Jesus never does what we often try to do! He never tries to soft-sell Christianity. He does not offer discipleship on easy terms. He doesn’t even try to persuade. He never runs after someone after they have turned away saying, “Wait, perhaps if I explain it to you better, in a different way. . .” Jesus never cajoles! It is very hard for us, faced with a declining church, so often trying to do more and more, with less and less, it is very hard us to be as stark about what following Jesus costs as he is himself. We recognise that we need more people to be Christian. We need their help. We know that we need to convince people of the value and importance of following Jesus, and we imagine that it is probably best not to make things difficult from the outset. We want to avoid putting anyone off with anything difficult or demanding. We try to hide the cost of discipleship, reckoning that people will probably pay after it is too late to back out. Or we pretend that what Jesus is offering can be had at no cost at all, almost as if that tower will build itself, or that invading king will choose to turn back on his own. Jesus is very clear about the rewards of discipleship, nothing less than the kingdom of God. But he doesn’t hide its costs either. Jesus is entirely up front, and the tone of his message is always, “take it or leave it.”
Jesus is already on his way to Jerusalem. As his ministry in Galilee had continued, the crowds which followed him grew larger and larger. Still, even on this journey, he being followed by a large crowd. These are people who are already sympathetic to his message. They have heard and accepted his proclamation of Good News: “The kingdom of God is at hand.” Something about Jesus has drawn them to them. And the are already committed to his mission, at least to some extent, after all they are literally following him. Perhaps therefore they are like us, or even like the people we hope we can grow the church amongst. But given where Jesus is going now, maybe they have misunderstood. He knows that it has been incredibly difficult to get even his closest companions to really understand who he is, what he is doing, and what is about to happen. He has good reason to suspect that the crowd has less understanding than the disciples. He turns to the crowd and challenge them: “Do you know what you are doing? Do understand where we are going? Don’t come this way unless you are sure you can make it to the end! If you begin and then turn back, at best you will look foolish, like someone who starts a building project and leaves off with only the foundations laid, or at worst it will be a catastrophe, like being crushed by your enemies!
Whoever comes to me and does not…”
Jesus turns to the crowd and tells them that there are three condition for being his follower. And these conditions are stark, brutal even! That this might surprise or even shock us reveals the degree to which even we have believed that we can have what Jesus offers on easy terms. He says:
“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”
Hate is a hard word. Perhaps we feel this is the most shocking thing Jesus ever said And it seems to run in the opposite direction from everything he says about loving our neighbours. And is indeed true that we should. Nevertheless this is his demand, this is his condition for following him. What he means of course is that our loyalty and commitment to others cannot take precedence over our loyalty and commitment to him. Following Jesus demands a breaking off and a separating from all the people and things we feel attached to, in order that we become free to go where he leads us. In a way that sometimes might look like we hate those who we find we have to leave behind. Jesus doesn’t hide from us that discipleship will challenge and transform all of our relationships, even those closest and most precious to us. Jesus also says, again and again:
“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
We have a problem with these words too, but its a different problem. We hear them too much, and we can trivialise their significance. Every persistent struggle in our lives, from the challenge of maintaining a healthy diet to coping with annoying neighbours, becomes our cross to bear. We don’t really hear what Jesus as actually saying. “Come and die with me.” To follow Jesus is to enter into rejection, betrayal and even death. Following Jesus, doing what would he do, speaking as he would speak puts us at odds with the world we are living in. Despite our best efforts to love our neighbours and even our enemies they are not going to thank us for it. And then Jesus says:
“So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
Despite what some in the church might try to tell us, that everything is going to be alright with Jesus, or even that faith will make you materially wealthy, that is not the deal which Jesus is offering. We do say of course that “you can’t take it with you.” Jesus says form the beginning “leave it behind.” The trouble with possessions, Jesus recognises, is that it is not so much that we own them, but they own us. So much of our own difficulties and many of the problems of the world are because we want to hang on to what we have got, and even have more. Discipleship requires that we let go of that.
Jesus does not soft-sell Christianity. He lays out his conditions clearly for everyone to see. They are harsh. But Jesus says, “Take it or leave it!”
But, all this said, it is not as if God began a process of redeeming and saving us without first knowing the cost and being prepared to pay it! That is God’s grace. When Jesus talks about following him, he means following him in the details. He asks us to follow him into the life he has already lived. He takes us nowhere he hasn’t already been himself. Throughout the Gospel, Jesus is shown to be often at odds with his own family. As events reach their climax in Jerusalem he is betrayed by one friend and abandoned by all the rest. And at the end, dying on the cross he despairs even of his relationship with his Father: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me.” Jesus builds a new community, a greater family that we call the church. But that new community exists after all our other relationships are lost or transformed into it. At this point, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. He turns his face to the holy city in full knowledge of what must happen to him there. His journey to Jerusalem is not a parade, if the crowd did but know it, it is more like a funeral procession. Jesus dies on a cross. Any triumph is hidden beyond that. There is no Easter without Thursday night and Friday morning first. And Jesus has nothing. He says of himself: “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” The day he walked along the beach and called Peter and Andrew and James and John to follow him, he had nothing in his hands. In the end even the clothes off his back were taken from him and handed over to those who were killing him. The final reward can only be taken up when everything else has been laid down.
Following Jesus leads to the Kingdom of God. We can’t pretend that has no price, but the cost of discipleship is worth paying.
None of You Can, Unless You Do by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0