Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Cost of Discipleship

Texts: Philemon 1:1-21; Luke 14:25-33

DID YOU KNOW WHAT YOU were getting into when you became a Christian? Probably you were baptised as a baby. Most likely you went through Confirmation Class as a young teenager. Maybe you came to faith as an adult.  However it was, there was probably some event or process in your life when you chose to identify yourself as a follower of Jesus Christ. Did you sit down and consider the consequences? Or was being a Christian just the ordinary logical thing for someone in your time and place to be?

Jesus our Lord says we should count the cost before we commit to being His disciple. Now, on the divine level, from God's point of view, we have no choice at all. He has elected us from all eternity to be His, as it says in Ephesians 1:4 and 5: "For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Christ Jesus, in accordance with his pleasure and will." His grace calls us to faith without our being able to resist it, as it says in John 6:37: "All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away." His providence, not our works, keeps us bound to Christ for all eternity, as we read in John 6:39: "And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given to me, but raise them up at the last day." But God works out His sovereign will for our salvation on the level of this world. He has us experience it from our human point of view. To those who find the idea of following Jesus attractive, our Lord says, "Take a good look at what believing in Me will mean. Come into it with your eyes open. Count the cost."

Luke says in Chapter 14, verse 25 that large crowds were following Jesus. He was preaching the kingdom of God, something all good Jews were looking forward to, especially in those days with the Romans occupying Israel. The kingdom of God would mean joy and feasting and power, with the saints of God-- that is, the Jews-- supreme over the nations when the Messiah came to rule the world. Jesus of Nazareth was talking and acting more like the Messiah all the time; who wouldn't want to follow him around and be there when He was crowned and king and started handing out the benefits?

In the same way, thousands, even millions of people nowadays are attracted to Jesus and Christianity by what they think it can offer them. Even people who call themselves Evangelicals. At the worst you have the Health-and-Wealth prosperity gospel types who believe that it's God's will that all Christians should be rolling in mansions and Rolls-Royces, you just need to exercise the power of faith. More subtly, and, I think, more dangerously, you have the people who think that being a Christian means discovering "God's wonderful purpose for your life" and learning the formula for having "your best life now." For them, Christian preaching means talks on improving your marriage and how to raise well-adjusted kids. As a lady at a church I used to pastor once said, "We want something nice to take home with us."

Jesus is adamant: None of that is what being His disciple means. He turns to the following crowds (and by His Spirit He turns to us) and says, "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters— yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple."

So much for "gentle Jesus, meek and mild"! Does Jesus literally want us to violate God's commandments about honoring and taking care of our families? Is He ordering us to go against every law of human affection? Some cults would have us think so. But no. He is using a form of speech called hyperbole, because He wants to shock the multitudes-- and us-- out of our idolatrous visions of what being a disciple of Jesus is all about. Yes, you are to love and honor and cherish your father, your mother, your spouse, your children, your siblings. But compared to the love you have for God in Christ, that love should amount to hate. Yes, you are to nourish and protect your own body and not recklessly put yourself in the way of disease and danger. But compared to the new life Jesus offers, this mortal life should mean nothing to you at all. And if your love for your dearest friends and relations makes you compromise your commitment to Jesus, you cannot be His disciple. If you would rather deny Him than be persecuted or tortured or killed for the sake of the Gospel of Christ and Him crucified, you cannot be His.

Count the cost, you who would more than His follower be. Discipleship entails self-discipline. Jesus says, "And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple." Not follow Him around like groupies trailing after a rock band, but walk in His footsteps as He toils up the hill of Calvary. A cross always meant death to those Jews following Jesus. Once the Roman soldier had laid that cross on you, you were going to die. Not all of Jesus' disciples have been called to undergo actual crucifixion or some other death for His sake. But all of us He calls to be dead to this world, dead to our own desires, dead to even the best things this life has to offer, and alive only to His mastership and His will.

What is the cost of being Jesus' disciple? Simply, everything. Everything we have and everything we are. Nothing can be allowed to take precedence of Him.

Jesus hammers the point home by giving us three parables or figures: the builder, the weak king, and salt.

I've gradually been renovating my house for the last seven years. The other day I got a call from a contractor wondering if I was ready to redo my bathroom. No. Not now. The funds just aren't there. Jesus speaks of a man who wants to build a tower. If he's sensible, he'll make the same sort of deliberations. A half-finished tower is really visible and will bring a lot of derision. In the same way, anyone who wants a part in the kingdom of God has to be aware that everyone will be looking at his life expecting it to reflect what they know of Christ and His lordship. Living the Christian life will not bring ease and earthly fulfillment; it'll take everything we've got.

Then Jesus talks about a king. A king with the bigger force is coming at this king's little city-state: what should he do? For attacks are sure to come at us from the world, the flesh, and the devil when we identify ourselves with the cause of Christ. Will we be ready to fight the good fight of the faith, or will we just cave in?

John Calvin, in his Commentary on the Gospels, writes this: "The statements which our Lord makes to this effect must not be applied . . . as if we were to enter into any compromise with our spiritual foe, when our strength and resources fail. It would be idle to treat parables as applying in every minute point to the matter in hand. But our Lord simply means that we ought to be so well prepared, as not to be taken by surprise for want of a proper defense, or basely to turn our backs . . . The design of Christ, therefore, is to warn his followers to bear the cross, that they may prepare themselves with courage." Troubles will come even though we are Christians! Troubles will come because we are Christians! Jesus says we have to give up everything to be His disciple, including the foolish idea that being His will mean everything will be easy and safe and secure with us.

People of Muslim background who become Christians experience this firsthand. For them, letting "goods and kindred go, this mortal life also" is not just a line in a hymn, it's a daily reality. It comes with being Christ's disciple. They know what giving up everything to be Jesus' disciple is all about. If we live our lives thinking belonging to Christ is supposed to be easy, we'll compromise with the world, the flesh, and the devil the first time a real difficulty presents itself.

And then there is the image of salt. Jesus, and Luke, assume that His hearers will know that the figurative salt that preserves and purifies in this present age is the word of God and the people of God who take that word into the world. Jesus says, "Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?" Physical salt, sodium chloride, can lose its saltiness by being so mixed in with other elements that it becomes corrupted and impure. Or the salts can be leached out of it by outside influences. Either way, it's no good even for the compost heap. Indeed, it'd do the soil a lot of damage if you put it in.

So if our lives are preaching a false, corrupted gospel, or if we corrupt and falsify the gospel to give an excuse for our unChristlike lives, we are like that worthless salt. No, we have to be ready to stand up for the pure faith once for all delivered to the saints.

What is the cost of discipleship? Taking up our cross in total surrender to our Lord Jesus Christ. It costs us everything we have and everything we are.

But I've noticed: Often we can accept the possibility of physical martyrdom for the faith, at least in theory. There's something stirring and noble about the idea. What's harder is when God calls us to bear the cross in lesser matters, every day of our lives.

Think of the situation of Philemon of Laodicea. Clearly Philemon is a man of position and means. He lives in a commodious house. He owns slaves. Philemon is also a Christian, converted by the apostle Paul himself.

We can assume that his whole household, slave or free, professed faith in Christ at the same time. But not the slave Onesimus. One fine day he helped himself to some of his master's goods and ran off for Rome.

And now he has been found, and has returned to Laodicea, bearing a letter. Philemon had every right to sell such a worthless slave (ironic, since "Onesimus" means "useful") to the salt mines, or to the arena to be fodder for the wild beasts. He had every civil right to demean him as a worker and as a man. Philemon's pagan neighbors would have expected no less.

But the letter Onesimus bears is from Paul himself. Onesimus, he writes, has become his son in their common faith. He now belongs to Christ. So Paul is sending him back to Philemon, "no longer as a slave, but better than a slave-- as a dear brother." And not just as any brother: Philemon is to receive this formerly thieving, useless, runaway slave as he would St. Paul himself!

Did Philemon have any idea that that was ahead of him when he committed to being a disciple of Jesus Christ? What would such unthinkable mercy mean for his relations with his other Christian slaves? What would the pagan neighbors say? Why, if such unmasterlike behaviour caught on, it could disrupt the economic system of the entire Roman world!

But the duty to welcome Onesimus back wholeheartedly and with honor was now Philemon's cross and the cost of his discipleship. Church history tells us he accepted that burden, for it tells us that Onesimus ended up as the beloved bishop of the church in Ephesus.

This is the kind of cross-bearing God demands of us when we heed Christ's call to be His disciple. He doesn't want imaginary dramatic sacrifices we may never be called to make; rather he requires the ordinary, everyday self-denials we may wish were none of God's business. Like saying Yes to service we'd rather shirk. Giving time to others when we'd rather have it for ourselves. Remaining faithful when a loved one dies or when the doctor tells us we have a terrible disease. Saying No to desires and activities and even people when they come between us and the lordship of Jesus Christ.

Because, you know what? When God's good grace makes us Jesus' disciples, we become His slaves. We belong to Him totally, for He has bought us with His precious blood. You might say, "In that case, I've counted the cost and sorry, Jesus, I'm out of here. I'd rather live free." Ah, but if you will not be a slave of Christ and owe everything to Him, you will remain a slave to sin, and your wages will be death.

Humanly-speaking, it's impossible for us to make the total surrender Jesus requires. But God Himself gives us the strength and will to be His disciple, through the merit and mercy of His Son Jesus Christ. His word is His preserving and purifying salt in us, and His Holy Spirit enables us to be salt in this dying world. The price that would be too much for you to pay He has paid for you.

What is the cost of Christian discipleship? All you have and all you are. What is its reward? Jesus and all His riches in glory. I'd say the sacrifice is worth it. And now in the name of Christ I ask, is it worth it to you?

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