The Cost of Discipleship

September 4, 2016/Luke 14:25-35


The cover of the tract has a picture of a pot of honey, the golden liquid drizzling from the honey dipper.  In large print, the tract says: “It’s a honey of a deal!”  You’ve probably seen similar tracts left lying on restroom counters or in waiting rooms.  The messages are all pretty much the same – answer these questions, pray this prayer, and you’re in!  It’s that easy.

The crowds back in Jesus’ time must have thought following him was pretty easy, too.  Luke tells us that large crowds were traveling with him.  Here was a man who reached out to people who had nothing, who healed people who had been sick for years, who cast out demons with little effort, who told interesting stories and even fed people when they got hungry.  Of course they followed him!

But Jesus, having set his face toward Jerusalem, knowing what was ahead for him, wanted to be sure that these crowds understood what it really meant to be a follower.  His disciples had made a complete break with their families to follow Jesus.  They left everything.  But now Jesus faced martyrdom in Jerusalem, and his true disciples must be prepared to make a complete and all-consuming commitment to Jesus – a commitment of their whole lives.

If you’re going to follow me, Jesus tells them, here’s what you will have to do.  Hate your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even your own soul.  Turn away from these people, these demands, and focus your life on me.  If you’re going to follow me, then you will have to carry your cross, just as I will carry mine.  Give up everything, or you will not be able to be my disciple.

These are hard words.  How many of us really want to turn our backs on those people who are dear to us, on the desires of our hearts, on all of the cars and houses and books and clothes and bric-a-brac that we own?  How many of us really want to put Jesus first?

But that is the commitment that Jesus asks for.  “Authentic discipleship requires radical renunciation”[1] of all that we have.  The call of God’s kingdom will at times conflict or compete with the priorities of everyday life – family, work, wealth, patriotism, bigotry, and even personal failures.[2]  Give up everything that is important to you, or you will not be able to be Jesus’ disciple.

Discipleship, Jesus stresses in these verses, is not easy.  It is not a “honey of a deal.”  It stands in front of all other demands.  It “must take priority over even the most sacred of human relationships.  There is no higher duty than commitment to Jesus and to being his disciple.”[3]

For the early Christians, becoming a follower of Jesus often meant  heartwrenching and painful conflict with family who did not understand or accept their calling.  Being a disciple really did mean walking away from all they had known and loved.  Luke’s message in this passage would have served as a powerful reminder to these Christians that their renunciation of other priorities was not only understood, it was expected.  Until the end of the sixth century, new converts to Christianity underwent a period of study lasting as long as three years before making their public profession of faith.  People who decided to become Christians made a very deliberate, intentional decision, knowing it would require a tremendous level of commitment and dedication.

That level of commitment is what Jesus wanted from those in the crowd who would be his disciples.  But Jesus insisted it is not a decision to be made lightly – it is the ultimate decision.  It is a choice for life, not death, but it leads to resurrection only if that choice changes your life in the present.  “To carry the cross is to carry the choices and burdens and realities of a life that has made a certain commitment – a commitment to a way of life that is committed to bringing about the kingdom of God here and now.”[4]  “Discipleship means counting the costs and considering what it means to set out on the journey of discipleship, [rather than] signing up in a fit of enthusiasm without considering where the journey is going.”[5]

Many of those who approached Jesus decided the cost was too high.  When he read from the scroll of Isaiah in Nazareth and proclaimed that the scripture had been fulfilled that day, the people of his hometown drove him out of the city.  After Jesus healed the Gerasene demoniac, casting the demons into a herd of swine, the local citizens asked him to leave.  And the rich young ruler, told by Jesus to “sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor,” walked away in sadness because he could not bring himself to choose Jesus over everything else.

Jesus did not want “part-time” disciples.  Jesus wanted followers who understood that their task would be hard, that they would face disagreement and anger and persecution and even death, that bearing their cross would mean sacrifice and risk and ridicule.  It would mean putting their lives on the line.

A quick decision might mean bailing out prematurely, like the builder of the tower who failed to calculate the true cost of construction and therefore ran out of materials.  A quick decision might mean failing to recognize, like the king, that the cost of winning the battle might mean risking all for victory.  A quick decision might bring later regret that “part of the nature of faith, the saltiness of Jesus’ disciples,”[6] is to walk away from all of one’s possessions.

Sitting in our seats this morning, in the comfort of our air-conditioned sanctuary, next to our family and friends, most of us probably have never considered that the sort of commitment Jesus demands in this text is not extraordinary.  This commitment is, in fact, the minimum for being his disciple.  Jesus wants to know if, “in the network of many loyalties in which all of us live, the claim of Christ and the gospel not only takes precedence but, in fact, redefines the others.”[7]  Put another way, when our initial enthusiasm wears off, will we have the resources to carry through to completion?  Or like salt that loses its flavor, will our commitment wane over time?

German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that grace “is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.”  He went on to say:

If our Christianity has ceased to be serious about discipleship, if we have watered down the gospel into emotional uplift which makes no costly demands and fails to distinguish between natural and Christian existence, then we cannot help regarding the cross as an ordinary everyday calamity, as one of the trials and tribulations of life.  We have then forgotten that the cross means rejection and shame as well as suffering.

The cross is laid on every Christian.  The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. … When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.  Jesus’ summons to the rich young man was calling him to die, because only the man who is dead to his own will can follow Christ.[8]

The road that Jesus walks is not without its sacrifices.  “To follow Jesus is not without its heavy demands; to carry the cross is not without its consequences.”[9]

No part-time disciples.  No partial commitments.  Discipleship may mean a redirection of time and energy.  It may mean a change in personal relationships.  It may mean a change in vocation.  It may mean a change in commitment of financial resources.  It may mean all of that – and more.  True discipleship must be all-consuming.[10]  “To learn, to encounter, to unravel mystery, to belong to God alone, all these require leaving, really leaving, in order to be open to the unexpected and unknown presence of God.”[11]

Jesus calls us to follow him.  He calls us to sit at table with him – to break bread and to drink the cup.  He calls us – to go.

[1] Dan Clendenin, “Pay Up,” journeywithjesus.net, 29 August 2016

[2] Ibid.

[3] Culpepper, 292

[4] Karoline Lewis, “Carrying the Cross,” workingpreacher.org, 28 August 2016

[5] Mark Davis, “Holy Hating,” leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com, 29 August 2016

[6] Richard B. Vinson, Luke, 495

[7] Fred Craddock, Interpretation: Luke, 182

[8] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 98, 99

[9] Rodney S. Sadler Jr., Feasting on the Word C/4, 49

[10] Culpepper, 294

[11] Nancy Rockwell, “Leaving Home,” Patheos, 31 August 2016

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