Events in Jesus life have been leading to the point where he would confront and challenge those who seemed to be ready to follow him. The followers of Jesus, basking in his teaching, occupied a place where a nice experience was followed by a well intended declaration commitment to Jesus mission, though few comprehended what he really meant.
One cannot be really surprised then, when Jesus declares that participation in his mission is going to be profoundly costly in ways none who have participated in his three years of wandering Palestine could ever imagine. For us today, these words are just as challenging, confronting and perplexing.
He makes a number of statements which if examined independently first, may be easier to understand.
One approach to this dilemma is examine the letter to Philemon. Paul and Philemon knew one another, as Philemon is addressed as Christian brother by Paul. The letter concerns a runaway slave Onesimus who came under Pauls influence and became a Christian. He had been the slave of Philemon. Slaves were treated as property. Paul is not challenging the ethics of keeping slaves. A runaway slave could expect death or severe punishment if he was captured and returned. Paul, in the face of all customary practice, writes to Philemon appealing to him to receive back his runaway slave, not as a slave, but as a brother in Christ. This is a huge ask on several counts.
Paul declines to command Philemon, although he says he could instead he prefers to appeal to him, so that his goodness "might not be by compulsion, but of your own free will". The moral pressure on Philemon here is intense. Philemon, who Paul commends as a Christian, is asked, because he is a Christian, to set aside all that is his by right and to act in a manner that his friends at the bathhouse or the inn, will doubtless ridicule, and ask Mate.. what were you thinking? Being a Christian can be costly, and can mean going against the flow of acceptable behaviour.
It is this collision of faith and the world that confronts us all as we hear Jesus words. Ask yourself, in what ways does being a disciple of Jesus actually cost me? This is not meant to send anyone on a guilt trip but rather to review their life against the measure, set by Jesus, of whether in all things, the service of God, and the things of God, have been placed ahead of all other things family, money, property, social position, politics. If Paul was writing to you, what matters might he be challenging you to respond to with a different set of values to those custom and society require of us?
The costliness of discipleship is a challenge in every generation. Bonhoeffer and others agonised as to whether they should act against Hitler in WW2, and they died for their actions. Bonhoeffer is regarded today as man of profound conviction. During the Vietnam war, on their understanding of the gospel, some clergy challenged the ethics of conscription to sustain the war effort, and others the allies involvement. Some were heavily criticised and lost members of their congregations as a result.
We are continually faced with the challenge of living lives that reflect costly discipleship. The discipline of assessing each personal and corporate action against the criteria Jesus lays down. Do we put God first? Uneasy tension between adherence to the spirit of Jesus call to costly service, and the possibility we are acting upon personal opinion or bias. And the tension between responding sacrificially in faith, or believing that if we "do" certain things then other blessings will follow, ie justification by works.
Some of you by now may be feeling this is all way too hard for me that I cannot live up to such expectations. Such honesty and candour is to be commended. But neither is it the end. Jeremiah the prophet watched the potter deal with a defective vessel on his wheel. He reworked it into another vessel. A characteristic of Christianity is the conviction that God is actively recreating in the world, taking the misshapen cast of the wheel, and remaking it into something better and useful to the whole creation. In our weekly prayer of confession, and in the words of forgiveness, we hear Gods considered response, his word of grace, and the encouragement to make a better go next tie. And with Gods help we might just do so. Amen.