September 8, 2013 – The Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
did he really say that?
Roy W. Howard
You gotta hand it to Jesus: he really knows how to clear out a crowd! While the rest of us are doing everything possible to bring people into the church with gimmicks galore, entertaining worship and lowering the membership expectations to nearly nothing, Jesus ups the ante so high that the crowd faints on its way out the door, muttering the way people do with the occasional sermon that rattles their bones: did he really say that?!
The man next sitting next to me asks, “how seriously should we take Christian discipleship?” We are gathered with others at a fine Bethesda restaurant and he is nursing a gin and tonic when he asks the question. My brain misfired at the collision; for a few seconds uncertain whether to laugh at the irony of the question in this posh setting? In the end, I didn’t because his eyes told me he was serious about the question and the setting was a good as any; maybe even better. After all if Christians are gathering in pubs to engage in something called Theology on Tap, why not the same here?
How serious should we take the call of Jesus to be his disciple, when we have so many other claims on our lives; none of which is going away? The claims competing for our loyalty only get more complex as we get older though that’s to imagine with the current claims upon younger people today. Is the call of Jesus to be his disciple one of many loyalties that we can choose to take up if it’s convenient and doesn’t interfere with the other demands on our time and relationships?
When my friend in the restaurant asked whether we should take seriously the call to Christian discipleship, we both knew the answer. He is a pastor too. And in the end we did laugh at the sheer irony of the liturgical calendar; that on a day when everyone returns to Church for Sunday School and choir and all the hub bub that goes with Church, we actually get a gospel text like this one! Should I avoid saying the word that children are taught not to use or just ask them to close their ears? And today we have the big opportunity fair which the elders and deacons have been planning for months to encourage everyone to be involved in the ministry of the church – and what text do we have to consider: a radical call to discipleship! You must choose: is it your parents, your spouses and partners OR follow Christ?
Did he really say that?
I suppose it is something of the strange providence of God that we can’t escape the question of Christian discipleship when it would be much easier to be lulled into thinking that merely engaging in church activities is the same as being a disciple of Jesus. Actually we can escape it and I’m certain that many do, avoiding altogether the question and the gospel, which may explain the banality of much of Christianity for those who are still seeking for a new way of life in the world. Churchiness is the not the same as discipleship.
In her book, “Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is telling the American Church”, Kenda Dean says that “American Christians’ emphasis on “a do-good, feel-good spirituality” at the expense of deep discipleship may cost them the rising generation of teenagers, which is largely apathetic about Christian faith. What is missing and much needed is a “consequential faith” – one that bears fruit for the long haul. It is this cross-bearing life that Dean says teenagers actually need to hear about because they know it is not a gimmick.
Being a disciple of Jesus is not about gimmicks. That means that the only reason the Opportunity Fair, Sunday school and everything else we do matters at all is to the extent they actually help us become disciples of Jesus in word and deed.
It’s a common illusion to think that being a church member is the same as being a disciple of Jesus. That is simply not true. Garrison Keillor once quipped, “being a church member does not make you a Christian anymore than standing in a garage will make you a car.” I wish it were otherwise. The Church is skilled at making members – although apparently not as skilled as it once was – but the Church is not as skilled at forming disciples of Jesus who place his call at the center of our lives, mediating all the other competing claims on our lives. Yet, that is this is central purpose of the Christian faith: to form us into Christians who actually follow Jesus, trusting that walking in his way is God’s way for our lives.
We can’t escape the competing claims on our lives either, but we can by the grace of the Holy Spirit make deliberate choices that indicate what we value most in our lives. In fact, we make those choices nearly every day, usually several times a day. How we wrestle with “who is my neighbor in Syria” and “what claim does my neighbor have on me, whether that neighbor shares the locker next to mine at school, or a village across the world, or the home next door” is at the heart of being a follower of Jesus. This is the cost of discipleship: making choices not just once but throughout the course of our lives.
It would be understandable to get flummoxed by the hyperbole in this text and run out the door with the rest of the crowd. Give up all my possessions? Really? And then what; stand on the corner begging for your spare change? Join a monastic community and live off donations? Is that the only option here for those who will follow Jesus? I don’t think so; but it make mean asking harder questions than you may have otherwise. Are the possessions in my life too many to live a generous life? Are they actually a hindrance to a simple life in God connected to my neighbors? Is it then an act of discipleship to let go of more – be liberated for communion with others who have less and actually need more?
Here is what I think is most remarkable: life joined intimately with Christ is the most life affirming way of all. Surrendering your will to God so that you can be shaped by Jesus pattern of self-giving leads to freedom, graciousness, mercy and kindness – the very things we yearn for and this world needs. An authentic Christian life is not an endless barrel of laughs, but what life worth living is? Real life is riddled with ambiguity and deep mystery. There are moments of laughter and joy, of course, but there are also long moments of huge pain, heartbreak and sorrow. To pretend otherwise is, well, to pretend.
Life with Christ – being his disciple – is one lived fully in the real world trusting God who is bringing life out of death. I could say trust me on this one – but that would miss everything. Instead, trust God and take up the way of Jesus in the company of his disciples.
The specific questions will be different for each of us, but the essential question will not go away for any of us; namely, how do I follow Jesus in my daily life?