Sermon for 14 Pentecost, Year C
Based on Lk. 14:25-33
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Jesus always seems to have a way of shocking people into reality. He knew our human condition so well. He knew that a lot of times we don’t listen or learn anything unless we are shocked; or made to feel uncomfortable; or given a struggle or challenge.
You might call today’s gospel “a shocker par excellence.” “If any one comes to me and does not hate her or his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even her or his own life, he or she cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his or her own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple.”
These words, taken literally, or at face value, are shocking enough to make even the greatest saint (and especially the literalist interpreter of the Bible!) feel uncomfortable and want to run in the opposite direction! It seems so strange for Jesus to use that word HATE in reference to our spouse and family. After all, he was always preaching and teaching love, wasn’t he? Love your neighbour, love God, love yourself, love even your enemies. I rather doubt that Jesus really wants us to take the word hate here literally, at face value.
However, I do know that Jesus wants us to be loyal to him first and foremost above everything and everyone else. Hence, these words of Jesus and his method of teaching them, may be best understood as hyperbolic in nature. This may very well be Jesus’ way of saying to us: “I know how weak you are. I know how easily you can fall away from me. I know that you are always tempted with the sin of idolatry—you can fall into the trap of worshipping and loving your spouse and family instead of worshipping and loving me. I don’t want you to do this. I want to protect you from this. That’s why I’m shocking you into reality.”
I know a woman who was raised a Lutheran. She was confirmed in the Lutheran Church. When the time cam for her to be married; there was some tension between herself and her spouse-to-be; who was raised in a fundamentalist Church. Even though he was not as active in his Church as she was in hers; he reluctantly agreed to be married in the Lutheran Church. After they were married, occasionally they’d attend the Lutheran Church. Then, as time went on, they petered out altogether. The woman made no effort to remain loyal to the faith in which she was raised. In this case, spouse and family really is number one priority—over and above Christ.
The words of our gospel today come as a warning to us all. We are to remain loyal to Jesus. He is to be number one priority. Do we love, trust, value, and serve him more than anything or anyone? That’s the question he addresses each one of us and collectively as a congregation. He shocks us into reality: “Whoever does not bear his or her own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple.”
Jesus was always the practical realist. He never promised people an illusionary utopia or a Shangri-La or a castle in the clouds. He never led people into following him without them first carefully realizing how costly it would be for them. The greatest things in life are costly and involve much commitment and self-sacrifice and suffering.
In modern times, it was the Lutheran theologian and pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer who profoundly understood this and lived it out completely in his own life. In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, he said: “When Jesus calls a person, he bids them to come and die.” Ironically enough, Bonhoeffer actually brought the meaning of these words into living reality, when, in 1945, he died a martyr’s death. The cost of discipleship for Bonhoeffer and for anyone who calls him or herself a Christian can be nothing but a cross. The cross reminds us that if Jesus is worth living for because of what he has done for us; then he is also worth dying for. It’s not easy to be a Christian disciple, but then, it never was. We will face difficulties; we will experience sufferings; others will reject us. We will be tempted and attracted to seemingly better and easier lifestyles. Anyone who lives in today’s Western world especially, cannot help but be attracted and tempted—since there are countless ways and means of being preoccupied with pleasure, success and a life of comfort and ease. I have even noticed newspaper advertisements where churches have abandoned the cross for pleasure and success—“Come to such-and-such a Church, where Christianity is fun and easy!”
Whenever the Church down through history has become too successful and popular by worldly standards; it has always proved to be a sign of decay, which quite often led to some sort of tragedy. On the other hand, whenever the Church has faced hardships and persecution, it usually has grown and matured in the faith. Many Christians that I’ve known who have gone through tough times have told me that it helped their faith to grow and mature. Without hardships, sufferings, and challenges, we can very easily become bored, stale, apathetic and indifferent. Jesus knew that. That’s why it’s necessary for him to shock us into reality—like he does in our gospel today. He wants us to bear our cross, take risks and get involved.
We all appreciate, beyond telling, how loyal someone is to us when we face tough times. That’s the kind of loyalty Jesus expects of us to him and his Church. It’s a loyalty that’s patient, constant and willing to make sacrifices. It’s a loyalty that will not retreat or give up when under stress or resistance. It’s a loyalty similar to that of Bishop Polycarp who was asked by the Roman authorities to curse Christ and swear allegiance to the Emperor Caesar. Polycarp answered him like this: “Eighty and six years have I served him (Christ), and he has done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my king who saved me?” The Romans then proceeded to burn him at the stake, but Polycarp remained loyal to Jesus right to the end.
If our faith in and love for Jesus is our greatest treasure and more valuable than all-else; then we will be loyal to him and his way. We will bear our cross and make sacrifices for his sake and the sake of his realm. May he grant us faith and strength to be loyal to him, to bear our cross and follow in his way.
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