“If You Wish to Follow”
Oct 18, 2015
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
The disciples had just entered the big time. For months they had been following Jesus around Galilee, listening to his stories, and watching him work, and finally Jesus decides that they are ready to try it on their own. He sends the twelve disciples into the country on their first assignment and they go through the villages preaching the good news and healing diseases. When they return, Luke says, “They tell Jesus everything they have done.”
We can just imagine the pride of the disciples as they jostle for attention, share their stories of the road, maybe even try to trump one another’s stories so that they will win the “most valuable disciple” award. Maybe they are just a little full of themselves.
Jesus promised his disciples and promises us that there is a life-giving power in his word, a power that can heal wounded people, bring good news to the poor, free the oppressed, and open the eyes of the blind. When we take our call seriously, our faith can change lives, and it can even change the world. Unjust laws have fallen before the concerted effort of faithful people who insisted on treating all people as equal in God’s eyes. Enemies have found forgiveness and reconciliation because Christians have insisted on mercy and refused to ignore Christ’s command to love even our enemies. And certainly closer to home, we know that our commitment to Christ’s compassion has healed wounded hearts, brought comfort to the sick, lifted the weary, and given hope to those in despair. The life-changing power of Christ is real and when we are faithful to our call, we can be the conduit between Christ’s love and a people in need. The danger for us as disciples, however, is that too often we forget the source of the power and confuse faith in Christ with faith in our own abilities. We fall prey to pride, thinking that our call as followers of Christ sets us apart and sets us above others.
I’m sure that most of us don’t have to search our minds very hard to come up with examples of people who exude self-assured certainty about their salvation, or express pity for a poor soul who is not as theologically astute as they ware. If we are being honest, we might admit that there have been times when we have been oh-so pleased with ourselves because of the dedication of our faith and the amazing kindness of our hearts.
An anonymous poet wrote this poem about the pride of salvation:
“I was shocked, confused, bewildered
As I entered Heaven’s door,
Not by the beauty of it all,
Nor the lights or its decor.
But it was the folks in Heaven
Who made me sputter and gasp
The thieves, the liars, the sinners,
The alcoholics and the trash.
There stood the kid from seventh grade
Who swiped my lunch money twice.
Next to him was my old neighbor
Who never said anything nice.
Herb, who I always thought
Was rotting away in hell,
Was sitting pretty on cloud nine,
Looking incredibly well.
I nudged Jesus, “What’s the deal?
I would love to hear Your take.
How’d all these sinners get up here?
God must’ve made a mistake.
And why’s everyone so quiet,
So somber — give me a clue.”
“Hush, child,” He said, “they’re all in shock.
At the thought of seeing you.” (from Cybersalt Digest newsletter)
More than any of the other gospels, Luke’s gospel challenges the powerful of his society. He takes aim at the smug satisfaction of the well situated and warns against the dangers of wealth and status. While Mathew, for example, reports Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in the comforting tones of the Beatitudes: “Blessed are you who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” Luke adds the flip side of the blessing and says, “And woe to you who are rich… Woe to you who are full now…. Woe to you who laugh now…. Woe to you when all speak well of you….”
If there are people in Luke’s church who have come because they think that they are going to find the secret keys to the Kingdom which will set them up for life today and for eternity, Luke wants them to know in no uncertain terms that Jesus did not die so that we could be named “Who’s Who among Christian Church Goers.” And so, when he tells the story of the disciples returning from their first discipleship mission flush with their success and full of themselves, Luke follows it with the words of Jesus that point their minds toward Jerusalem.
“You have followed me in my power; but now I am headed toward weakness, sacrifice, suffering, and slaughter,” Jesus says, “You have felt the joy of discipleship; let me tell you now about the cost.” And like a blow to the diaphragm, Jesus punches these words upon them: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”
I read an account of the seriousness of Jesus’ call in a ministry journal. A pastor told the following story:
“I began my ministry as a youth pastor in a large church,” he wrote, “and during that first year, I came to know a bright, creative young man who unfortunately had lost his way and had gotten involved in the drug scene. His parents were devastated when eventually the son ended up in juvenile detention. I made plans to visit him and his mom and dad were quite pleased that a minister was going to talk with him.
“‘A little religion can’t hurt,’ his dad said approvingly.
“Though the boy had been confirmed,” the pastor continued, “he told me that he only went through confirmation because in his words, ‘My parents would have killed me if I didn’t.’ The father had been confirmed and his father’s father before him, and the boy’s father said, ‘By god, all my kids are going to be confirmed!’
“My young friend had shown no genuine desire to be in the confirmation class and he freely expressed his disinterest in things having to do with church or God. During his time in detention, however, things began to turn. He took a long hard look at himself and slowly an interest in spiritual things emerged. He was anxious to talk about the direction of his life.
“’I’ve been thinking a lot about God and wondering what God would want me to do,’ he said, and then asked me, ‘Would God want someone like me who blew his whole life?’
“I encouraged him to carefully read Peter’s story and Jesus’ interactions with people in the gospels. I assured him, ‘God needs your availability, not your perfection.’
“When the young man was released, he returned home to the great delight of his parents. There were some weeks of continued exploration and successful sobriety. Finally he told his parents he felt a call to ministry.
“His father, who was a member of the church and on the board of trustees, called me,” the pastor remembers. “He was furious.
“’I think this is your fault,’ he complained, ‘We appreciate the fact that he got some help with the drug thing, but this is going a little too far!’
“’You could say,’ the pastor concludes, ‘that this father had a bit of sticker shock. A little religion, it turned out, could become a costly, life-changing business.”
If we believe that we can experience all of the rewards of faith without any of the costs, we are looking for what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called, “cheap grace.” We do need Christ — we need the rest our weary souls can find in him, and we need the assurance that our sins have not separated us from the life-giving love of God. When we feel lost and wonder what any of this all means, we need the light of Christ to pour in upon our darkness and lead us out of the tomb. We need Christ more than we need water or food or exercise or a solid investment plan or a 4.0 grad point average or the MLB network or even more than we need the Bills to win the Superbowl.
We need Christ; but Christ also needs us. To seek the blessings of Christ while turning away from the cost is to fill our lives not with him, but with ourselves and to ultimately lose the very life that we seek to gain.
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.”
Like Matthew and Mark, Luke shares with his readers the potential blessings of our faith yet at the same time hammers home the cost so that no one is tempted to engage in cheap grace. But Luke goes one step further than Matthew and Mark. He adds a word to Jesus’ command that is not in the other gospels; he adds the word “daily.”
I think that Luke knew that the human heart’s capacity for self-deluded arrogance in unending. I suspect that he was thinking about the rich people in his community who often boasted of their amazingly generous donations to the needy, or of the strutting of the young men who assured one another that even torture would not make them recant their faith, and Luke realized that even our sacrifices can be more about self-glory than the glory of Christ.
In the late 1950’s, after the Montgomery bus boycott, whites in Montgomery were very angry at the new integration of buses, and, of course, they focused their anger on the Blacks. Many times prominent Blacks of the movement suffered the terrorism of bomb attacks on their churches and homes. In the book, Parting the Waters, an account of the Civil Rights movement, the author Taylor Branch reports that as frightening as those times were, for some African-American ministers, having your home or church bombed became a sort of status symbol. It was a kind of public declaration of your importance to the boycott movement and your willingness to suffer for your beliefs. In fact, Branch says, one Black minister went into an emotional depression because he was never bombed.
We, too, may understand and accept the cost of discipleship and yet even as we work for the needs of others and willingly sacrifice our time and our money for our faith, we look for that big act of martyrdom that will assure us and others that we are truly fit for the Kingdom of God. Maybe we’ll give up our jobs and live in Haiti helping dig wells. Or maybe we’ll lead a huge fund-raising campaign to provide shelter for the homeless of Allegany County. Or maybe we’ll cure cancer.
And of course, there’s nothing wrong with any of those things, but Luke knew that we often seek the big and glamorous causes to prove our discipleship while neglecting the dull pursuit of small incremental differences that we can make close at home everyday because even in our sacrifice, sometimes we are more full of ourselves than of Christ.
And so Luke adds that one word to the call of the cross — that one word that turns our efforts away from self-glory to God glory, that one word that leads us to look around us constantly for the needs we can meet today instead of thinking of the big things that we might do tomorrow, that one word that makes thinking about others and about Christ as integral to who we are as getting up in the morning, going to work, eating, and sleeping — “take up your cross daily,” Jesus says in the gospel of Luke, “and follow me.”
There are people in pain right now, who look to you for comfort. There are struggling poor neighbors who depend on your generosity. There are principles that Christ gives you to live out in the face of boredom, impatience, uncertainty, and even the question of whether anything you are doing is making a difference. We are called to take up the cross daily to serve Christ and give of ourselves to others, so that from the time we get up in the morning until we go to bed at night, we will be full of Christ and not ourselves.
This is what it means to follow. Let us all take up the cross daily and fill our hearts and our lives with Christ.