The Rev. Ryan Slifka
Today we’re starting a sermon series that’ll take us through October. We’re calling it “Jesus Uncensored: The Topsy-Turvy Teachings of Jesus According to Luke.” We’re calling it this because we we’re inclined to censor Jesus in the sense that we concentrate on the nice things he says. The things we like Jesus’ love, his mercy, his inclusion and passion for justice. All good things, of course. But they’re not the whole picture. Jesus can be confusing. He can be challenging. He can be disruptive. So we’ll be following this thread through Luke’s story of Jesus. Where he’s just tossing off teachings like tiny sticks of divine dynamite, stepping back, and just waiting to see which one’ll stir us from our spiritual slumber.
And speaking of divine dynamite, there’s no better place to start in this series than today’s passage.
“Great crowds,” it says. “Great crowds were following after Jesus.” Jesus is in rockstar mode, and the height of his popularity. The crowd’s all worked up. Jesus prances up to the podium, and this is what comes out of his mouth.
"Whoever comes to me,” Jesus says. “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” And if you thought that first one was too tame, he kicks it up a notch: “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple,” he continues. And if that sounded too loosey-goosey for you, he caps it all off with, “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
I imagine one of Jesus’ handlers whispering to Jesus to take it down a notch. At least wait until after we get everyone’s automatic withdrawal info before you start offending people. When we talk about Jesus’ teachings, somehow, I don’t think this is what most of us have in mind. When we think of Jesus’ teachings, we usually think about love, or we think about forgiveness. Or inclusion, or social justice. But no, you hand Jesus the mic and the first thing out of his mouth is, “hate your family[i] and your own life. Take up your cross, and give away everything you’ve got. Otherwise, find another teacher.” That’s one way to thin a crowd.
Here Jesus wouldn’t be what we might call “seeker sensitive.” No doubt it was as strange and offensive sounding to his first hearers as it is to us. I mean really, Jesus? Hate is such a strong word, especially when it comes to family. You said to love our enemies, but we’re supposed to hate our nearest and dearest? And take up the cross? You want us to get ourselves killed? And seriously... all our possessions?
While I don’t want to minimize the harshness of these words, to understand them, we need to understand when he says these things in the story, and why he says them. This passage comes right in the middle of his journey to Jerusalem. Which, if you read ahead, you’ll know that Jerusalem is the end of the road that lies under the shadow of the cross, and his own death. With these teachings Jesus says, this is where I’m going. This is what I’ve been sent to do, this is who I was created to be. But here’s what it’s gonna cost. I’m gonna have to put God and God’s way for the world ahead of my own love and loyalty for my family. I’m gonna have to put it in front of my personal comfort, my life goals and my ego. I’m gonna have to put God above any and every possession. I’m gonna have to do what God requires of me, he says. But I’ve gotta be willing to give up everything near and dear to me. And if you wanna follow me, you've gotta be willing to do the same.
These teachings are less a “to-do” for disciples than they are a warning. A disclaimer. You wouldn’t build a tower, he says, before you sat down to make sure you had enough cash to actually finish the thing. Or, he says, if you were a general, you wouldn’t head off into battle without first figuring out if you had enough troops to win.” Jesus is just being transparent, he’s letting us count the cost. This is the toll if you want to merge onto his highway. If you wanna follow him you need to be prepared to cash out on family, comfort, ego. Everything precious in your life will be up for grabs. No fine print here. Just the cost of discipleship. Right up front.
That explains why he says it. But it doesn’t make it any easier, does it? The truth is that we tend to think of faith, of spiritual devotion in the same terms that we’ve come to see everything else. We see it in as consumers. We see it as an add-on, an additional benefit to our always settled lives. Chicken soup for the soul that hits the spot when we need a little recharge. But here Jesus is portrayed kind of like the kids who smoked on school property when I was in junior high. He’s from a little redneck town, and we’re not sure who his real father is. This guy won’t settle down anywhere. Look at the losers he eats and drinks with. If you hang out with him, pretty soon you’ll be one of them. It's going to disrupt the rest of your life. Soon enough, you’ll start making decisions with him in mind instead of your parents. Your grades in everything society says is important will begin to take a nosedive. If you fall in with him, you might be sacrificing career and fortune, and who knows what your future might look like. Or where you might end up.
Because following Jesus isn’t about affirmation of the way things are or the preservation of the world the way we like it. It’s about the transfiguration of our souls, the transformation of our lives. The renewal of all things. From the bottom up. The inside out. Letting Jesus loiter for too long’s bound to ruin your life. Because nobody’s the same after falling in with Jesus and his crowd.
Nobody’s the same.
Will Willimon, one of my favourite preachers was formerly Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, one of the world’s most prestigious universities. One day got a call from a very angry parent, one virtually foaming at the mouth.
“I hold you personally responsible for this,” shouted the parent.
“Me?” Willimon replied.
This man’s daughter had just graduated that year, and was primed for medical school, at Duke. Which is also one of the top medical schools in the world. Already accepted, got the scholarships, a wildly successful future was hers. All this, her dad said, and she’d done a complete 180. Instead of Medical School, he said, she was throwing it all away to go overseas. To work for a Presbyterian church mission in Haiti. “It’s absurd!” he shouted. “A Bachelor of Science degree from Duke... and she’s going to dig ditches in Haiti!”
“Well,” Will replied. “I doubt that she’s received much training in the Engineering Department here for that kind of work. But she’s probably a fast learner and will probably get the hang of ditch-digging in a few months.”
“Look,” her dad replied. “She said you, your church, and your advice were what inspired her to do it. I hold you personally responsible. This is her future we’re talking about. She's had everything. Every opportunity. Now she’s throwing it all away.”
"Now hold on,” Willimon said. “Before we go any further, I want you to clarify a few things for me.”
“Your daughter," he asked. “Did you have her baptized?”
“What? Yes of course.”
“Did you regularly take her to church growing up?”
“Of course. We’re responsible parents.”
After a few more questions, Willimon found out that they made sure she was in Sunday School every week. He and his wife regularly read her and their other children Bible stories. They sent her to the youth group, and when she got to Duke they made sure she still went to chapel every week. Even when she didn’t feel like it, or drank too much the night before. Or could better spend the day studying instead.
Willimon thought for a minute. “Look,” he said. “I think you’re blaming the wrong guy. It sounds to me that this might actually be your fault. Cuz you’re the one who introduced her to Jesus, not me.”
The woman’s father was speechless. “Well,” he finally squeaked out. “We didn’t raise her to be some kind of Jesus freak. All we ever wanted her to be was a Presbyterian!”[ii]
Clearly, these people didn’t know what they were getting her into! They never sat down to count the cost. But this is the kind of thing that’s bound to happen when you hitch your life to Jesus, when you let him drag you along on his way. Not only will he alienate your family members. He’ll take you to places where you never thought you’d go. He’ll have you loving people who everyone else wrote off as unloveable, carrying the cross for the least, last and the lost. He’ll have you sacrificing things you never thought you could every do without. He’ll have you giving away opportunities for advancement, emptying your bank account in wild acts of generosity. If you let him, he’ll empty your old life of seeking, striving, achievement and fearful anxiety. And he’ll fill it it to the brim with a grace that will spill out in unconditional love. The stuff of true joy.
Today Jesus tells us that if we want to go where he goes, it means that we should be ready to have our lives complicated, to be turned upside-down. To be prepared to toss out all of our best-laid plans and primed to pawn our carefully considered dreams of what the good life looks like. Because he’s not here just to make nice people nicer or to make life just a little more pleasant or bearable. His business is death and resurrection. His destination is transformation, it’s salvation. It’s new creation. And on the way he’s dragging us through the cross. But on the other side is paradise. Which, in the presence of Jesus already becomes close enough to taste, touch, and smell.
It’s a topsy-turvy, teaching I know. It’s costly. It’ll take everything we’ve got. But in return, we’re promised a life more meaningful, more beautiful than we ever could have imagined. If we throw our lot in with him, Jesus promises life abundant, life in the full. Nothing less than everlasting life.
It’s costly. But in the light of eternity, it doesn’t sound like such a bad deal.
[i] The word “hate” sounds very harsh. The English translation of the Greek can be misleading as it “does not mean anger or hostility. It means that if there is a conflict, one’s response to the demands of discipleship must take precedence over the most sacred of human relationships… [this is] Semitic hyperbole that exaggerates a contrast so it can be seen more clearly.” R. Alan Culpepper, “Luke,” In The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, vol IX, gen. ed. Leander Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), 292.
[ii] William H. Willimon, Sermon Podcast. I don’t remember from when. See his now defunct podcast. https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/bishop-william-h-willimons-podcast/id261879191