The Real Shape of Discipleship

a sermon on Jeremiah 18:1-11 and Luke 14:25-33


ow large crowds were travelling with Jesus; and he turned and said to them, “You know, there are some real benefits to being a part of this faith of mine. Where should I start? Family. If you want a really solid and stable family, you really should join up, because we’ll instill good, solid values in your children. And as for your marriage… well, you’re going to have a really, really hot love life. And in your finances? Well, lets talk about blessing here. I mean really, this is the best way to a great life. What have you got to lose?”

Which is pretty much what Jesus didn’t say, though judging from the way that the Christian faith is often presented in our current North American church culture you would think that he had. Mission and outreach so often gets driven by a kind of sales approach which tries to convince seekers and potential converts that this is the best deal on offer for a good life, and so discipleship becomes – in terms used by Michael Knowles – “low-cost”, a “low-risk” commodity.Yet what did Jesus actually say?

“Now large crowds were travelling with Jesus; and he turned and said to them, ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.'”

Hate. Hate father, mother, wife, children, siblings. “Sorry honey, I’ve decided to follow Jesus… I hate you.” “Kids, mommy has become a Christian, so she’s going to have to reject you. Good luck growing up.”

Well, maybe not. You see, the translation across time and culture requires that we pay a bit of extra attention to context. These words from Jesus come out of a particularly Semitic way of thinking and communicating; one which prefers to speak in extremes. So, light/dark, true/false, love/hate. As G.B. Caird has it, these are  “primary colours with no half-shades of compromise in between. The semitic way of saying ‘I prefer this to that’ is ‘I like this and hate that.’”

Which is why the parallel passage in Matthew – a gospel written with a gentile audience very much in view – the words are nuanced to read, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;” (Matt 10:37)

Okay, that’s much better, right? We’re saved from having to hate our families.

But the challenge is hardly removed from heart of what Jesus is saying to us. “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple,” he says, and for those early followers that was very much a reality. To be part of the Jesus movement meant a fundamental rejection of the values of the empire, which was a rather dangerous proposition all around. It also meant being placed at odds with the older understandings of your own culture and religious faith. To use the image that the prophet Jeremiah offered up, the older way of being the people of God was in the process of being reshaped in the hands of God, very much as a potter can shape and reshape clay. Same clay, but a new pot… what N.T. Wright refers to as “a vital, teasing image of continuity and discontinuity.” Those who are the shapers and controllers of the existing religious culture are not going to be happy with anyone who chooses the reshaping that Jesus represents.

This discipleship thing is going to be costly, Jesus is saying, and then after drawing on images of knowing and counting the cost, he sums it up with yet another one of his most stark sayings: “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

Again, remember this issue of semitic methods of communicating; of stark, black and white categories. I really quite like how Eugene Peterson has translated this across cultures in his translation The Message: “Simply put, if you’re not willing to take what is dearest to you, whether plans or people, and kiss it good-bye, you can’t be my disciple.”

In short, the challenge he issues is to be prepared to release our tight hold on the things that we think secure us, and to set out on the road with him.

This has nothing to do with how we think it might benefit us, though again, I’m afraid that too much of contemporary North American church culture does try to sell it to us in that way. Faithfully repeat the prayer that Jabez prayed in 1 Chronicles, and get ready to be rewarded. “God wants us to prosper financially, to have plenty of money, to fulfill the destiny He has laid out for us;” or so says Joel Osteen. Ground your family in good family values, and watch your kids flourish. Structure your marriage around images of biblical manhood and womanhood, and fasten your seat belts for a great sex life.  And of course, the biggest one of all: Behave well and believe rightly, and you get the grand prize of eternal life.

Yet Jesus is speaking of releasing, risking, setting out on the road with him… and suggests that the one thing that is pretty much guaranteed is the cross; is the costliness of keeping company with him.

While the 20th century witnessed the persecution and martyrdom of millions of Christians, and while many Christians in our own day live under the constant threat of death in their own countries, in this part of the world the cross remains rather more symbolic. Fashionable atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens might say some rather ugly things about us, and in some of the circles in which we travel we might get dismissed for being naïve or hypocritical or some combination of the two, but it is probably fair to say that most of us will never face a cross of life-and-death persecution.

But you know, that might give Jesus’ words an even greater urgency. We need to hear him speak to us, and to know this with the greatest of clarity: we are not called into discipleship in order to win the prize, get stuff, have nice families, or to be happy. We are called into discipleship because it is true. And what is true often comes with cost; is often painful and challenging and unsettling.

It is all of these things, and at the same time utterly freeing.


Jamie Howison
September 5, 2010

2 Responses to The Real Shape of Discipleship

  1. byron says:

    Jamie. I should note that it has been my experience locally to see relationship issues featured in teaching sessions as regular sermon fare. I do not mean to speak beyond my experience about this.

  2. byron says:

    Truth being stranger than fiction, Jamie Dept.
    I have been reading those two chapters over the last week. and I caught Joel Osteen for about fifteen minutes last weekend.I read this and now I want to look around for the cameras. As you are aware, I am not a devoted Biblical scholar by any stretch, and have been using it for rather shady self-serving purposes as of late as I struggle with a lyric.
    You are spot on regarding the marketing of Christianity, particularly as it is presented to young couples. The amount of time devoted to “public” marriage relationship/family development counselling from the pulpit over the last few years is remarkable.

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