Luke tells us about a time when Jesus was flavour of the month, celebrity of the year, the man of the moment. Great crowds were travelling with him. For a few brief summers in the Galilean hills, it was the cool thing to do. We know little about the people who made up these great crowds, about what drove them, about their lives or their concerns. We don’t know whether they travelled with him out of curiosity, out of a genuine desire to find God, or just because he was the fashionable rabbi that year. We don’t know whether they were really following Jesus or just following the crowd. But they were loving the miracles and the stories, the rousing speeches and the sense of being part of something. Perhaps it was as thrilling as rocking away with Status Quo in Vivary Park or whatever it is that might make you leave the comfort of home to join in a great crowd… Jesus was Pokemon Go, with a bit of Olympic excitement and cool..
But Luke tells us that, one day, Jesus turned round and told the crowds what it was going to cost them if they really wanted to go on travelling with him. He told them that it would cost them their families, everything they possessed and even their lives. And he told them to think hard about whether they were prepared to pay such a price or whether they had it in them to do it. Jesus said,
‘If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple..… In the same way, anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.’
‘Think about giving up your family, everything you own, even your own life – that’s what following me means’. That must have stopped most of the crowd in their tracks. And if he had any advisors on PR they would have been trying their best to keep Jesus quiet or to tell him to keep on message with those nice parables. What does any of us have more precious than our families, our possessions and our own lives? These are radical demands, extremist and unreasonable ones. Whether they are Semitic exaggeration for rhetorical effect or literally and bluntly true, they are shocking words – and not vote winners, back then or now.
A friend of mine moved house a while back. The minister of the local URC went round to see him and they talked about him transferring his membership to this new church. My friend was then very busy, involved in all sorts of things, including commuting to work and political campaigning. He explained to the minister that he did not think he would have much time to be very involved with the local church. The minister was very understanding. She was keen to make it clear that she and the congregation didn’t want to make any demands on my friend. ‘Don’t worry’, she said, ‘we won’t expect you to do anything. We’ll understand completely if you hardly ever come to worship. We’ll accept your apologies for the church meeting. We won’t ask you to volunteer for anything. We’ll try not to ask anything of you at all.’ My friend felt momentarily reassured by this. But after the minister had left he began to think about what they had said to each other. He began to wonder whether it would mean anything to belong to a church which made no demands at all. If it didn’t matter whether or not he attended worship or contributed to the church’s, what did it mean to be a member of this church? If his effort and commitment really weren’t required, what did that say about how much they valued the contribution he might make? And what did it say about the importance of being a Christian? And the more he thought about it the more he felt that if nothing was going to be asked of him, perhaps he shouldn’t bother joining at all. Perhaps he would look for another church which wanted him enough to ask that he be there, that he give something, that he sacrifice something, that he offer his life to God through them. Otherwise, what was the point? And perhaps that was Jesus’ point too. He wanted to shock people into seeing that any faith worth any of that salt he was always on about, had to mean something, had to ask something of you, had to be something that you would think about giving up something, even everything, for – and somehow gladly.
I remember that when they were bringing in new parking charges on a Sunday in central Oxford there was a discussion once amongst the ministers of the churches Some of us were afraid that the new parking prices would affect our Sunday congregations, that people might come to church less often, or even decide not to bother at all. We grumbled about the City Council and their policy of making the city centre so difficult to get to. But then, the Methodist minister, in the wise way he often did, spoke up. He talked about football fans and the lengths they go to to get to the ground, to get a ticket, to be there. They might travel miles, have to park a long way away, and pay a great deal of money for a ticket. They persist in their commitment, he said, determined to get to the match and, he added, they don’t complain if there’s extra time! If they could go to such lengths for a football match, can we not expect people to do the same for the worship of God?
And then I remember being part of a group of people from the URC preparing a text for a communion service together. They were talking about the kind of prayers that need to be there, the things that need to be said, the atmosphere that needs to be created. They talked about the right balance between solemnity and joyfulness, about mourning and celebration. There was a pause and then a retired minister spoke up. He said that it had sometimes struck him that after most communion services he went home to his Sunday lunch – as most of us will do today. But it has also struck him that Jesus did not go home to his family and to a celebration and a lovely day. After that supper he went to Gethsemane – to the challenge of that night and then on to a cross. He urged the group to find a way to convey something of that in the communion service, and to include the challenge that Jesus gave to all of us, to take up a cross and to follow him. The group were silent for a moment, hearing his words and taking them in, recognising that he had said something profound, something important.
You get a strong sense from this Gospel passage that Christianity was never meant to be a popular movement. It was never meant to be the kind of thing that would fill every seat in great cathedrals or auditoria. Jesus never really set out to pull the crowds – or even worse to please them. He wasn’t offering self-fulfilment or inspiration, he wasn’t offering only comfort for our sorrows, but he was offering something more. He was offering us a way of life that might be worth letting go even of some of the things we value most. He put it in a very shocking way, but perhaps he wanted to convey something like this – ‘I’m serious about this new kind of life. If we’re going to love our neighbours, that might be more than a little charitable giving now and again. It might so change your life that you even think about giving up what you have now. You might find that you can bear and carry more than you ever thought. Don’t be satisfied with less – I’m not offering bread and circuses – a few hymns to brighten the grey days – but a faith in a God who is so amazing that all this might even be worth giving your life for, giving your living.’
Sometimes people look at the church and see us apparently doing little more than amusing ourselves, repeating comfortable rituals, trying to please one another and to preserve rather defensively the things of religion that we like. And all this seems so far away from the Jesus who told the crowds that following him would mean taking up a new life, even a costly one.
Jesus knew and was not afraid to say what we all know deep down, that the terms on which we live and die really matter. He believed that there were commitments worth making, and worth putting everything you have and are into. He knew that what he had to say was never really going to be popular but that it was vital.
I know that many of you know already that being a follower of Christ is both a wonderful joy and a huge challenge – that it’s more than a religious garnish to an ordinary human life. It’s a different kind of life, the best kind of life, but also one that asks everything of you in every moment.
I can confidently predict that most preachers reflecting on this text today will be thinking about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor, who wrote from inside Nazi Germany a book called ‘The Cost of Discipleship’. He saw that many people in the church there had settled for a form of Christianity that was just about being German really… turning Christian faith into something that blessed the culture of the day with a few comforting thoughts. He believed that the German church had chosen ‘cheap grace’ and he urged people to remember that Jesus had spoken of the cost of discipleship, of costly grace – for any faith worth anything will cost us dear as well as bless us richly. Bonhoeffer wrote,
‘Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. …… it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.’
As we gather around this table today, let us remember that the first of these meals took place the night before Jesus finally took up his cross. And let us ask ourselves what it is that God is calling us to do with the rest of our lives – not only as individuals, but also as a church. God may be calling us to give our lives in service to our families, God may be asking us to use our possessions to bless others, God may be calling us to be ourselves and to live our lives in a new way. Many of us are already giving all we can for the sake of others. We know that being a disciple of Jesus is not like being a fan or having a crush on someone. It is about giving your life, and gladly so, for what is true and good and blessed.
Today, at this table, God will give us the strength to live our lives according to the things that really matter, to know what’s worth living for, what’s even worth dying for, what’s worth putting heart and soul into. And after the service we shall rise and go, not just to Sunday lunch, but into whatever the future holds, setting our feet once more upon the path of Jesus Christ, Amen.