Now large crowds were travelling with him ...
| Psalms 139:1-18
|Sun, September 5, 2004
Rev. Ed Searcy
|*preached before the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper
Jesus really knows how to mess up a perfectly good Sunday morning. Here it is, the first Sunday in September. Everyone is on their way back from vacation. New students and families are arriving. There is good energy in the air. It is a time to make everyone feel right at home and welcome. We do, after all, want this to be a lively, friendly, happy congregation. Then someone has the bright idea of asking Jesus to say a few welcoming words to his admirers. He takes one look at the crowd and says: “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. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” Look at the disciples quietly sidling up beside Jesus and whispering in his ear to tone it down. They can see the enthusiasm draining out of the crowd. Jesus’ sermon has just put a wet blanket over a day that had been going so well.
It makes preachers like me wish that the lectionary held off on Jesus for awhile. Couldn’t we wait til after, say, Thanksgiving to get into the hard part? Perhaps we could ease every one in a little more slowly, instead of diving in to the deep end of the gospel head first. You can just feel the shock of the cold water as Jesus repeats: “cannot be my disciple, cannot be my disciple, none of you can become my disciple.” We like to imagine that the gospel is much nicer, much sweeter, much easier. Like, well, like the new ad for Coca-Cola that we glimpsed on TV last week. A young African-American gospel singer is walking through the city streets, singing a Coca-Cola ad as if it were a gospel song. Sure enough, part way into the commercial a glorious gospel choir backs up her lead vocal. It sounds so spiritual, so uplifting. And that is not all. As she sings, the woman gives away bottles of Coca-Cola to passers-by on the street. They look surprised, delighted, amazed as they sip the sacramental soft-drink. And the song ends promising that life can start again. Now this is the gospel of a society that loves to consume. It places its trust in products that will surely satisfy. The good news amounts to finding the right stuff, buying it, consuming it and, voila, life is born again. Sad to say, so much of what is called church in North America these days has more in common with the gospel according to Coca-cola than it does with the gospel according to Jesus Christ. We are so accustomed to a culture of satisfying the consumer that we imagine that the church exists to satisfy us. But, of course, the church exists to delight God. Or, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer says: “Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ.”
So, there can be no evading Jesus on this day. We will not put him in the closet and close the door, hoping that our guests do not hear his muffled voice. We will sit at his feet and listen closely. The first thing we hear is the small detail that sets the context for Jesus’ sermon: “Now large crowds were traveling with him and he turned and said to them”. Jesus is not having dinner with the Pharisees. He is not on a high mountain with his closest confidants. He is being trailed by a pack of hangers-on and curious onlookers and cheering fans caught up in the excitement. In other words, he is preaching to a church that is packed with people standing up along the side aisles and out into the parking lot. Jesus is a hot ticket. You can almost imagine him turning to Peter and James or to Mary and Martha saying, “Let’s see if we can thin this crowd out a bit. Watch what happens now!”
Perhaps Jesus’ sermon is set when the mainline church was at its zenith - in terms of numbers, at least. Perhaps this is Jesus’ sermon whenever the church becomes an enthusiastic spectator, forgetting that Jesus is in the recruitment business. It is surely the case that Jesus preaches this sermon whenever the gospel is reduced to satisfying the needs and desires of the people who follow Jesus. Oh, Jesus does promise life for those who follow him. He is good news and he brings good news. It’s just that Jesus’ gospel is upside down. He confounds expectations. He comes to lead us into new life by taking us through trouble, torment and death. Any church which does not tell the truth about this costly gospel cannot be Jesus’ disciple. It is as simple - and as hard - as that.
There are three “cannots” in Jesus sermon. The church cannot be Jesus’ disciple if it does not “hate father and mother, wife and children, brother and sisters, yes, and even life itself.” It is hard to square this “hate” speech with Jesus command to “love one another as I have loved you”. But in the highly structured kinship world of the 1st century Jesus is calling for a radical break from cultural obligations. He is not demanding the feeling of hatred for family. He is not talking emotions. He is talking cultural obligations. He is being straightforward. To choose to follow Jesus is to place obligation to him and the disciplines of the gospel above obligation to family. You understand, though, that obligation to the Way of Jesus may oblige his disciples to share the burdens of those in the family who are least lovely and most troubled. Being a disciple of Jesus will always trump being a member of the family, and it will surely change the way we love our neighbours in - and out - of family.
That is the first “cannot”. The second is like it. The church cannot be a disciple of Jesus if it “does not carry the cross and follow him”. There are plenty of churches that look at the cross and sing about the cross and make logo’s out of the cross. Jesus is interested, though, not in admirers who look at the symbol of his suffering but in participants who share the burden of his sorrow and suffering and shame. There is no way to sugar coat the gospel. The people who Jesus recruits as missionaries of the kingdom must understand that they are a part of movement that is to be known for its capacity to shoulder the heavy burdens of those who ache and grieve. In this season of the church’s decline in these parts I am coming to believe that the revival of the church is not in question. Jesus will revive his church here. The question is, will we in the once mainline church be a part of that revival? Will we discover the intestinal fortitude (that’s a fancy way of saying ‘will we have the guts’) to get off of the spectator’s couch, and to exercise muscles of compassion and sacrifice that have atrophied? For a church that is not ready, able and willing to carry the cross cannot be Jesus’ disciple.
Which brings us to the third “cannot” - “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” To be perfectly honest with you, I do not know many churches in North America that can sit under these words of Jesus this morning and claim to be his disciple. Follow me, he says, and you give everything else up. Jesus urges the crowds of enthusiastic seekers to carefully budget what it will cost to follow him. He points to farmers who build towers in their vineyards to spy out intruders. He points to kings who make careful battle plans with their commanders before risking a war. He notes that in rural economics and in international politics we are careful to be sure that we have enough cash and enough power to complete the job. Jesus calls on those of us who are interested in following him to know that journeying with him will demand everything we have. It will not be a free ride, with cokes all around. His grace is not cheap, it costs everything. Jesus would not have us begin September any other way. His people will be salty or they will not be his people. If a congregation becomes insipid, like salt that has lost its savour, it will be swept aside. It won’t matter its size or stature - big church or small church, thriving church or struggling church - they will not be measured by our worldly categories of success. Every congregation is judged to be worthy or unworthy by Jesus who calls his salty, committed church into being.
Now the strange mystery at the heart of the gospel is that just when we imagine that we have surely strayed far, far from Jesus’ way and cannot possibly follow in his demanding steps ... just then, he comes seeking out the lost and the least. Jesus is “the hound of heaven” who wakes the church from slumber and brings us back, back to listen again to his impossible ways and his costly, amazing grace. As the 139th Psalm teaches us to sing: “Where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there, if I make my bed in Hell, you are there.” We live inside a mystery. We do not follow Jesus all the way to the cross without denying or forsaking him. Yet when we deny and abandon him, Jesus seeks us out and brings us back and sets a place at his welcome table. Here, in the bread and the wine, he reminds us who and whose we are - his companions on the way of the cross. Thank God. Amen.