Dr. Neil Carver The Cost of Discipleship Sept 4, 2016

The Cost of Discipleship       (Luke 14:25-33) 16th Sunday after Pentecost C

We’ve just read heard these words from Luke’s gospel – “Whoever does not carry his own cross, and walk in my steps, can be no follower of mine.” What weight do those words carry for you and me?

Jesus associates his followers with denial and with taking up a cross.  In a world where gain is all, to be told, “Whoever gains his life will lose it; whoever loses his life for my sake will gain it”, comes across as nonsense.

The earliest strands of Christian tradition recognise conflict with the prevailing social norms as the cost of discipleship. The gospels are more about theology than about history. Many scholars view the conflict in between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees as reflecting first century conflict within the Jewish family of faith rather than with actual events in which Jesus was involved. This might appear strange to us today. But in the first century, writers thought nothing of “inventing” events or putting words into the mouths of their characters. In that sense, neither history nor biography had yet been invented.

Understanding the background and culture of Jesus is very important when we come across this morning’s gospel story. Our New Testament scriptures reflect the experiences of Jews who followed the teachings and the way of Jesus. Increasingly, they were being regarded as a minority Jewish sect. They were at odds not only with other Jews buts with the prevailing norms of social behaviour. This is the context of this morning’s gospel reading. Christians had to face the penalty of some degree of exclusion from their communities and found themselves unable to be “at home” within their wider circle.

Discipleship means a relationship of learning and growth that follows the teachings and example of Jesus. When Jesus called others into discipleship, he used extreme language to identify anything that obstructs a person’s ability to develop a sense of self-worth.

How else can we understand Jesus’ comment that his followers must ‘hate’, or more accurately, ‘detach oneself from’, their immediate family members! Luke’s Jesus uses extreme language to make a ‘point’ and the object of his concern is family control. Abusive power and control within a family prevents the growth of its individual members. It can provide a negative security that prevents family members from achieving their potential self worth within the wider world.

In our time, Christians in several parts of the world are being heavily persecuted. The ownership of a Bible or the suggestion of belonging to a prayer group is enough to warrant jail – or worse – in some countries. What is it about Christianity that causes such persecution?

The truth is, that credible Christianity is powerful and revolutionary stuff! It teaches that true power lies in servant-hood, that wisdom requires the perception of a child, and that we are to embrace, pray for, and forgive our enemies. It recognizes the intrinsic dignity and sacred worth of every human being. That includes all of us – black, green, polka dot, LGBTQ or straight, physically and mentally able and challenged, those clad with or without burka or bikini, short, tall, slim, heavy, young and old, destitute and wealthy, all with whom we are currently comfortable and familiar, along with those we have yet to know, appreciate or understand.

Those who followed in the way of Jesus had to confront the core social structures governing their society. In a society where individuals had no real social existence apart from belonging to a family, Jesus required detachment from family as a condition of discipleship. Separating family ties is painful as we Anglicans know only too well. It should never done on impulse, and in the best of circumstances is with goodwill and understanding. Sometimes it is the cross we bear to follow Jesus.  Following Jesus is costly, and entails selfless love, conscientious resistance to evil, and renunciation of privilege.

Luke offers this challenge: to be a disciple of Jesus you must be willing tolet go of what one values most – family security, possessions, even one’s own life. Let go… of being possessed by them. Something else is at stake. Luke seems clear: let go and be a disciple rather than just a supporter or admirer. The call to discipleship is a call to be on a journey. It is not about popular feel good happy clappy theologies that equate Christianity with achieving peace of mind, body and soul. It is about an invitation to engage in a radical inclusive love.

Following Jesus is costly. It requires our selfless love, our conscientious resistance to evil, and our renunciation of privilege. We might well ask why is church property tax exempt?  It is impossible for me to consider the cost of discipleship – and not be aware of the price being paid today by 21st century disciples following where they believe Jesus has called them to go. Following Jesus sounds great until it becomes a source of schism and strife within the family you love. For far too long, we Anglicans have dithered over whether to maintain unity at any cost or to follow in the way of Jesus and to accept its cost. Counting the cost of discipleship may well mean being prepared to be booted out of your Anglican family because other family members disagree with your understanding of where the gospel calls you to go.

It will be twenty-two years ago this month since I informed my archbishop that I was prepared to have my license removed if “the shit hit the fan”. I had responded to a request by two devout Christian women. They simply asked to have their life commitment of companionship to each another and their children blessed within their parish church. It is now twelve years since, out of frustration over the same issue, I took an early retirement. But here I stand among you today – encouraging you to move out where you hadn’t planned to be, to bear the burdens you hadn’t asked to bear, and if necessary to severe ties that obstruct your ability to follow in the way of Jesus.

Why are we here? To gather in a safe place where we can share our unique stories and celebrate a life we share in common with Jesus, to reflect upon our personal theologies, to deepen an experience what it means to be in a sacred space where we are warmly received and loved unconditionally. Here is a safe place to practice belonging, hospitality, respect, humility, conversation and disagreement. This is a sacred place where Jesus invites us to experience the realm of divine love where life is renewed, and reaffirmed, and to share and make this possible for others.

I close with this blessing:
May our Lord Jesus who walks unwounded feet be your companion on the road.
May our Lord Jesus, who serves with wounded hands equip you to serve others.
May our Lord Jesus, who loves with a wounded heart be your love forever.
Love God wherever you may be,
And may you see the face of the Lord Jesus in those you greet. Amen.

Neil Carver 04.09.2016