A sermon by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va.
September 8, 2013.
Most of us have heard of Dale Carnegie’s famous book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, written in 1936. In that book, Carnegie offered pointers on how to handle people, how to make people like you, how to make people agree with you. As I read today’s text, I couldn’t help but think that Jesus could have taken a few pointers from Carnegie. Jesus was in the midst of his earthly ministry and he was developing quite a following. People came from all over to hear this young rabbi. Luke wrote that large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and you don’t argue with the numbers. But all of a sudden, in the midst of the adoring crowd, Jesus came up with some sayings guaranteed not to win friends and influence people. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters– yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
For those of us who like to emphasize the welcoming, warm, fuzzy side of Jesus, these words present a major challenge. In fact, for many of us, these words are offensive, and they are a source of embarrassment. It reminds me of some of the things that televangelists have said in reaction to events like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. I once asked Beth to see if she could tell me some of the whacko things that crazy preachers have said over the years. And my daughter Thea replied with an impish smile: “You’re the crazy preacher in our family, why don’t you tell us?”
Well . . . as I was saying, Jesus’ words here were challenging, if not downright offensive. Jesus teaches here that a disciple’s identity is solely based on Jesus, even if it means going against one’s family’s wishes. In near eastern cultures, family was and is an incredibly important institution. A person’s identity and sense of belonging were totally connected to one’s parents and spouse. In this passage, Jesus forcibly challenges the family values of his day by saying, “Look, you can’t follow me unless you detach yourself from your own family and yes, even your own life. You have to give up everything. Then if you still want to my disciple, then get ready to die and follow me.”
It’s almost as if Jesus was doing all he could to drive people away! Like a football coach running two-a-day practices in the scorching August sun, Jesus seemed to be testing the commitment and resolve of these would-be followers, and he was not afraid to trim down the roster. In fact, he told the crowds to estimate or count the cost before following him. Jesus used the example of a man building a tower, and a king deciding whether to go to war. Would you trust a home builder and contractor who couldn’t give you an estimate of the cost of building or renovating your home? Before waging war, wouldn’t you want our leaders to know an estimate of what it is going to cost our country? According to the National Priorities Project, every hour, taxpayers in the United States are paying $11.26 million for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001. Have we as a country calculated the cost of going to war with Syria?
Now, I’m not here to debate the merits of these wars this morning. My point, and more importantly, Jesus’ point, is that anything in life that is worth doing and worth doing well is going to cost something, and we should anticipate that cost in our decision-making. My college roommate is an ear, nose and throat specialist in Houston, and while he was doing his residency, working 80 hours a week, he used to say that he wished being a doctor was as easy as the skills covered in the Time-Life how-to books advertised on TV. Do you remember those ads? Want to know how to fix the toilet? Just read the book! Need to change a flat tire? Just read the book! My roommate wished there was a Time-Life book for being a doctor. Open heart surgery? Just read the book! Frontal lobotomy? Just read the book! Now, would you trust your life to a doctor who did not count the cost, and just got his medical knowledge by flipping through Time-Life books?
Anything in life that is worth doing and worth doing well is going to cost something. If you’re going to be good at anything, it will take discipline, sacrifice, perseverance, and commitment. That is true if you want to be a good student, a good business person, a good worker, a good teacher or professor, a good athlete, a good musician, a good spouse, a good parent . . . and, it is also true if you want to be a good Jesus follower, a good disciple of Jesus. Actually, Jesus is saying something much stronger. He’s saying as good as all those other things are, they pale in significance to the importance of following Him. For you see, God is inviting us to be part of something so big, that our eternal destinies and the destiny of creation itself are at stake. Jesus said, “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self or life?” That’s why we must give up everything we have in order to truly follow Jesus. But does that mean we can’t have those other things? No, I think Matthew 6:33 makes clear what Jesus means: “Seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things—family, relationships, careers—will be given to you as well.”
I must confess that in my life, I have often not counted the cost regarding my Christian discipleship. I have put my academic studies, my recreation and choices of entertainment, my family and, yes, even my job as pastor of a church, above and before my relationship to Jesus my Lord. I’ve often seen my Christian discipleship as one thing alongside of everything else that I’m doing, like one piece of a pie alongside all the other pieces representing family, education, career, and recreation. But what Jesus is saying is that my Christian discipleship is more like the pie tin that holds everything together. Seek first the pie tin and make sure that it is steady and firm, and then the rest of the pie will fall into place. But even if the rest of the pie does NOT fall into place the way I want or desire, the most important thing is that I’ve still got the pie tin.
This is hard. Because, often, we don’t want the pie tin, we want the pie! We want our Christian discipleship to be convenient and not costly. Being Jesus’ disciple was not convenient for the Peter, James, John and the rest of the twelve. It was costly—costly in terms of money, time, relationships, and priorities. But too often, we want our discipleship to be something we can just squeeze in if we have extra time and if it does not conflict with all our other commitments. We’ve so overscheduled the rest of our lives that we find we have no time or energy to devote to following Jesus. We’ve bought into the notion that the Christian faith is something we consume like a cup of Starbucks coffee when we feel like it, and not something that consumes us and demands our whole life.
This problem does not just rest on individuals. Churches share just as much of the blame. In our anxiety to have more people fill the pews and fill our coffers, churches have focused more on membership than on discipleship. We try to make church “user-friendly” so that it doesn’t demand too much of members. In the book Power Surge, Pastor Michael Foss contends that too many churches today are focused on membership, which in our day, implies paying dues for the purpose of receiving benefits. Foss argues that churches need to replace our membership mindset with a discipleship mindset. The mission of the church is not to make members but to make disciples, and we will do well to focus on Foss’ six marks of discipleship: daily prayer, weekly worship, daily Bible reading, spiritual friendships and nurturing relationships, service in and beyond the congregation, and generosity in the giving of our time, talents, and resources.
My hope for University Baptist is that we become more focused on being a church that makes disciples. I’m not saying that I’m looking for more people to attend Sunday morning Bible studies, worship or Wednesday night activities. I’m praying that within our Bible study groups, our choirs, our Wednesday night gatherings, our committee, council, deacon and staff meetings, we will be more intentional in worshipping God, reading scripture, developing spiritual friendships, and serving those outside of our groups. In addition to the groups we already have, we will also be creating more opportunities for church members to come together in smaller, informal gatherings, like the community dinner groups that Sarah Buchanan is coordinating, so that people can know each other better. For the last six months, we ministers have been meeting periodically to learn how we can be more intentional in discipling others, and pretty soon, we hope to be leading our own discipleship groups. My vision and dream for University Baptist is that we won’t just be a church that only meets on Sundays and Wednesdays. I envision small groups led by University Baptist members gathering on every day and night of the week, at various locations throughout Charlottesville and Albemarle county, to worship, to read and study scripture, to pray for one another and to serve and minister to our neighbors and neighborhoods. My prayer is that these groups will be so life-giving that others would want to be a part of it, and they will be warmly welcomed even though they might never darken the doors of our building. But in all our small groups, all will learn more of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.
This vision may not attract the crowds, but I hope this vision is faithful to Jesus’ own vision; to call and nurture disciples who were committed to Him. Yes, this is hard and challenging, but I believe this is what we were created to be and to do. The good news is that Jesus never asks of us anything that He was not willing to do himself. Jesus was so intent on following the will of His heavenly Father, that he told a group of his followers that “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Jesus carried his cross, a horrific instrument of torture, for the redemption of the world. Jesus gave up everything—his prestige, his heavenly home, his comfort, security, and even his life—so that we might be saved. Discipleship is not something we do to get our tickets punched for heaven. Discipleship is following Jesus with deep gratefulness and thanksgiving because of what He has already done for us.
In February 2001, John Oros spoke to an audience at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary about his experience as a church leader in Romania during the Communist era. He said:
During communism, many of us preached…and people came at the end of a service, and they said, “I have decided to become a Christian. We want to be baptized.” We told them, “It is good that you want to become a Christian, but we would like to tell you that there is a price to be paid. Why don’t you reconsider what you want to do, because many things can happen to you. For when you give your testimony at your baptism…there will be informers here who will jot down your name. Tomorrow the problems will start. Count the cost. Christianity is not easy. It’s not cheap. You can be demoted. Your parents may disown you. You can lose your job. You can lose your friends. You can lose your neighbors. You can lose your kids who are climbing the social ladder. You can lose even your life.
Then John continued: “Let me tell you my joy—when we looked into their eyes, and their eyes were filled with tears, and they told us, “If I lose everything but my relationship with my Lord Jesus Christ, it is still worth it.”
May God grant us the grace to count the cost of discipleship and to follow Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
 Michael W. Foss, Power Surge: Six Marks of Discipleship for a Changing Church (Fortress Press, 2000).
 Mark 3:32-35.
 Illustration submitted by Brent Kipfer, Brussels, Ontario, in www.preachingtoday.com.