Sermon by: Robert Austell
November 4, 2007
What is a disciple? That is the question raised and answered in today's text.
Interestingly, a student at a local seminary stopped by the church this week and dropped off a one-page survey for a class he was taking. It asked the same question, "What is a disciple?"
I answered his survey by saying that a disciple is a follower of Jesus marked by obedience, commitment, and faith.
Our text today begins with crowds following Jesus. When we read the Bible, we see that this was a frequent happening with Jesus. He was a popular teacher and many people followed him around to hear his teaching. But it seems as if in today's text he goes out of his way to distinguish to the crowds what it means to be a true disciple. It is specific and it is costly.
Comparing the crowd to the way Jesus described discipleship is like comparing apples and oranges. One might even recognize that it is not unlike comparing church attendance to discipleship. Still, it's apples and oranges. Both are good; but very different.
Jesus is going to say some very strong things and by the end, I think it will be clear that if we are talking about anything other than complete commitment, obedience and faith in Jesus Christ, then we are talking about something entirely different than discipleship.
Jesus gives three prerequisites for being a disciple not one of "The Twelve", but a follower of Jesus. We will look at each one and then come to the question of what it means for us to be disciples of Jesus Christ.
Love of Another Kind (v. 26)
If anyone comes to me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. (v. 26)
I think this verse is one of the hardest verses in the Bible. By that, I don't mean that it's hard to understand. It isn't obvious what it means, but it is understandable. I can explain that. What is really hard about it is what it is does mean.
Here's the explanation. First, it doesn't mean what it sounds like. You don't have to hate your family in order to follow Jesus. How would that even make sense when Jesus taught such a strong ethic of love? If this teaching sound strange to your ears, it would have 100 times to the ears of his Jewish audience. For them, family was at the center of cultural values, and also at the heart of their scripture. The Ten Commandments say to honor our father and mother. Jesus did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill and complete it. Something else is going on here.
The usual explanation you'll get (and this may be in your footnotes if you have a study Bible) is that it is in contrast to the love a disciple has for God. We are to love God so completely and utterly that all other loves pale in comparison. We've talked about that before. God is not to be among our top three loves; God is not to be "just #1"; God is to be our only God, with no other no other loves of THAT kind
apples and oranges.
It's still hard to wrap our heads (and hearts!) around, but it kind of makes sense. But listen; that's not the hard part. There is a sense in which Jesus means exactly what he sounds like he's saying. Let me give you several examples.
When I counsel young adults preparing for marriage, one of the most important concepts we have to talk about is what it means to "leave and cleave" (Genesis 2:24). One of the most common problem-causers for a new marriage is remaining overly tied to one's family of origin. Do I mean that a new bride should not talk to her mother or go for a visit? Not at all. But I do mean that she has a new first allegiance. She has a new family that takes precedence over the relationship with her parents. This is one of the most challenging things for adult children AND parents to grasp. And choosing the new family over the old one can sometimes feel like a rejection of love. I have, more than once, heard the words, "She no longer loves us; he has turned his back on us; he hates us!" Of course they don't! But the new allegiance can feel that way.
How does this apply with God? Surely God is better at communicating and avoiding hurt feelings than a 20-something bride or groom! Yes, but we are still human. What if God's plans for our children don't match up with our own hopes and dreams? They marry and move across the country, or like my good college friends the Allison's, move to Africa to translate the Bible for an unreached people group. Do they hate me, their friend? Do they hate their parents? Lezlie writes that her unairconditioned home sometimes reaches 120 degrees when she's cooking. Her children play on dirt floors
and there's malaria. Yes, what about children? Does she hate them because she's following God? To many it would seem that way.
Jesus is not telling his disciples to hate their loved ones; he is describing what their discipleship looks like to the outside world to those who don't understand their love of God.
We stumble on the part about hating father, mother, wife, children, brothers, and sisters, and usually quit reading before the last one. But that's maybe the craziest one. We are to hate our own life! There is little we hold more precious than that. Tradition tells us that all but one of the disciples gave their lives following Jesus. Jesus is describing to the onlookers the crowd what discipleship looks like from the outside. Surely, nothing seems crazier to the onlooking world than to see a follower of Jesus making this ultimate sacrifice out of love for the Savior.
Essentials for the Trip (v. 27)
Jesus continues with this short, but power-packed verse:
Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. (v. 27)
What does it mean to carry our own cross? It is a continuation of what Jesus just said. It is the willingness to lay down our life for the sake of Jesus Christ. That, in a very poignant way, is what "coming after me" means here. We are following the example of Jesus, who did not consider equality with God something to be grasped onto, but who humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8). That passage in Philippians exhorts us to "have this attitude in us". That's what Jesus is teaching here that we should hold on loosely to the things of this life in order to humbly pursue obedience to God.
What is essential for following Jesus? What must we bring with us for the journey? It is only what Jesus carried with him to the cross. It is faith, humility, and obedience. We must be willing to lay down everything else. That is the full meaning of "lay down your life." Yes, in some times and places, even today, being a Christian means risking one's life. It may be that way again in our lifetime for you and me. It also means, though, that we not clutch onto anything else. We cannot carry the cross and follow Jesus if our hands and hearts are full of other stuff. It is an all or nothing thing.
At this point, it's normal to wonder, "I'm not sure I'm up for all this!" That's exactly why Jesus goes on to give two illustrations. He is illustrating the importance of counting the cost and not falling away mid-course. He describes a builder who only planned finances for the foundation, but who didn't have enough to finish. He then describes a king who would be foolish not to consider the size of the opposing army before deciding to fight or seek peace.
Jesus was surrounded by those who had an initial interest in his teachings, but who had not considered or counted the cost of truly following him. Likewise, coming to church does not make one a Christian; rather, obedient discipleship is what it means to be a Christian.
I clarify that not to scare you away, but to invite you to come all the way in! But come in knowing that this is not a hobby. It is not entertainment and it is not a safe place to raise your children. You can't believe I said that? Raise them here and they may grow up to be such Jesus-followers that they will follow him to the uttermost parts of the earth. If you want safe, there are safer churches.
Non-Essentials (v. 33)
The third prerequisite to being a disciple of Jesus is in verse 33:
So then, none of you can be my disciple who does not give up all his own possessions.
It's a little ironic, isn't it, that we stumble on this? When we talk about stewardship and tithing and such, we hold out tithing as the great achievement of mature Christianity and we kind of laughingly say, "But Jesus really says to give up all our possessions." What is really interesting is to read this teaching here in the context of the other prerequisites of being a disciple. Suddenly, possessions don't seem like the big deal they normally do. If you haven't choked on the first two prerequisites, then you can probably deal with this one.
Possessions are an interesting thing. Perhaps the best way to understand them is to study the Ten Commandments. God provides there for property ownership in the Sabbath Law, noting that we are not only to rest from work, but rest our family and possessions as well. And yet, in the Coveting Law, God warns against desiring another's possessions. There are those things that God entrusts to us, with which we are to honor Him and return to him as faithful stewards. And there are those things we clutch at and grab onto. And those are things we are to repent of and let go.
Disciples of Jesus Christ do not have to take a vow of poverty, but they have to be willing to. They seek only to possess what has been entrusted to them by God, and they tend those things not as their own, but as God's, to be used and returned as God sees fit.
Salt (vv. 34-35)
Jesus ends this teaching by talking about salt. If you'll excuse my mixing the metaphor, he does so to illustrate the difference between the apples and oranges. Salt is good; learning about God is good. Following Jesus around for a while is not a bad thing. Hanging out in church is good. But the purpose of God's Word and Jesus calling is that God USE us in the world. Salt is good, but not if it never comes out of the saltshaker. We know it can't lose it's flavor, but if it did, it would be useless for its intended purpose.
Jesus says unsalty salt makes as much sense as "Christians" who are not disciples obedient followers.
He has described and issued the call. It is to a love of God that makes all other loves pale in comparison. It is to a faith that should be called an "extreme sport". It is to a lifestyle of service and stewardship that clings to nothing other than the character and love of a gracious God.
In The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis, a table is set for such disciples. It is a feast to end all feasts. To those without the eyes to see, it was bits of hay and dirty water.
Today, Jesus calls you. He calls you to discipleship and he has set his feast before you. It looks like some grocery store bread and juice, but to those who answer the call, it is the very body and blood of the Son of God. Amen.