A sermon delivered by Robert Browning, Pastor, Smoke Rise Baptist Church, Stone Mountain, Ga., on September 5, 2010.
Today’s text contains some of the most astonishing words that Jesus spoke. They certainly caught Luke’s attention and must have reinforced his premise that following Jesus would not be easy. Personal sacrifice was an essential component of faith the way that Luke saw it, a theme picked up by German pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book, The Cost of Discipleship.
“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die,” wrote Bonhoeffer in 1937. This is precisely what happened to Bonhoeffer eight years later in a concentration camp when he was hanged for speaking out against the Nazis.
Who among us does not struggle with our text today? “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. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” Luke 14:26-27.
Each time I read these words, I am perplexed. They appear to contradict the fifth commandment, “Honor your father and mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.” They seem to undermine Jesus’ ethic of love and they trample all over society’s insistence upon family values.
What did Jesus mean by these words? Why did Luke include them in his book? How do they speak to us today? Perhaps we can find some answers by asking two more questions. What do these words reveal about Jesus? What do they reveal about following Jesus? Let me begin the conversation.
These words reveal that Jesus was serious about his faith. He had given the words of the prophets a lot of thought and had come to some startling conclusions.
Doing his part to fulfill God’s dream for a just and peaceful world would demand everything he had. Being a peacemaker by building bridges of goodwill and understanding between people would completely drain him. Reaching out to the disenfranchised that others scorned and ignored would put him at odds with many and require immeasurable patience and compassion. Speaking out against corruption, injustice and evil in all its many forms would lead to conflict with those who were addicted to power and possessions.
No one would travel down this road unless he or she was serious about their faith. Jesus was and he did.
These words also reveal that Jesus was committed to following God’s call upon his life, even when it meant great sacrifices had to be made. He did leave his family. He did leave home. He did travel down the dusty roads of commoners and listen to their stories. He did respond to their plight by giving away everything he had. He did die at the hands of his enemies whose goal was to silence his voice and discredit his name.
As a matter of fact, these words were spoken on his way to Jerusalem where he would openly confront his enemies and remind them of the words of the prophets, which they conveniently ignored. Already, he was feeling the pain of rejection and the weight of that heavy cross upon his shoulders, but he did not turn back. Being faithful to God and God’s call upon his life were more important than personal comfort or safety.
What do these words say to me about following Jesus and being his disciple? It won’t be easy, which is all the more reason I need to “count the cost.” Accepting Jesus’ invitation to follow him is not a decision to be taken lightly. It is an all-consuming commitment that will require the highest level of devotion.
I know the word, hate, that Jesus used in this text makes all of us wince. We love our families dearly and cannot imagine a time when we won’t. Look more closely at what this word means, though.
In Aramaic, hate is not necessarily a feeling word, but a word that denotes priority. As strong as the bonds of family are, and they are strong, the bond between Jesus and his disciples must be stronger. Your response to the demands of discipleship must take precedence over even the most sacred relationships. There is no duty higher than commitment to Jesus and to being his disciple. There is no cross too heavy to bear.
Why are the demands of discipleship so great? They must be high in order to counter the temptations that will threaten to pull you away from Jesus.
The decision to be the loving presence of Christ in a broken world will be met with great resistance. Only the highest level of devotion can withstand the world’s magnetic pull.
Recently, when I was on vacation at St. Simons, I struck up a conversation with a delightful man whose name was Tom. He is a retired financial consultant who still works with a few clients. Most of his work these days is with people who are facing bankruptcy.
When I asked how he helped them, he smiled and said, “The first thing I do is talk to them about the importance of being honest with me. They can hide nothing from me and must agree to full disclosure. Their greatest enemy is deception, on any level.
Then, I lead them in a prayer, asking God to help them be completely honest throughout this entire process. When I feel they have crossed that bridge and I am confident they are sincere, we move on to the next step.”
Why does Tom have such high standards and demand nothing less than total honesty? He knows the same temptations that have gotten most of his clients in trouble will surface again and threaten to undermine all that he is trying to do.
Why did Jesus demand unwavering loyalty from his disciples? He knew what temptations awaited them.
Jesus also demanded a high level of commitment because he knew that only those who were fully committed to him would have the kind of impact upon the world that was desperately needed. Someone who was casually committed would not pick up a cross, or if they did, they would not carry it long.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. recalled the night he decided to pick up his cross. He was the twenty-seven-year-old pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, which began a boycott of the public transportation system. King found himself in the middle of the boycott, and as a result, he received as many as forty phone calls a day threatening him and his family.
This was not what he had asked for when he moved to Montgomery. He wondered if he could take this abuse and subject his family to such great risks. Quite frankly, he wanted to leave Montgomery and the spotlight that had been cast upon him as recorded in Drew Henson’s book, The Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Speech that Inspired a Nation.
One night around midnight, King received another call. “We’re tired of you and if you aren’t out of town in three days, we’re going to blow your brains out and blow up your house.” In King’s own words, Henson described what happened next.
“I sat there and thought about a beautiful little daughter who had just been born. She was the darling of my life. I’d come in night after night and see that little gentle smile. I sat at the kitchen table thinking about that little girl and thinking that she could be taken from me at any minute. I got to the point I couldn’t take it any longer. I was weak.
Something said to me, ‘You can’t call on Daddy now. He’s up in Atlanta a hundred and seventy-five miles away. You can’t even call on Mama now. You’ve got to call on that Power that can find a way out of no way.’
I discovered that night that religion had to become real to me, and I had to know God for myself. I bowed my head over a cup of coffee. I will never forget it. I prayed a prayer and I prayed out loud that night. It seemed to me in that moment that I could hear a voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’ I heard the voice of Jesus saying to fight on.”
King fought the good fight, didn’t he? He, along with many others, embodied Bonhoeffer’s words. “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
How about you? Have you ever had this kind of encounter with Jesus? Have you picked up your cross? Have you found your purpose, your voice and your place in fulfilling God’s dream for a just and peaceful world? Would you consider yourself a faithful disciple?
I wonder how the people reacted to Jesus’ words that day. Luke described a large crowd, no doubt filled with lots of curiosity seekers. How many walked away? How many stayed?
What would you have done?
Pray with me: “Dear Lord, we know how much we love our families. We would go anywhere, anytime and do anything to help our children, grandchildren and others we love so dearly. Help us to love you more. Amen.”