment. It’s a full-time commitment to carry that cross all the time, to let it change our lives and our selves.
So for each of us, if we’re going to make a commitment to Jesus, we need to ask: What is that cross we need to pick up? What is that change we need to make? We need to look at what we say – are we building people up or tearing down? We need to look at how we do our work – are we operating with love and integrity, or are we thinking about gain and self-advancement? We need to look at how we love – because love is the meaning of the cross, and Jesus says, pick up your cross and follow me.
The costs are real, but the benefits are immeasurable – through Jesus Christ our Lord.