That’s the sound I believe you would hear if you were to hold this portion of Luke’s gospel up to your ear. It’s the sound of screeching tires from brakes being applied rather suddenly and forcefully, as when the road you are travelling takes a turn off to the side in another direction without warning.
It’s the sound of hundreds, perhaps thousands—no, make that millions of would-be disciples—stopping in their tracks to get their bearings and possibly re-calculate their route in Jesus’ footsteps. Like listening for the sound of the ocean inside a conch shell, if you hold this particular page of the New Testament—this specific admonition from Jesus--up to your ear, that’s the sound you can make out.
At least, I know I can hear myself hitting the brakes pretty hard when I hear these words about true discipleship. I don’t know about you, but I find myself almost instinctively backpedalling, my hand groping for some spiritual GPS device with which I could investigate possibilities for circumnavigating these unhappy obstacles.
It’s been a wild and interesting ride thus far. The demands of discipleship haven’t been too taxing, yet the rewards have been fairly attractive: the promise of a kingdom fulfilled, good news for the poor, the vision of a world released from captivity to sin! Discipleship has, for the most part, seemed relatively doable. That is, until now…until this point when our leader wheels around mid-step and seemingly lays it all on the line: following will mean, in fact, loving him above all else, carrying a cross, and—gasp!—giving up our possessions. Now it appears more might be asked of us than we originally thought, and if we are to re-prioritize and re-calibrate, it would be best to apply the brakes and think this through.
Could you imagine, for instance, if this is how we introduced Henry Waller this morning to the waters of baptism? “Hal and Ally, do you realize what you’re getting Henry into? Do you know you’re signing him up for a good bit of suffering, introducing him to a way of thinking and living that will often have him at odds with the world? Are you prepared for him to learn to love Jesus even more than he will come to love you?? Happy baptism, everybody!”
Yes, perhaps better to downplay these aspects, Jesus, for fear we’ll all apply the brakes, and then never rev the engine up again! Like the Israelites in this morning’s passage from Deuteronomy who stand at the threshold of the Promised Land, looking over the Jordan, hopeful and yet chastened after forty years of wandering, the followers of Jesus face something like a decision at this point: Eeeerrrk! Life…or death. Prosperity…or adversity. Continue to Jerusalem with Jesus…or go back to whatever we were doing before.
Lutherans have long had something of an allergic reaction to anything that smacks of “decision theology”; that is, any understanding of Christian faith which suggests, in any way, that our salvation is dependent on our decision for God. Lutherans have typically chosen to proclaim all this the other way around: that salvation is ultimately based on God’s decision for us, that God never gives up on us, and his love is a free gift offered in the life and death of Jesus Christ who came to suffer and die so that sinners could be reconciled to God. In baptism, we have these promises, never to be revoked, and Christian life is about fashioning an authentic response to those promises. Yes, if there is a decision involved in securing our redemption, we would always choose to stress God’s decision for us so that the message of grace is loud and clear.
And yet, there is a sense in which some type of decision is expected from us at not one but at perhaps several points along the way. There is some need for an acknowledgement on our part, by the power of the Holy Spirit, that we will join our meager forces with this kingdom coming. We will, in fact, commence to building that tower that Jesus mentions in his mini-parable. We will commit our armies to the battle. We will submit, that is, to the suffering that comes when standing up for justice and peace, and we’ll strive to view the world and our relationships with Christ at the center.
That’s what Jesus is driving at in his short but direct speech here on the road to Jerusalem. Without mincing his words, Jesus urges anyone who has an interest in being a disciple to weigh first what that means. This discipleship endeavor is not, as it sometimes appears, just another social service organization that goes about doing good here and there. This movement is not, as it often comes across, a club for fellowship and networking, or a historical society that propagates a certain heritage. The community of Jesus’ followers isn’t even about a certain kind of worship, a gathering of people who like to do little religious things together. Rather, Jesus calls real people to a real journey that has real demands.
Incidentally, a book on this particular subject has recently been published which is causing quite a stir in certain Christian circles. A review of it was even run on CNN this week. Entitled Almost Christian, the book is researched and written by Princeton Theological Seminary professor Kenda Creasy Dean. In it she posits, rather controversially, that many of the youth in Christian churches these days are not really Christian, having instead developed a “watered-down faith that portrays God as a ‘divine therapist’ whose chief goal is to boost people’s self-esteem.” Furthermore, Dean argues that many “parents and pastors are unwittingly passing on this self-serving strain of Christianity.”
To draw her conclusions, Professor Dean undertook hundreds of interviews of active church youth across the country and asked them about their faith, their lives, and what was important to them. She discovered that while they could talk with considerable nuance about subjects like money, sex, and their family relationships, they were surprisingly incoherent when asked to talk about their beliefs. Interestingly, Dean hypothesizes that this watered-down version of Christian faith that youth are receiving and hearing from pastors and parents is largely why youth are drifting away from the mainline churches. They recognize, on some level, that no demand is really made on them, that no challenge is really offered from this type of distant god, just as such a god steers clear of teenagers’ tough questions about life.
I can’t say that I have experienced her findings to be true about the youth I’ve worked with at Epiphany. After all, one of our youth members freely donated the cash gifts she received from her sixteenth birthday party to fund part of the youth group’s servant trip to South Carolina last month. Another one spent the last week of her summer running a day camp for inner city children in her own backyard, without compensation. What I found most interesting about Dean’s conclusions is her answer for teaching about the God we encounter in the gospel today, the God who sends his Son to suffer for our sake. She says that parents “who perform one act of radical faith in front of their children convey more than a multitude of sermons and mission trips.” Such an act might include, for example, turning down a more lucrative job offer to stay at a struggling church or spending a summer abroad working on an agricultural renewal project and then verbally connecting that type of radical decision to the life of faith. ("Author: More teens becoming ‘fake’ Christians.” John Blake on CNN.) In other words, it involves taking to heart the words about the rigors of discipleship, and deciding to head forward, deciding to embark, time and again, on that path of grace that God lays out before us in Jesus.
And somewhere along the line, I would say, we learn that it is actually quite worthwhile to follow…that even after we’ve hit the brakes over and over again, we discover that the fun we might be looking for really is found in sharing all that we have with others, in dedicating all our worldly possessions—indeed, our very lives—to the cause of something far greater that our pastime or our own personal glory. Somewhere along the way—and as a Lutheran I would say at innumerable points along the way—we do decide that crossing over Jordan, for all its scariness and all its sacrifices, is still the only path worth taking, the only land worth occupying, for through it we truly enjoy the life God desires for us, a kingdom that is eternal.
And also along the way we discover, to our shock, that it isn’t vinegar Jesus has used to invite us into the life of discipleship. No, my friends, it isn’t vinegar at all, but its far sweeter cousin, wine. With bread and wine, placed out upon a table surrounded by the very fellows who slammed on the brakes in betrayal and denial, Jesus offers his own self and God’s own forgiveness as his eternal pledge of help and salvation. And this gift has been given, it turns out, as a part of a growth campaign: your growth…your growth into a life that is prosperity, a life of radical growth around every bend in the road. It has been given for you, Henry…and for all of us.
One question for us to ponder, as we sit there with our foot on the brake pedal: will we take it?
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.