Here is a draft of a sermon that I am writing for publication.
25 Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: 26 “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. 27 And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28 “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? 29 For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, 30 saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31″Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. 33 In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.
Church planting consultant Alex McManus holds training events in various parts of the United States for persons who sense a call from God to launch new communities of faith. For several years now, he has promoted these events with this invitation: “Heroes wanted for a quest to save the universe. Safe return doubtful.” In deploying such language, McManus captures two often-neglected elements in Jesus’ core message: mission and cost.
The story that Luke tells in his Gospel is driving toward Jesus’ climactic death on a cross and resurrection from the dead. This is the heart of the good news. But it is a message that must be lived out and shared. After Jesus’ resurrection, all of the disciples are immediately commissioned as witnesses of Jesus’ death and resurrection and sent out to announce to all people beginning in Jerusalem the reality that repentance and the forgiveness of sins are found in Jesus (Luke 24:44ff cf. Acts 1:8). This is a high stakes mission. The entire Scriptural story from Genesis to Revelation tells of how God has moved to restore and redeem humanity from darkness. The coming of Jesus marks the climactic act of God through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. The power of this moment in history shatters the status quo and opens the future for the announcement of God’s salvation in Jesus.
This is the backdrop to our Scripture lesson. Apart from its context, we may be tempted to hear Jesus’ words simply as a call to an unattainable or perhaps even to an undesirable life. Who among us wants to embrace a view of life in which family members including spouses and children are hated? Who among us can imagine what it would mean to completely renounce and give away all of our possessions? But if we walk away from this text with only these questions in our mind, we have missed the true force of Jesus’ words. For in these words we are reminded of the Gospel’s call to the only true life worth living—a life of full commitment to God’s mission as a follower of Jesus.
Counting the Cost
The central focus of Jesus’ words in our lesson is the cost of being a disciple. Verses 28-32 contain two parables that Jesus deploys in order to emphasize the vital necessity of recognizing Jesus’ call for what it is—a truly transformation experience. How does one prepare adequately to be Jesus’ disciple? The answer is provocative and one that subverts typical cultural norms for attaining advancement and security. Jesus’ teaching calls his hearers to reassess their understanding of wealth, family, and notions of self-preservation. The parables are poignant in communicating the riskiness of following Jesus apart from a full assessment of the cost. The assumption is that no one wants to be a builder whose grand design ends in mockery for lack of preparation. No one wants to be a king whose supposed military power wilts in the presence of a greater force and ends in surrender.
The parables beg the question: What is the true cost of following Jesus? When we ask this question, we will hear our text as an invitation to a bold and daring new way of life.
The Shadow of Jerusalem
Jesus words must be understood in light of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Verse 25 reminds us that Jesus is traveling. But Jesus is not merely continuing his itinerant ministry around Palestine. His movement is intentional and has an end in mind. Since 9:51, Jesus has been on the road to the cross. Living as a disciple of Jesus involves embracing the cross as a central value in life. This does not mean wearing a cross as jewelry or as a tattoo or displaying stylized crosses as pieces of art. For the biblical era, the cross represented a mode of execution reserved only for slaves and for the gravest of crimes against the Empire. Verse 27 makes the cross central to our text by declaring that disciples by definition are cross-bearers. We must resist all attempts to romanticize this call or attempts to spiritualize it in terms of mere ascetic attempts at self-denial. At its core, Jesus is reminding his would be followers that God’s mission will be advanced by women and men who embrace the cross as a call to die up front so that they can follow Jesus into places where only dead men and men dare to go. God’s mission through Jesus is a bold and daring one. There can be no mistake on the part of his disciples that it is a life altering and future transforming call. The allure of our world screams: “Look out for #1. Protect your own interests. Market and promote yourself.” Jesus’ call is the opposite. Embrace the cross. Find life by willingly giving your own away for the sake of God’s mission in the world.
Renouncing of Allegiances
Jesus puts additional flesh on his description of the cost of discipleship by describing a new personal identity for disciples rooted in the provocative language of hatred for family. In the ancient world of Jesus’ day, one’s network of family and clan represented one’s primary set of allegiances in the world. The call to follow Jesus however cuts against this understanding of life. Jesus’ disciples are marked by an all encompassing allegiance to Jesus the Messiah that transcends all other relational bonds including family, ethnicity, socio-economic status, political affiliation and social clubs. The language of “hate” is not literal in the way that we commonly deploy it in our day. For Jesus’ audience, to turn one’s allegiance from family was paramount to hatred.
Embrace of a New Status
Finally, Jesus concludes our text with a summative statement about possessions. Preacher Robert Tuttle of Asbury Seminary is known to say, “The last part of a person to be converted is his or her wallet.” A person’s possessions tell much about how a person understands status. If we are to count carefully the cost of following Jesus, we must embrace a status void of possessions. Jesus’ followers are not defined or limited by the size of their bank accounts or the amount of stuff that they possess. This text calls us to relinquish freely any appearance of status for the sake of God’s mission. Arguably, the status that we embrace establishes the limits of our ability to reach others with the Gospel. Appearances of superiority or class may puff us up, but they negate our witness as followers of Jesus.
A Concluding Call
In sum, this text invites us to ask: “Am I all in for the sake of the Gospel?” What does it mean to be “all in” for the sake of the Gospel? It begins with a life transforming encounter with Jesus.
If you’ve ever met a surfer, you have likely observed his or her commitment and passion about riding waves. Surfers love to surf. Surfers will cut class or even take vacation days from work for the chance to paddle out into a good wave producing ocean swell. Yet one of the most common questions asked of surfers by non-surfers is this: “Aren’t you afraid of getting attacked by a shark?” It’s a natural question, but given the obvious fun that surfers have and the reality that everyone who has ever dipped a toe into the ocean or watched the movie Jaws has probably at least fretted for a moment over the possibility of encountering a shark in the water, it is clearly a question that misses the point of surfing. Surfers surf because riding waves is intrinsically satisfying and life changing. When a person stands up on a surfboard and feels the power of the ocean for the first time, he will never be the same again. Every trip to beach represents a new opportunity to reexperience the exuberance of riding waves. Surfers don’t worry about sharks because they are more interested in catching the next rideable wave than they are in worrying about a potential meeting with a sharp-toothed predator.
Our text today calls us to a similar counting of cost versus gain. Following Jesus Christ into the world on mission is the highest expression of human life. It is the life that each of us was created to live and experience. But this calling and mission has costs. It calls us to reassess and realign our values, our priorities, and our very lives with those of the Gospel. Our highest calling is no longer defined by allegiance to family, clan or culture. Our raison d’etre is not mere survival. Our worth is not measured by our bank accounts or possessions. These all become secondary to God’s mission. This text reminds us that God’s call is to live for a kingdom bigger than ourselves. It begins with the decision to follow Jesus Christ.
Ask yourself: What if following Jesus Christ were the only true way of living the life that I was created to live? What is keeping me from being “all in” for the Gospel? Amen.