I, like many of you yesterday, was surprised, alarmed, and disturbed by Mississippi State’s one-point loss to South Alabama after leading by 17 points at the half. But the Bulldogs were not the only power that was shaken yesterday; there was also an earthquake that I know many of you felt as well. It was my first time to feel an earthquake. With nothing to connect it to in my mind, I thought there was a strong wind blowing our apartment; but I looked out the window, and it was clear and sunny. The word earthquake never occurred to me until Cheryl came in to tell me she had seen on the Internet that was what it was. It was unexpected, surprising, disturbing, and quite literally shook the foundations of life, if only for a few brief moments. Much like Jesus’ statement in today’s gospel. (See what I did there?) Whoever does not hate cannot be my disciple.
Large crowds were beginning to follow Jesus on his way to Jerusalem, and he takes that opportunity to give this teaching about the cost of discipleship. Elsewhere in the gospels Jesus found himself followed by masses of people, often because they were desirous to benefit from his miraculous wonder working, some wishing to be healed of their ailments, some wishing to eat from the bounty of bread and fish which he is able to produce from meager offerings. It is not just about those things, Jesus says. Discipleship is not a light thing and not just about these temporary benefits, but rather following Jesus is a weighty and life-changing course of action. And he begins this corrective with the scandalous use of the word hate as applied to those closest to us in the world, mother, and father, and family.
It is true that in the Semitic language the word hate does not carry some of the emotional overtones of our English word hate, but means something more akin to decisively turn away from and disconnect oneself from, to break from once and for all. But we should not let this slight difference rob Jesus’ words of their intentional shocking nature. In a time where one’s work, station, and indeed whole life depended much upon family ties, in a culture where honoring father and mother stood as one of the ten central commandments of faith, Jesus’ words would have indeed shaken the foundations of faith for those who were beginning to follow him. He gives them the metaphors of building a tower and waging war, both things that are not, or at least should not, be done in the heat of the moment because of passion alone. They are things that in order to do rightly must be done with forethought and with the knowledge of what will be involved, things which should not be undertaken halfheartedly or else it will be at best an embarrassing waste of time. Do or do not, there is no try that could be in the bible.
Jesus’ words to these would-be followers are reminiscent of the angel’s words to the Church in Laodicea in Saint John’s revelation, in which the charge laid against them is that they are lukewarm. I know your works, the angel says, you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or heart. So because you are lukewarm and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.
A strange image to be sure, but clear enough that the Church in Laodicea, like perhaps some of those who were following Jesus along the road, had not decisively begun to follow him but rather considered discipleship to Jesus one thing among many. Not understanding that commitment to Christ is as formational, as life changing a thing as who one’s own father and mother are. Becoming a disciple is as life changing as getting married and having kids. When you become a disciple, you are leaving behind one way of living and thinking for another one. It is not a casual thing to follow this Jesus, but an earth-shattering decision that will touch every aspect of one’s life; at least it should.
But there is a temptation for us here at First Lutheran, which is directly touched upon by the heart of Jesus’ message for the crowds that were following him, and it has to do with society and tradition. The disciples we read about in the New Testament became disciples because they were convinced in the depths of their being that Jesus was sent from God, and that conviction guided their lives and decisions. Can we not be more guilty of a more compartmentalized faith? One more like what Jesus is warning the crowds against. I give a certain part of my income to the Church but the rest is mine to do with what I please. I give an hour a week to the Church to be in worship, and an hour of service here and there. The relationships I have at Church are church-like relationships, but the relationships I have outside of the Church have nothing to do with the faith. Like the people who followed Jesus because they needed healing or wanted free food, but who were unwilling to have the rest of their lives touched by this man from God.
As Bonheoffer reminds us, grace is free but it is not cheap. What did he mean by that? Like a good Lutheran he knows that we never earn our forgiveness by good works—there is nothing that we can do to add anything to our holiness or goodness—but that our forgiveness, our holiness, our righteousness is 100 percent a gift from God through Jesus Christ. It is a free gift, but it is not a gift that leaves us unchanged. It is not a cheap grace that allows us to forget about holiness and get back to the business of sinning since it is all taken care of. It is a free gift that costs us everything. The gospel means something not just for the portion of our money we give to the Church or to charities; it has something to say for all of our resources. The gospel means something not just for the one hour a week when I’m in Church, but for all the hours of the week. The gospel means something not just for the relationship I have with the people at Church, but for each and every relationship that I have.
Today’s gospel brings to mind a quote from C.S. Lewis who said, “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy; I always knew a bottle of port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”
His words are perhaps something of a hyperbole like the words of Jesus in the gospel, an exaggeration to make a point. It must be true that we do gain a great deal of comfort from our faith, which helps us to understand those human problems of life and death and sin and goodness, helps us to find meaning and direction, and there is certainly a certain comfort in that. But Lewis is right that there would be things to believe that would be easier, things that wouldn’t call us to die to our old selves with its old commitments and rise to a new and better life with different values. Things to believe that would not call for me to be always in a process of transformation and change, which we all know can be difficult and uncomfortable. But as David Yeago says, God loves us just as we are, and loves us too much to leave us that way. And part of the good news is that it is possible to grow.
As the shaking of the ground yesterday morning inspired many of us to jump up and investigate, so may the words of Jesus this morning be at least as motivating, and may we find new ways to be ourselves, in Jesus name. Amen.