Imagine how exciting it must have been to be in the midst of this large crowd, traveling with Jesus, to be energized just being with him. But then, maybe some are beginning to lose interest as they make their way toward Jerusalem. Perhaps they are tired of walking this dusty road, unprepared for the length of this journey with Jesus. They may be questioning their decision to follow Jesus, considering all the uncertainties ahead of them. Maybe the fun and excitement is beginning to fade.
Jesus stops, faces the crowd and says to them, "Whoever comes to me and does not hate their father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciples. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple." Those shocking words certainly would have caught their attention.
You can be sure Jesus would never have been chosen to serve on an Evangelism commission. Our diocesan office frequently sends out teams of skilled presenters that tell us how important it is to create a warm and welcoming environment to attract people to our churches. Visitors ought to be met by a greeter as they enter, offered a worship booklet and a lectionary. We work hard to make sure worship is satisfying, music uplifting and that plenty of opportunities for fellowship and service exist. We want people to feel at home and included in this church family.
If Jesus were in charge of newcomer's ministry he might greet people by saying, "Are you quite sure you want to follow this way of life? To be one of my disciples you will need to let go of father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters, even one's own self and shoulder your own cross. It will take everything you have. It has to come before everything else that matters to you. The other thing is, if you really follow me, it might even get you killed. Why don't you go home and think about it, consider the cost. I would hate for you to get in over your head."
Why does Jesus say all these disturbing things about hating family and even our own life? One explanation is that in Jesus time and culture hyperbole or exaggeration was commonly used to make a point. There was no sense of hostility or violence in the original text using the word hate. It meant not being so attached to family and self, it means being willing to live without them. It means a disciple's primary loyalty must be to Jesus rather than to family. The saying is powerful, of course, because one's own life and family relationships are the very foundation of all personal security and identity.
We ought to also remember that Jesus knows he has a hard road ahead of him. Christians were already being persecuted for following Jesus. To have a Christian in the family was dangerous for everyone because the Romans were searching them out. If they found one believer in a household they would arrest everyone so it was true that turning toward Jesus meant turning away from family. Even now those who set out to transform the world will pay a high price. Think of Nelson Mandela, Bishop Tutu, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Martin Luther King, Jr, the list is long. Those who oppose the powers that be will not get away untouched.
Could it be that Jesus says these things because he wants us to know and be prepared. His intent is not to threaten us, he is loving us. He is speaking the truth. He wants us to know what it costs, he is not trying to make his way sound easier than it really is.
There is a contemporary theme being preached in many churches today referred to as the Prosperity Gospel. We live in a market driven society, so it is not surprising that we find appealing ways to sell Christianity in a market place of competing ideas and ways of life. It may be defined as a Christian religious doctrine that financial blessing is the will of God for Christians and that faith, positive speech and donations to Christian ministries will always increase material wealth. We might well remember that old saying, "If it sounds too good to be true it probably is."
This is in direct contrast to Jesus teachings today, for it seems to be encouraging a way of selfish living. Jesus tells us to give up, let go of possessions. If one's priorities are to prosper in order to enjoy the material comforts of life, is there any room in that person's life for Jesus?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the author of the book entitled "The Cost of Discipleship", speaks of his aversion to "cheap grace." He writes, "Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.
Costly grace is what Jesus is talking about. We will always prefer preaching and teaching about God's grace, that is, God's own covenant loyalty to redeem and save, but we ought not neglect preaching about the covenant loyalty that is expected from us in return.
The second reading tells the story of Philemon, a Christian slave holder to whom the Apostle Paul writes a letter delicately reminding him of a Christian's duty to respect all persons. He encourages Philemon to treat his runaway slave as a Christian brother which means freeing the slave, Onisimus, and seeing him as an equal. There is a financial cost in doing that, There is also a social cost, for Philemon's neighbors will not take kindly to this decision.
Perhaps not everyone is cut out to be a radical disciple of Jesus. Perhaps the best most of us can do is to move in that direction. We can take on disciplines of prayer and service, live more simply, give to the needy, speak out against bullying, be kind to one another, be sensitive to our environment, and appreciate our precious resources.
There is a choice to be made and choosing God has a cost; not choosing God has a cost. There are no cheap choices. There is a choice that leads to life for oneself and others. It is the costly road of following Jesus. AMEN