|Today’s scripture readings:
Maybe he didn’t mean it. Maybe Jesus was just being dramatic when he said we can’t be his disciples unless we hate our parents, spouses, siblings, and even our own lives. If he wasn’t being serious, if he was just exaggerating a bit to get our attention, then we could put this challenging passage behind us, breathe a big, collective sigh of relief, and get on with life as usual. But Jesus’ words can’t be explained away so easily. I think Jesus’ whole purpose in today’s gospel lesson is to disrupt life as usual.
Actually, maybe some explanation is in order. The first thing to say is that “hate” isn’t really the best translation of the Greek word used in the original biblical manuscripts. Today, the word “hate” implies feelings of animosity or ill-will toward another person. But the original Greek word means something a little different. There’s another place in Luke’s Gospel where Jesus says you can’t serve two masters, that you’ll either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. Hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. It’s not so much about animosity or ill-will; it’s about choices and priorities. When Jesus talks about “hating” someone or something, he’s saying we need to make a decision. You can choose this one or you can choose another, but you can’t have them both. So when Jesus says we can’t be his disciples unless we “hate” our families and even our own lives, he’s saying we have to make a decision about what’s most important to us. We can choose Jesus or we can choose our families or ourselves, but we can’t have them both.
That explanation doesn’t make Jesus’ message much easier to bear. Jesus is making a radical statement about what it costs to be his disciple. Jesus goes on in today’s gospel lesson to tell these two little parables. The first one is about a person who decides to build a tower but doesn’t first sit down to calculate how much it’s going to cost; the builder is embarrassed when the project is only half done and he’s already out of money. The second one is about a king who understands how unwise it would be to send an army into battle without first determining whether it’s a battle they can win. The point of these two parables is that it would be foolish to take on a big project without first considering the costs. “If you want to be my disciples,” Jesus says, “you should first count the cost, and then proceed with eyes wide open.”
As I was reflecting on this passage this week, I pulled out my copy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer writes that when Christ calls us, Christ bids us come and die. It may not be a physical death Christ requires of us, but following Jesus will always entail major, life-transforming sacrifice. It’s not a feel-good faith that Christ is calling for; it’s a faith that asks us to leave everything else behind and follow him. If you know anything about Bonhoeffer’s own story, you know he’s someone who took this call pretty seriously. A Lutheran pastor and theologian who lived in Germany during the first half of the twentieth century, Bonhoeffer took extraordinary risks to oppose the rise of Nazism and Hitler’s autocratic rule. He spoke out publicly resisting Nazi ideology, organized a Christian opposition movement, and even conspired in a plot to have Hitler assassinated. Though he had multiple opportunities to escape to the United States and continue to build an illustrious career in this country, his faith kept him in Germany, where he was ultimately arrested, imprisoned, and put to death—sadly just two weeks before American soldiers liberated the camp where he had been held. Bonhoeffer had a single-minded commitment to the gospel and really did leave everything else behind to live as a disciple of Jesus Christ.
When Christ calls us, Christ bids us come and die.
I’ve told some of you before about an ELCA youth gathering I attended where, as a ninth grader, I heard a speaker named Mike Yaconelli. At that time, he had just written a book called Dangerous Wonder, and when I asked him to sign my copy of the book, he wrote inside the front cover, “Javen: May the wild Jesus continue to ruin your life.” Isn’t that sort of what the gospel is talking about today, about a Jesus who ruins lives?
Maybe having our lives ruined by Jesus wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all.
In that book, Dangerous Wonder, Mike Yaconelli says that the greatest issue facing us today is dullness. “We have lost our astonishment,” he writes. “The Good News is no longer good news, it is okay news. Christianity is no longer life changing, it is life enhancing. Jesus doesn’t change people into wild-eyed radicals anymore, he changes them into ‘nice people.’” Yaconelli says he’s ready for a Christianity that ‘ruins’ his life, that captures his heart and makes him uncomfortable. “How did we end up so comfortable with God?” he wonders. “How did our awe of God get reduced to a lukewarm appreciation of God? How did God become a pal instead of a heart-stopping presence? How can we think of Jesus without remembering his ground-shaking, thunder-crashing, stormy exit on the cross? Why aren’t we continually catching our breath and saying, ‘This is no ordinary God!’?” “In a day when most of us are tired, worn-out, thirsty, and starving for life and joy and peace, maybe it is time to… live this dangerous wonder of faith, take our shoes off, [and] roll up our sleeves.”
I wonder how many of us are tired, worn-out, thirsty, and starving for life and joy and peace. For some of us, it’s that we’ve been run ragged by our crazy schedules. Some of you are high school youth about to begin another year of school, where you’ll juggle homework with sports, jobs, extracurricular activities, and, yes, confirmation. It’s even crazier for your parents, who shuttle you and your brothers and sisters from one thing to another and have to somehow find time to do their day jobs, make supper for you every night, and get a few hours of sleep before doing it all over again tomorrow. I honestly don’t know how you all do it. Tired, worn-out, thirsty, starving for life and joy and peace—is that you?
For some of us, it’s exactly the opposite—not that our lives are too full but that they feel empty, like we’re just punching the clock and putting in our time, doing the same thing day after day after miserable day. We’re trapped in routines that leave us feeling listless and unsatisfied, or we’re trapped in unfulfilling jobs or lifeless relationships, but can’t seem to find a way out. Tired, worn-out, thirsty, starving for life and joy and peace—is that you?
At the heart of our Christian faith is a crazy paradox, that death is the way to new life. When Christ calls us, Christ bids us come and die—because it’s in dying that we rise to new life. Christ bids us turn away from the things we cling to so tightly, thinking they can bring us life and joy and peace, but which are actually draining the life out of us. Christ bids us abandon those things in this world that demand all our energy and commitment, and to abandon all the stuff we’ve accumulated—to abandon the things that are strangling us and leave us feeling empty. Christ bids us reject the status quo and open our minds to unimagined possibilities. Christ bids us come and die, and in so doing, to find life.
In just a few moments, two little ones will be carried to the font and they will be baptized. Here at Gloria Dei and at most American Lutheran churches, baptism involves a word of God’s promise joined with a few polite splashes of water. But following the pattern of the early Christian church, some traditions today practice full-immersion baptism; the one being baptized is lowered all the way underwater—sometimes quite dramatically!—and bathed head to toe. In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul says we are baptized into Christ’s death so that we might rise with Christ to new life. When one being baptized is immersed in the water, their old self is washed away, and they emerge a new creation.
Today, parents and sponsors and all of us gathered here will make promises to support Clair Elizabeth and Romona Lynn in their new lives in Christ. And we will promise to encourage them in their daily dying and rising with Christ—because that dying and rising with Christ, which begins in baptism, becomes the pattern of our lives. Each day, Clair and Romona will have opportunities to die with Christ and participate in the resurrected life. Each day, God sets before each one of us, as Moses put it, life and prosperity, death and adversity. Choose life. Every day, choose life.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Collier, 1963).
M. Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004).
Sharon H. Ringe, Luke, in the Westminster Bible Companion series, eds. Patrick D. Miller and David L. Bartlett (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1995).
Michael Yaconelli, Dangerous Wonder: The Adventure of Childlike Faith (Colorado Spring: NavPress, 1998).