I was recently watching my grandson’s weekly swimming lesson. While at the pool, I saw a young father play and encourage his small son as the lesson progressed. Each week the trip to the pool is eagerly anticipated, except for the more challenging part of the lesson where the little one is invited to swim into a deeper part of the pool.
I watched the young father stand with his back to the deeper water and as the small boy splashed and kicked as he swam, his father was aware of his small son’s nervousness about the deeper water. He always starts to panic when he sees the water changing colour. Yet his father continued to reassure, saying: ‘don’t be afraid, I am still with you, I’m still here, this is no different to the shallow water where you already swim well, trust me’.
I thought of this experience as I read Jesus’ invitation to us to think about the cost of discipleship in this reading from Luke 14:25-35.
A huge crowd was following Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem by this time. Many who would have been interested in the ‘way’ Jesus was describing; many who would have felt left out of the current social and economic structures and systems as they were in Roman occupied Judea.
Jesus is telling us as clearly as possible; we must be clear about what it takes to become a disciple.
In this invitation, I also think about what I would probably not have done, if I had known the whole story or the risks before I started; perhaps the griefs and joys of children; or emigrating and leaving family behind; or of the decision to leave the world to work in the church. And I’m sure you have similar decision points in your lives, some made carefully and some without counting the cost.
Jesus gives us four clear indicators using very strong words, as he tries to cut through our complacency to make us pay attention. These are highlighted not only by Luke but also in Matthew and Mark’s Gospels as well.
Firstly, I must ‘hate’ our closest family members, indeed, my life. You cannot put your family or your plans for your life ahead of God. Jesus says: ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it’, (Luke 8:21). It is not those who are biological family.
Secondly, I must carry my own ‘cross’. Jesus tells us, ‘if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily.’ (Luke 9:23).
Thirdly, I must ‘give up’ all my possessions (Luke 14:33)
Fourthly, I must be like good ‘salt’ (14:35) which gives flavour and life, but also stings and purifies.
These are enormous decisions we must think through. Jesus offers us a couple of examples, the builder about to commence construction who works out what can be afforded, or a ruler thinking about starting a war and the enemy’s resources. Jesus warns us we need to be clear about what we are committing to as disciples.
In my preparation for this sermon, I read a story about one of the new martyrs in the Orthodox Church in Russia. There were about two thousand martyrs and confessors who suffered for their faith under communism who were identified and canonised. Vladimir Ambartsumov is one of these. As a young man be became a leader in the ecumenical Student Christian Movement with its concern for critical thinking about faith and life in Christian community, and about social responsibility. Vladimir brought these concerns into his life and practice as a priest in several Moscow parishes.
Pressure began to mount on him by the State and he had to go on the run leaving behind his wife and three children. He rarely came home, he had to ‘hate’ them in order to save them. Each day, he literally took up his cross, secretly celebrating the liturgy at peril to his own life. When he was arrested in 1937 everything he owned was confiscated, including the clothes on his back. It was over fifty years later his family discovered he had been summarily executed after he had refused to betray his family and friends.
In 2000 his daughter lost two children in a car accident. She would later call it her Golgotha. She had been suddenly deprived of her family again. She did not know how she would bear her cross, such a heavy burden. What eventually sustained her was the memory of her father. When he was canonised in 2000, he again became a living, guiding presence to her.
Few of us will experience martyrdom in this country, but all of us will likely face a Golgotha. Not knowing how we will make it to another day. The cost of discipleship will perhaps seem too much.
What sustains us is the faithful witness of Christ himself, on our behalf. We will not live up to his ways, but we can keep reminding ourselves and each other of what Jesus has already done for our salvation. Jesus did not allow friends and family to divert him or take a safer path as Peter himself tried to counsel Jesus. Jesus carried his cross on which he was crucified. He was stripped bare of all possessions. Jesus accepted the full cost of discipleship on our behalf.
I don’t think Jesus is trying to put us off with these clear, stark words of both warning and invitation. But we do need to be clear that following Jesus means we make the kingdom of God a priority above all others in our lives. This decision does mean we are able to learn and grow into a new identity, a new way of life, re-orientated towards God’s purpose together with others as we share the work and joy of kingdom life.
Jesus said (Luke 14:26) “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple” highlights the choice between faithfulness to Jesus’ message of the kingdom of God and business as usual according to the ways of the world.
To ‘carry the cross’ is a metaphor for discipleship that regards life in this world as finished.
The commitments I spelled out earlier remind us of Jesus’ teaching about the requirements of discipleship that ask us to give up our attachment to the wold and the false security it offers, in order to trust God more clearly and definitively.
It means giving up the quest for honour and attempts to secure a life as we have planned it, all for the sake of wholehearted commitment to God.
There is also a deep regret if we choose to ignore Jesus and take the apparently safer way. If we do not inhabit more of our lives, use our days better and fill them more fully and experience life more abundantly.
As a I reflect on the young father and his son in the swimming lesson, it is Jesus saying to me:
Trust me’, it is worth it, don’t be frightened. Let go of what hold you back and drags you down and submerges you in the world, and keeps you from living the Way, and instead look to me and you will find your life changing around you as it is a gift of grace.
God does the hard work for you, with you and in you just as Jeremiah discovered in his reflection of God as the potter shaping and molding him, or as it is written in the beautiful Psalm 139. Such understanding of God invites and describes such clear trust and faith that the choice has suddenly become easier.
You discern my path and the places where I rest: you are acquainted with all my ways. 139:2) …
For you have created my inward parts: you knit me together in my mother’s womb. (139:12)
You knew my soul and my bones were not hidden from you: when I was formed in secret and woven in the depths of the earth. (139:14)
How deep are your thoughts to me O God: and how great is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they are more in number than the sand: were I to come to the end, I would still be with you. (139:18)
My sisters and brothers, the invitation is as clear as Jesus can make it. Do not be frightened, please listen and pay attention to Jesus’ invitation as you follow Jesus as a disciple.
The Lord be with You.