September 8, 2019

Proper 18
Jeremiah 18:1-11, Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17, Philemon 1-21, Luke 14:25-33

The Rev. Bradley Varnell, Curate

Jesus’ message today is stark. This large crowd of women and men and children are following him to Jerusalem, and he stops them, turns to them, confronts them head on and he lays out his terms: to follow him you’ve got to hate your family, hate your own life, and pick up the cross. Not exactly the most uplifting pitch you’ve ever heard. Jesus’ words today challenge us to take stock, to make a decision, to consider whether or not we are willing to pay the price of following him. To follow Jesus will cost us. But hidden under Jesus’ startling words is the good news, the great news that the cost is a small price to pay for what we receive in turn.

Jesus invites those in the crowd to be his disciples. To go where he goes. But that means they will have to carry the cross, like Jesus must carry the cross. To follow Jesus is to be willing to face death in some way. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a martyr under Nazi Germany, famously wrote “when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” For some Christians in the past and present, like Bonhoeffer, following Jesus has meant a willingness to face literal death. But for all Christians, following Christ means a willingness to die to those things that would keep us from Christ and from living as citizens of God’s Kingdom. Followers of Christ have to die to selfishness, to bitterness, to greed, to sin. Followers of Christ must make loyalty to Christ more important than any other loyalty.

This is quite the demand. But that’s part of the very nature of discipleship. Discipleship was a deep, intimate, trusting relationship between a master and the disciple. In ancient Israel for a teacher to have disciples wasn’t a strange thing at all, it was the norm, it was how knowledge and insight and wisdom and practice were all passed on. Disciples devoted themselves to spending time with the master, to learning how to think and act like him, to building a relationship with him. Being a disciple wasn’t just about gaining head-knowledge, it was about being formed and shaped into a certain kind of person. It was learning to be like someone. Disciples of a master didn’t just attend classes a few times a week, they lived and breathed with the master. Their lives and the lives of the master became intertwined. Where he went, they went.

This, of course, had a cost. People had to leave their homes and families, they had to order their life around this other person. They couldn’t be a disciple on their terms. They had to make their teacher, their master the priority.

So Jesus is asking those in the crowd to make him the priority in their lives. More important than family. Even more important than their own lives. Now, he’s engaging in a bit of prophetic hyperbole to get his point across. Think of a wedding ceremony – the couple promises to forsake all others. The promise isn’t about abandoning every relationship other than the one with their spouse, the promise is that of all the relationships a person has, this new relationship, this marital relationship takes precedence. Jesus says hate your family, hate your life but his point isn’t that we should harbor some kind of disdain for others or ourselves, rather his point is that he should be our priority, he should be the center of our lives, the one we love most.

But why? Why make Jesus the center? Why follow him where he goes? Why make him our teacher and master? Because Christ has fully and completely animated by the love of God. Christ’s life is all about the love of God and sharing God’s love for others. To follow Christ, to be his disciple is to devote ourselves to becoming people who are more and more animated by God’s love, it is to become people who, like Christ, can share God’s love with others. Discipleship is about learning to walk in the way of God’s love.

At Duke we often sang a song during communion called “We are One in the Spirit,” the chorus goes “and they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” The mark of Christians is that we love like Christ loves – but that’s easier said, or sung, than done. The hard work of devoting ourselves to discipleship, to following Christ, is how we learn to love like Christ loves.

Jesus asks us to make him the center of our life, to put him and our relationship with him first before our families and ourselves, not so we can forget our families or forget ourselves. It’s so we can learn to love our families and love ourselves better, so that we can learn to love our families and ourselves like Christ loves them and us. We carry our crosses and follow Jesus so that all those things that stop us from loving as Christ loves can be crucified, so that we can learn how to love as recklessly, as freely, as abundantly, as extravagantly as he loves us. Can you imagine what our lives, our families, our parishes would look like if we could love like Christ loves? It would change our world.

But we can only love as Christ loves us if we know Christ. And we can only come to know Christ by spending time with him. This is one thing I’ve been thinking a lot about in the last few months. I spent a lot of time studying religion and theology – in undergrad and then at seminary – and I feel like I know a lot of facts about Jesus, but I think I could know Jesus – the living Jesus, the resurrected Jesus – better. What I’m realizing in my own spiritual life is that I can’t just think about Jesus or know facts about Jesus. I’ve got to know the living Christ. Facts about Jesus don’t love me, don’t love us, but Jesus does.

We’re all busy though. We’re all running in what seems to be hundreds of different directions, with many commitments vying for our time and it seems downright selfish of Jesus to ask for more. So many of us are strapped for “more” to offer. We’re running on empty. There’s barely enough time to spend with family and friends – and now we’ve got to fit Jesus in? So, what do we do? How do we set off to follow Jesus, to go where he goes? Well, we start small. We do what we can. 

We start by inviting Jesus into our lives – not just on Sunday. Jesus can’t be the center of our life if Jesus isn’t involved in our lives. But it’s our lives he wants to be the center of – our lives in all their busyness and messiness. I’ve often been trapped by the idea that I have to be “holier” or “more Christian” for God to really be invested or involved in me – but it’s just not true! God isn’t waiting for us to get somewhere for him to be present with us. He wants to meet us right now, wherever we are.

So we invite Jesus into our lives, this requires, though, that we talk to him – we pray to him. These don’t have to be elaborate prayers found in the prayer book, though they can be. Prayer can be simple notes to God that we send off. We can pray at meals, as we begin our day, as we go into school or a meeting, as we hang out with friends – simply asking Christ to be with us, to help us love like he loves in these settings and with these people. These prayers can happen in the little spare moments we already have.

Part of inviting Christ into our life is making Scripture a part of our life. Scripture is the word of God, that means God speaks through its pages – by sitting with Scripture we can begin to hear God better, as God uses the words that have shaped Jews and Christians for thousands of years to shape us.  Spending time with Scripture is super hard for me, personally, but I’ve found the daily office in the prayer book to be really helpful in giving me a guide for reading the Bible. A Psalm a day is also a great way to begin a Bible reading discipline, but there are many other ways to spend time with Scripture: there are apps, and Bible reading guides. Bible studies here at church. Forward Day by Day is another wonderful print and electronic resource that provides a small verse and brief reflection for each day of the week. Scripture is a gift, and what matters most is finding what works for you in exploring it.

Prayer and Scripture are small ways we can begin inviting Jesus into our life. These are little steps we can take to spend more time with the one who will teach us how to be more like him, how to love ourselves and others like he loves. These are ways we can begin building our relationship with Christ. This will take time, but good relationships always do. Like any relationship, there will be ups and downs, starts and stops, seasons where it is easier, and seasons where it just seems impossible. But like the best relationships, sticking it out is worth it.