The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
September 4, 2022
It’s easy to say we’re “all in” on following Jesus.
But are we? You and I are, within ourselves, not fully unified and integrated. Each of our hearts is divided to some extent; and each soul, not yet whole.
Pastor Ray Ortlund once compared the decision-making center of our being to a committee made up each part of us, with each one trying to talk over the others and gain the upper hand. At the table is our public self, private self, work self, recreational self, spiritual self, physical self, and so on. The committee is always arguing over our choices, and rarely reaches a unanimous decision. For we are rarely one thing entirely.
Even if we have made the fundamental choice to follow Jesus, only sometimes is our discipleship the one thing that determines and defines who we are and how we act. For we relegate Jesus to being just one more member of the committee, albeit one whose vote counts more than any other; and thereby we fail to put Him in a position where His views are always dominant and determinative.
In today’s scripture, Jesus is still making His way to Jerusalem, but the context has changed from the previous scripture. Jesus is no longer having a semiprivate conversation in the home of folks who hate Him, but out in public preaching to crowds of folks who love Him and feel sure they want to follow Him. Jesus doesn’t need to win them over, but He does need to warn them against making a hasty, impulsive decision whose costs they have not, in the heat of the moment, considered. Jesus wants them to decide in awareness of the price they will pay to enjoy the priceless treasure of His friendship. He hopes to make them as wise as builders who, before breaking ground, determine whether they have the resources to finish the job or as wise as kings who, before going to war, determine whether they have the troops to win.
Jesus would never deny He is offering a priceless gift. But He would also never deny that taking possession of that prize exacts a steep price.
For Jesus can be all He is only for those who let Him be all He is in their lives: the greatest good to which all other goods must defer. He can’t fit into any life save one in which He is first and foremost.
Jesus often expresses truths in deliberately shocking and disturbing ways that seem to contradict other things for which He stands. I believe He does this to imprint the truth upon His hearers and to prompt them to reflect on everything He says so as to draw the right conclusions. Jesus understands that you can open people’s eyes to a world of truth by first throwing them into a world of confusion.
That’s what Jesus is doing here when He tells these enthusiastic but unrealistic would-be disciples that they cannot be His disciples unless they hate their family members. Of course, Jesus does not want anyone to give in to the vile and violence-prone emotion we feel when we spit out, “I hate you!” This is confirmed by Jesus’ using a Semitic expression here that signifies detaching from people – for example, for the sake of attaching to someone or something more loved. Jesus is here, in His poetic and provocative way, making clear and memorable the truth that any disciple of His must, in the broad network of all their loyalties, give precedence to His claim upon them. This will, of necessity, involve some detaching from those who keep them from fully befriending Him.
This is like what happens when, an Oxford University study showed, a person falls in love and thereupon loses, on average, two friends. The reason is not that anyone is rejecting anyone, but that the person who’s fallen in love wants to be supremely available to their most beloved and that takes becoming less available to some others.
Likewise, when Jesus tells these would-be disciples that they must hate their own life, He isn’t asking for self-loathing but for the intensity of love – such as a good parent has for their child or a good friend for their best friend – that motivates folks to be willing to sacrifice their own life, if need be, to do a great good for their beloved.
In the same way, when at the end of this scripture, Jesus says we cannot be His disciples unless we “give up” all our possessions, we do well to recognize there is a difference between “giving away” such and “giving it over” to a new, higher application. If we give it over to Jesus, we put it as His disposal, and thus no longer possess our possessions. We are ever willing to give them away for His sake, even when He’s asked us to retain them for the time being and manage them to serve His purposes. What we have then remains His own; we just take care of His stuff for Him. Thus, though we still hold on to “our” stuff, we hold it with a loose grip and stay ready to give any of it or all of it away should He ask.
Meeting the demands of discipleship to Jesus does require a radical and dramatically different reorientation in life, but that reorientation may not be all that obvious. Yes, some of us are asked to embrace poverty or martyrdom, but many more of us are asked to follow Jesus radically in a life that at first looks no different than most any other. Our signing over to Jesus everyone and everything dear to us, and subordinating our every desire, dream, plan, ideal and interest to His will, may well be worked out in an ordinary-appearing life. For our faithfulness to Jesus is fulfilled in a thousand unimpressive, inconspicuous and, to all appearances, inconsequential actions. But God misses nothing, and little things done a long time make a big difference.
Thus, the truest disciples of Jesus are often people whom few recognize as such. They just go about living true to their radical commitment to glorify God and bless others, in the way Jesus has chosen for them, even if it be in a mostly humdrum existence of normal duties and routines. But they faithfully pay their vendors on time out of respect and consideration; forego some of the best this world has to offer to do the most they can for the neediest of this world; give their time to patiently listen to long-winded friends who need to unload when they themselves are frazzled and overwhelmed by a long to-do list; speak up at city council meetings though they sometimes look foolish or just plain inarticulate; and show up for worship each Sunday no matter how they feel.
The price we have to pay for the priceless treasure of a friendship with Jesus usually can’t be paid in an instant. That lifelong friendship is fulfilled in a lifetime of walking and working together…in moment by moment listening to Him and moment by moment obeying Him.
Rarely is a person’s discipleship completed in one blaze of glory – say, by embracing poverty or martyrdom (in a quick, painless death of course!)
Fred Craddock has spoken about our temptation to think giving our all to Jesus is like taking a $1,000 bill, laying it on the table, and saying, “Here’s my life, Lord. I’m giving it all.” More often, Craddock notes, Jesus sends us to a bank to have that $1K bill broken down into quarters so that we will spend it 25¢ here and 50¢ there in line with His will. Let us then pay the price for our priceless treasure, little by little, again and again, the length of each day. The payoff will be huge and eternal!