When I was a teenager we used to go up into the Waitakere rangers at night. There were lots of good places to sit and watch the city lights… one place was a house up the top of west coast road. It was in a paddock and from the living room you could look down the valley and across the city. Well I assume it was the living room because the house was never finished. It was simply a concrete shell sitting on this prime spot. The walls rather than being plastered and decorated with fine art was plastered with graffiti, instead of looking out at the view from behind floor to ceiling glass windows, when you walked to look out from the edge there was the crunch of broken glass bottles with each step. The builder had found himself in difficulty with the council and didn’t have the money to fight it out with them in court. He started his radical design but hadn’t had the resources to finish the house. Last time I looked for it I discovered that even the skeleton of that wonderful house had been demolished… Jesus uses an illustration like this to talk to those who would be his followers about counting the cost of what discipleship meant. Three times he tells the large crowd that was following him on his journey to Jerusalem ‘If you don’t… you cannot be my disciples.’
And we are on that journey to Jerusalem with Jesus as we work our way through Luke’s gospel. It’s a journey that takes up the central third of the gospel narrative. It a narrative that focuses on Jesus teaching and it is a journey that leads Jesus and us to the cross. And it’s not just a journey through a book of the bible, it is the journey that we are invited by Christ to walk with him through our lives, following him, being his disciples, so Jesus words in the passage we are looking at today are equally challenging to us… ‘if you don’t… you cannot be my disciples.’
The scene has changed from what has gone before in this passage. Jesus is again on the road after a Sabbath rest and a Sabbath meal. He is again on the journey. And like with the change of scene the gospels focus changes here as well, it moves from Jesus conflict with the religious leadership, to Jesus beginning to prepare his disciples for life without him. Like elsewhere in the gospel when Luke mentions that there is a big crowd following Jesus it leads to Jesus talking about what genuine discipleship means. Last week we focused on Jesus big hearted invitation to God’s grace. That it was an open invitation to come and to dine and find sustenance for life in knowing and being known by Christ, now Jesus moves to look at the fact that while it is a free invitation to take it up calls us to a costly life style. It’s not that the invitation has been withdrawn or somehow narrowed down, but it is an invitation to a journey that is rigorous and demanding. In the wake of the earthquakes this week, we’ve seen a road opened up to Kaikoura for relief, but it is a dangerous and arduous journey and the Authorities have said that to travel that road you need to be in a military grade 4 wheel drive. Here Jesus the leader of those who would follow him in the Kingdom of God tells people that to partake in that journey is going to arduous there are things that will have to be left behind if you are to make it.
Jesus starts with words that shock us as much as they did his first listeners. ‘if anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters-yes even his own life-such a person cannot be my disciples. The word hate seems so harsh and hard. It’s not the way Hate is used by a petulant teenager wrestling with not getting their own way. It’s not the hate of a group opposed to any ethnic group apart from their own. It is that being a follower of Jesus changes your priorities. It is a matter of putting Jesus first, loving Jesus more, Jesus above even the prior demands of family and kin. For some following Jesus has literally meant that they are ostracised and cut off from their families. A messianic Jewish acquaintance told us that when he became a follower of Jesus his family held a funeral, it was now as if he was dead, if he rings home they will simply hang up as if he does not exist anymore. A Muslim convert to Christ talked of the look of pain and grief in his parents eyes now every time he goes home. The choice to follow Jesus impacted their family ties.
But for many of us this is not the case, yet even as Minister I have had to make decisions about following the sense of call, that impact on my family. It has mean being willing to move and make a new start in different towns and cities. It has meant that while my kids were young I spent a lot of time with other people’s teenagers and yet when we have done ministry we’ve gone to churches that did not have youth ministry. I value the fact that my kids know that being part of a church is very much about a willingness to serve, not how it caters to their needs. But Kris and I have had to make those kinds of decisions about family and faith.
In many of Jesus teaching about discipleship we see people torn between following Jesus and their possessions, status, comfort and prestige, the image Jesus uses to finish with is a man walking with a cross. To follow Jesus will demand our life our soul our all.
Jesus goes on to give two examples from the life of the first century to tell people that they need to count the cost. He uses the idea of a landowner building a tower, either a watch tower in a vineyard or a defensive tower on a city wall. To build such a thing has a definite cost and the person would be stupid indeed to start such a project without having his finances sorted. Likewise Jesus uses the image of a king planning to go to war, and having to decide if his limited resources were enough to win the battle, if it wasn’t he would be best to go and negotiate peace with his opponent. Jesus concludes this by saying that unless you are willing to give up everything you have you cannot be my disciples. I was speaking to a fellow minister this week who said he had chosen the song “ I surrender all” last week for church and after the service he had a parishioner come up and criticise his choice of song, when he ask why she honestly replied “I’m not prepared to give up everything, something’s yes but not all’.
NT Wright points out that talking about building projects and military campaigns would have been very poignant for Jesus listeners. Two significant movements in Jesus day were the rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem, it has been started by Herod and continued by his descendants, in Marks’ account of Palm Sunday has Jesus disciples commenting on the wonderful decorations on the temple, and Jesus tells them that it will be destroyed and rebuilt in three days. But it was a project that took lots of finances and resources from the community and reflected the nations hope in temple worship. The other movement was the hope of revolt and military action liberating Judea from Roman occupation. Jesus comments here are very relevant as they speak to the challenge of having to deal with the roman army. It is easy for us to have our hopes for change and reform in institutions and movements other that following Jesus, Political reform, certain candidates on the left or the right, or even religious institutions and again Jesus tells his disciples that even these things need to be put in the right priority when it comes to following him.
Finally Jesus uses the illustration of salt to tell people about what is required of a disciple. Salt is good says Jesus, in his day it was used for preserving food, flavouring and also as fertilizer, ‘but says Jesus if it loses its saltiness it is no longer any use and can only be thrown out and trampled underfoot. People have always wondered about what Jesus means about salt losing its saltiness. IN Palestine there were two types of salt, one was the top grade salt and the other more common salt was a crystallised salt, which was made up of both salt and other substances and over time the salt would leech away leaving only the other substances which were no good for anything and would be thrown out. It easy for Disciples of Jesus to start off with all sorts of enthusiasm and new resolve to live with different values ones that reflect Jesus but it is also easy over time for those to be leeched out of us and replaced again by the values and actions of our culture.
Ok how does this apply to us?
The first thing is that it might be easy to think that this passage seems to go contrary to what we looked at last week, an invitation to God’s big hearted banquet of God’s grace: An invitation to come and find sustenance for life in Jesus. Is Jesus now saying that somehow we have to earn our salvation? That the invitation is not free? The short answer is no. Jesus teaching on what it means to be a disciple is sandwiched in between both the parable of the great banquet and the parables of the lost sheep and coin and the prodigal son, all of which focus on God’s grace. Even in this passage is the sense of invitation: Jesus call is to ‘whosoever’ anyone who will hear and respond. But here Jesus is not taking of earning God’s favour or invite, but rather what it means for us to respond to it. As we saw last week people used excuses of land, wealth and he prior demand of family to reject the invite and here Jesus is telling us that to accept that invitation is the opposite of that, to love Jesus more than those. It is how we live out our lives in response. To show the grace we have received to other people, invite the poor the lame and the blind, in our decision making and actions to have our actions and reactions reflect Christ, not our own agenda or comfort.
The second thing is discipleship is an on-going process, it is a journey and Jesus saying here are as challenging and demanding every step along that journey. It impacts on every area of our lives, how we deal with our finances, remember in Luke’s gospel the extent of how deeply we have allowed Jesus into our lives is displayed in how deep it impacts on our wallet, it impacts on our business ethics, how we deal with the people we deal with. It impacts on the openness of our door to hospitality. How we use our assets, our time. Making a stand when it isn’t popular. Offering forgiveness and love to those who mistreat us. It calls us to re-evaluate where we are at and where we are heading in each new life stage. To priorities Christ in these situations calls us to be people who will allow Jesus to speak into our lives, open up the scriptures and open ourselves to what they have to say.
Discipleship says Jesus is an ongoing matter of reflection and contemplation that leads to action.
This passage finishes with Jesus letting us know how serious his sayings are ‘for those who have ears, let them listen’. All the way through the gospel Jesus understanding of what is discipleship is the one who hears Jesus words and puts them into practise in their lives. That is the solid foundation to build a house on; to build our lives on. It is the way in which we know the soil is good and can grow a crop that will yield tenfold or one hundred fold, it is that choosing to go by the narrow way. You and I are invited to put Jesus first, pick up our cross and follow Jesus… to say with Paul “it is no longer I that liveth, but Christ that liveth in me.”