The Cost of Discipleship

This is a sermon that was originally preached on September 6, 1992 at First Presbyterian Church in Huntsville, Alabama.  The title is borrowed from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s famous book by the same name, yet though I had read the book some years prior to writing this sermon, the sermon was not based in any direct way on the book.  The sermon has been edited for clarity.

Luke 14:25-33 (Revised Standard Version)

25 Now great multitudes accompanied him; and he turned and said to them, 26 “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, 30 saying, ‘This man began to build, and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and take counsel whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends an embassy and asks terms of peace. 33 So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.

During this year’s presidential campaign it’s been interesting to see how the popularity of the candidates has varied over time. For example, early on the polls had President Bush in the lead, ahead of Bill Clinton, who was at that time suffering from a series of questions about his personal life. Later, though, Mr. Clinton began catching up to the president in the polls. The Democratic national convention seems to have given him the extra boost he needed to put him well ahead of Mr. Bush.

According to pollsters, the Republican Convention reversed this trend briefly, giving Bush the lead again, though the latest reports have Clinton out in front once more. Of course, it does depend on which poll one pays attention to. Some have the Arkansas governor just barely ahead in popularity. When we hear about the polls, one begins to wonder if the media merely reports circumstances, or if it in fact creates them by planting ideas and biases in our minds.

At any rate, regardless of how accurate the polls are, they do seem to reveal one thing: the way in which the loyalties of Americans can change in a relatively short period of time. For example, 18 months ago, following the success of Operation Desert Storm, President Bush seemingly could do no wrong. Now the polls tell us a majority of voters favor Clinton.

Events like these remind us how fleeting popularity can be. People are fickle. Sometimes they jump on a particular bandwagon just because everybody else is doing it, but their commitment to that person or issue isn’t very deep, and when things start to take a turn they hadn’t planned on, their allegiance dwindles.

Jesus was no stranger to this phenomenon. In the scripture passage read today from the 14th chapter of Luke, Jesus was at the height of his popularity. It says “great multitudes” accompanied him and his disciples as they journeyed toward Jerusalem. The crowd following Jesus had been building for some time, as people were attracted by Jesus’ teaching, the miracles he performed, or simple curiosity.

As the crowds are swelling around him Jesus says something we wouldn’t expect—some of the most difficult words he speaks in all the four gospels: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26-27); and then, at the end of the passage, “Whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33).

It seems counterintuitive. Jesus has gathered this incredibly large following; and now he goes and says something like this?? These words aren’t likely to endear him to his followers. If Mr. Bush or Mr. Clinton made a move like this their political careers would probably be over.

It appears, though, that Jesus knew exactly what he was doing. When he saw the multitudes gathering around him, his response wasn’t one of delight, but of concern. How truly loyal were these people? Did they really know what they were getting themselves into?

Jesus feels the need to let the crowds know: if they want to be his followers their commitment can’t be half-hearted. Their allegiance must be total, surpassing their loyalty to all other people and things. Jesus expects a loyalty such that if an opinion poll were conducted several months or even years later, his following would be seen to be consistent. There’s no room for fickleness in the kingdom of God.

So Jesus calls for commitment in three areas of life. The first is about family ties. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother and wife and children and brother and sister, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).

The use of the word “hate” in this sentence could be misleading if we didn’t know the character of Jesus very well. Yet the rest of his life and ministry lets us know his intended meaning. For the one who commanded us to love one another, to love our neighbors as ourselves, and even to love our enemies, would hardly turn around and tell us to genuinely hate those closest to us, the very members of our own family.

Instead, Jesus is using hyperbole—exaggeration–to make his point. It’s not likely that the love of neighbors or enemies would ever supersede our love for Christ. However, we might run the risk of loving our families more than the Lord. Jesus uses the word “hate” to shock us into understanding just how deep our dedication must go if we’re to be his disciples. We must love Christ more than even father, mother, spouse or children. The version of this saying in the Gospel of Matthew helps us understand Jesus’ meaning a little more clearly: “Whoever loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. . .“ (Matthew 10:37-38).

The second area of life in which Jesus calls us to commitment has to do with personal sacrifice. “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). This follows logically from the previous statement about family ties: Not only are we to love Christ more than members of our family; we’re even called to love Christ more than our very selves. Moreover, the bearing of the cross is something each person must undertake for himself; others cannot do it for us. Each person is responsible for carrying their own cross and making their own effort to follow Jesus.

So what does it mean to bear one’s own cross? It means following Jesus wherever he leads, doing whatever he asks, no matter the consequences. The mention of the cross is not coincidental; it’s loaded with meaning. Jesus’ obedience led him to the cross, to suffering and death. Jesus denied himself in order to please God and accomplish his purpose.

Recall how Jesus said “A student is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40).  Just as Christ went to the cross, so his disciples are called to follow in his steps (see 1 Peter 2:21). If we’re to be Christ’s disciples then we’re to give selflessly of our time, our talents, our resources, and our very selves; and we’re to give, as they say, “till it hurts,” and even then we’re called to keep on giving.

The third area of life in which Jesus charges his followers to greater commitment is in the realm of material possessions. To the crowds he says, “Whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33).  In the Greek, the phrase “all that he has” literally means “all he possesses.”

After talking about the renunciation of family ties and of the self, the idea of renouncing material possessions may seem somewhat anti-climactic; for certainly people are much more important than things. And yet isn’t it true that if we’re not careful our possessions can become too important?

Many of you know that when I first started working at this church, having been a poor seminary student before coming here, the car I was driving was an old clunker given to me by some very generous friends my last year of school. Those of you who came by here on weekdays last year may have seen my brown 1977 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme parked out on the side of the church, complete with rust spots and tarnished chrome. Because that car was so old and dilapidated, I never really worried about how I treated it, nor was I ever all that concerned about what happened to it.

Last January, though, I was able to buy a nicer car, a maroon 1988 Honda Accord Dx, a fairly modest car as cars goes, but just exactly what I wanted. This is the first car I’ve ever bought and paid for with my own money, and boy was I proud of it! I washed and vacuumed it regularly–something I hadn’t been known to do as faithfully with the other car–and began to take special care of it. I took speed bumps more slowly, whereas I had simply plowed right through them without a thought in the “Brown Bomb.” I also began to drive more carefully. I didn’t want anything to happen to my new pride and joy.

One night not too many weeks after I bought the Accord I was driving on the Parkway, and as I was pulling off onto the access road, the driver in the next lane evidently didn’t see me and began to move into my lane right where I was about to be! I quickly swerved and honked the tiny little horn of my Japanese car. Fortunately, the other driver saw me just in time and moved back into his own lane as I whizzed by him, with what seemed like only inches between us.

Needless to say, I was shaken by this experience, but as I regained my composure, I began to realize I’d been more worried about my car than my own safety or the safety of the other driver. As I continued my drive that evening I felt the nudge of God’s Spirit gently telling me that my new toy might be becoming a little too important.

Material things can do that to us. We can even begin to look to them, or to our money, for security, rather than to God. Jesus is challenging us to be careful our possessions don’t become more important to us than he is. Again, Jesus uses a strong word, “renunciation,” to make his point. We’re to renounce our possessions in our hearts, in order that they might not be able to lay claim on us. For there might come a time when we’re asked to literally give up all we have for the sake of the Kingdom.

Today’s passage from Luke 14 shows there’s a cost to being a disciple of Jesus. Following Christ may require us to give up possessions, family ties, our personal wants and desires, even our own lives. Jesus wants to make people aware of this cost so they can evaluate it before they “sign up” to be his disciples. Jesus gives two examples that show why it’s wise to consider the potential cost of following him.

First, he points out that a wise builder will always make sure they have enough resources to finish a building project before starting on it. Otherwise, the builder winds up looking foolish if the project can’t be completed (see Luke 14:28-30). Similarly, a wise military leader calculates whether he has enough soldiers and weaponry to defeat his enemy before he enters into battle. Otherwise his armies might be defeated (see Luke 14:31-32).

Jesus uses these two short parables to tell us that we also need to carefully weigh the cost of pledging ourselves to him.  We must consider whether we’re willing to pay that price before we dive into anything.

This is an appropriate message for us in the church. For we may come to this place week after week seeking comfort and fellowship, joy and renewal, friendship and love; but we need to be aware that as we come here to receive, we’re also being called upon to give, possibly till it hurts, and then some. We’re asked to give of ourselves, our time, our talents, our energy, our resources, even when it may be inconvenient or uncomfortable to do so, or in situations we might not have anticipated.

Christ calls us to put him first, and to be unswerving in our commitment to him. Aware of the possible costs of such loyalty, let us, by his power, rise to the challenge, that we may truly be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.

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