Demanding Discipleship

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

It is an incredible gift to be here and worship with you.  Not only because it gives me a chance to be in worship again with a friend I met in the last century.  But also because it gives me a chance to be in worship in a congregation that has made a tremendous impact of faithfulness not only in the city of Richmond, across the United States, but literally all over the world.  I would be remiss if I did not thank you for your partnership in the Gospel with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, from our very beginning until now.  It is an honor to be one of your mission partners.  I would be personally remiss as alumnus of the Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond, if I did not thank this congregation for the tremendous investment you made in the life of that school throughout its history, and if I did not assure you that its impact and its ministry and its legacy continues to the present day even though the last classes have been taught.  And I would be remiss if I do not thank you for the ways you are opening the imaginations of new generations of women and men called to the ministry through the Baptist House of Studies at Union Presbyterian Seminary, and through your witness it is truly possible even in these confusing times for a local congregation committed to the Lordship of Jesus Christ to be used to bring the kingdom of heaven to Richmond,  VA.

Now if I had good sense, I would stop with the anthem, and the words of gratitude and invite my friend of decades to invite you to the Lord’s table.  But I come here today not just to offer a denominational announcement, I’ve come to ask you if you heard those words of Jesus for which you just a few moments ago you said, “Thanks be to God.”  To remind you that those words came from you in this room.  Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes even life itself cannot be my disciple.  When I was studying preaching in Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond, Chuck Bugg would not have advised me to use this text for my first opportunity to preach to a congregation.  It’s strong language.  And if we’re going to receive a word from our Lord Jesus today, we need to ask ourselves are we hearing this text clearly.  And we ask ourselves why in the world is he speaking with such strength and intensity and vision to those crowds who were traveling with him.  Is Jesus really saying to us that in order to be his disciple we have to be willing to be in a place of animosity toward our immediate family.  Is Jesus really saying in order to follow him we have to be willing to literally hate our mothers and our fathers and our children, our kin, our very life itself.  In preparing to preach this morning I consulted a wide range of commentaries hoping I could find a lifeline to this spot that Jim had backed me in.  And I found out that while in the Jewish tradition that formed Jesus, it is sometimes possible to hear this word hate used to speak of an actual animosity, but there are also many times in the Hebrew scriptures where words like love and hate are used as aphorisms.  That is to say, where words like love and hate are used with an exaggeration to make a point.  That is to say, we’ll sometimes hear the psalmist pray that the righteous love justice.  The righteous love mercy.  The righteous hate wickedness.  The righteous hate immorality.  But in those cases, the psalmist is not trying to sow animosity deep within our bones, no the psalmist is trying to drive us to a place of clear prioritization.  That our life does not consist in kind of a wishy washy moderate, anything goes kind of identity but rather as people who are faithful, we are clear about what priorities guide our lives.  So heard that way, these words from Jesus have to be recognized as a challenge.  To make sure that he and he alone is the guiding priority of our lives, that no other relationship, that no other commitment, that no other love, that no other loyalty interferes with the loyalty that is supposed to be the highest loyalty in our lives.  Remember what you and I said, those of us who grew up Baptist?  We walked an aisle and gave our lives to Jesus?  I think we said, “Jesus is Lord.”  If you grew up in a church where you had a chance to do that on a Sunday night, there’s probably a good chance that when you walked the aisle, and you make that profession of faith, the congregation was singing something like that old hymn from the South,  All to Jesus I Surrender All to him I freely give, I will ever love and trust him in his presence daily live, I surrender all.  I give up everything to follow him.  Jesus says you cannot be my disciple if you’re not willing to sing I Surrender All and mean it.  You cannot be my disciple if you’re not willing to love me more than anyone and anything else.  And the language he uses to drive home that point is incredibly strong.  Why do you think he speaks with such intensity? That’s the question I’ve been pondering.  It’s not been that hard to wrap my mind the meaning of what he’s saying.  Usually with the scriptures what gives us the most trouble is not what we can’t understand, but what we can understand.  And what we can understand is spoken here with such an urgency and intensity I wonder why he is speaking in that way.  So then I noticed something in the text I have never noticed before.  I paid attention to the way Luke describes those to whom Jesus makes this statement.  But before I was so worried and preoccupied by the strength of the language, I didn’t pay any attention to the congregation for the sermon.  And it turns out the congregation for a sermon actually matters.  The congregation for this particular sermon recorded in Luke 14 is described as crowds who are travelling with Jesus.  Jesus does not call people to travel with him.  Jesus does not call people to be his companions on the journey.  These people to whom Jesus speaks are trying to do just that.  They are trying to be his travelling companions.  His buddies along the road.  He’s travelling to Jerusalem, and more and more people want to travel with him.  They want to be around him.  They want to hear what he says.  They want to admire his miracles.  They want to ponder his teachings.  They want to watch as he gets into the scrapes with the religious leaders as they get closer to Jerusalem.  They want to see all that and be spectators of it, and consumers of it, and weigh it in their world views and see what happens.  The problem is that Jesus does not call people to walk alongside him.  From the very beginning of the Gospels, the first words he spoke to those fishermen by the sea were not, “Come hang out with me.”  They were “follow me.”  And when Jesus sees people who are not in the right position related to him, he speaks with intensity.  If you don’t believe it, I want you to ask Peter.  Because in another moment along the journey of the Gospel narrators describe where Peter dares to walk alongside Jesus and give Jesus some advice that Jesus doesn’t seek.  You know why it is.  Jesus just said, hey, “Hey, we’re going to Jerusalem, it’s going to be ugly.  Terrible things are going to happen. I’m going to suffer.  I’m going to be killed.”  And Peter who is walking beside Jesus, who is a travelling companion to Jesus, who stands next to Jesus, comes next to Jesus and says, “Jesus I’m sorry, you’ve got your theology wrong.  What??  No, no Jesus it can’t be that way, didn’t you go to Sunday School, Jesus?  Jesus?  That can never happen to you, because see the scriptures say no.”  And do you know what Jesus says to Peter next according to another text around which sometimes you say thanks be to God?  He says, “Get behind me, Satan!”  Sometimes Jesus speaks really strong language to try to invite people to be in the right place, in the right posture when it comes to living in relationship with him.  I point this out this morning because the way I’m coming to see this text, it’s this text that brings us to a place of really important reflection.  It gives me at least a question, and I share it with you as a challenging gift.  Am I seeking to be a companion of Jesus, or am I thinking to really follow Jesus.  Am I seeking to live my life as one who walks alongside Jesus, or am I seeking to live my life as someone who gets behind Jesus and follows him wherever he goes?  If I live my life as a companion of Jesus, if I see myself that way, then it’s easy for me to progress in my thinking to the point where I say, well I’ve got a little room in my heart for Jesus.  I can fit Jesus into my busy schedule.  I’m willing to include Jesus among the number of authorities I consult when I’m trying to make a difficult decision.  It’s very easy for me to think about Jesus kind of on a level playing field with whatever I heard on a podcast.  Whatever some politician said.  Whatever some other book contains.  I’m willing to include Jesus among the authorities that I give consideration to when I face a real important decision.  But when Jesus and I are just travelling companions of one another, then guess who’s still in charge?  I am.  If I’m deciding whether I’m going to keep on walking with Jesus or not.  I’m deciding whether I’m going to pay attention to him, and when I’m not.  I’m lucky to be like Peter, and ask Jesus to play by my rules and serve my own agenda, or get caught and serve some other power’s agenda.  If that keeps on progressing to the point where Jesus is one many allegiances, like that’s deadly.  We saw evidence of the deadliness of it in Rwanda late in the last century.  You may remember that in Rwanda which by the way was the most evangelized nation on the continent of Africa.  More people in Rwanda had said they were going to follow Jesus than in any other nation in Africa.  More western missionaries have been in Rwanda preaching the gospel, planning churches, doing all that, and in those churches in Rwanda one year on Easter Sunday, Christians from different ethnic tribes worshipped together, they sang their hymns, they heard the sermon, they took communion, they went on their way, and then later that same week when the civil war erupted in Rwanda those Christians from different tribes took up machetes against each other and killed each other.  In his penetrating, paralyzing book “Mirror to the Church, Lessons for the American Church and the Rwanda Genocide,” African theologian Emanual Katongole says what was the problem in Rwanda is simply this, the blood of tribalism was allowed to run deeper than the waters of baptism.  In other words there were other commitments that were allowed to live alongside of faith in Jesus Christ.  There were other allegiances that were allowed to be rivals to the allegiance to Jesus, and that literally tore the church and the country and the world apart.  If you really, really loved people, and you saw them on a path that would lead to death and destruction and division would you let them just keep on walking on that path?  Or if you were the son of God who loved the world so much that you came all the way to the point of death even death on a cross?  If you loved the world that much that you gave your body and your blood for the salvation of people, and you saw them running off in so many directions, torn apart by so many allegiances, trying to travel with Jesus and everyone else at the same time and you knew where it could head, wouldn’t you turn aside to them and say, look unless you love me more than all of that, you cannot be my disciple.  There are still large crowds that want to watch Jesus.  There are still a lot of voices out there that want to be considered at least as much as Jesus.  But the question for us to come to the Lord’s table is, do we love him more than those?  Are we his companions or are we his disciples?  If we want to be a community to whom Jesus heals this world, there’s only one answer.  Amen.

© 2022 Paul Baxley