When I read the assigned Scriptures for this week, I could not imagine how they would work on a Sunday on which we welcome Sunday school kids back, on which we have a baptism, and on which we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the ELCA! I wanted to preach on texts that were warm and fuzzy and happy. At the very least I wanted them to communicate a consistent message! What am I supposed to do about the fact that our lesson from Deuteronomy says, “choose life” and our lesson from Luke says that “those who do not hate their life” cannot be Jesus’ disciples. Am I supposed to encourage you to choose your life or to hate it?
And that isn’t even the real problem with these texts. For me, at least, the real trouble is figuring out what to make of the fact that Jesus says this: “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” Notice that Jesus does not say, “You are not allowed to become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” No, he says, “You are not able to become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” He says it is not possible for us to follow him without giving up everything else, including our lives. So, welcome to church, Matthias! Welcome back, Sunday school children! If you stick with us and follow Jesus, you may lose your life!
We can’t even wipe our brows and thank God that we in the ELCA don’t take the Bible literally. Even if we don’t take the Bible literally, there is no way we can avoid taking Jesus’ sermon here seriously, because this is not the only place in the Bible where Jesus says something like this. He is relentless with this message, often speaking about what it costs to follow him. He talks about “taking up our crosses,” and warns parents and children, friends and neighbors, that they may turn against one another because of him, and that his followers might suffer persecution in one way or another.
Today’s reading from Luke is embedded in a series of passages that all have to do with reversing upward mobility in order to include the poor. The theme gets summed up in chapter 16, when Jesus says, “You cannot serve God and wealth.” Got that? You CANNOT. We cannot gear our lives toward earning money without participating in systems that contradict God’s way of life. We want our goods cheap and our investments strong. But God loves those who are hurt in exactly that process.
Jesus reminds us that in our quests to make ourselves secure, we negotiate and compromise when the cost is too great. He cites as examples a person who wants to build a watchtower but has to watch the budget and a king who wants to go to war but ends up having to negotiate peace because his army is not strong enough. Then Jesus adds that with God there is no compromising. God claims life – all of it – the lives of those we hurt and our own lives.
It’s texts like this that caused German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer to write a little book called The Cost of Discipleship in 1937. By then, he and a small group of other German pastors opposing the policies of the Nazi Party were already teaching in a small, illegal seminary. You probably know that he was imprisoned in 194 and later transferred to the concentration camp at Buchenwald. He was hung as a traitor in 1945. But back in 1937, here is what he had to say about Jesus’ calling for our lives in The Cost of Discipleship:
The cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a person, he bids that one to come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Martin Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time – death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old person at his call.
When Bonhoeffer writes about “the old person,” he does not mean a chronologically aged person. He is speaking about that part of us that has its own reasons for doing what we do, maybe has its own reasons for following Jesus. Jesus tells that part of us that if we are looking for personal benefit from following him, we will not be able to finish the course. We will quit. In order to stay with Jesus for the duration, that old self in us has to die.
Messages like this are precisely the reason that Jesus doesn’t just die an old man; he is killed. He is not killed by a mob, but by the authorities, those in power, the ones who benefit the most from the world the way it was. Who would that be today, if not US? Those who benefit most from the world the way it is.
If we try to save ourselves by choosing NOT to follow Jesus, we cut off the source of real life. Then we are in real trouble. Then we are left with only our things, which do not create life, but death. And every death they create is an affront to God, a destruction of part of God’s creation. Our God is a God of life, not death.
So Jesus says, “Leave it all behind, and come with me.” The crowd he’s talking to doesn’t even know where he is going. We know where he’s headed. At this point in Luke’s story, we know Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem for the last time. He is going to the cross—because Jesus never tells his followers to do something he doesn’t do himself. That is why we are called followers. Jesus does not let any possession of his own keep him from his work of calling people to himself and away from the anti-God way of living in which people accumulate possessions for themselves at others’ expense. Jesus gives up even his own life to save us from such danger.
So Jesus is a righteous person—the MOST righteous person ever!—but what happens to him seems the opposite of what Psalm 1 tells us is supposed to happen to righteous people. The Psalm says, “They are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; everything they do shall prosper.” But Jesus was executed! And whatever else it is, dying on a cross is not prospering. It just isn’t.
That’s only a problem if we stop the gospel story there, though, saying that Jesus’ death gives us life. Because in itself, there really is nothing life-giving about the cross. The only thing that gives life is God! God who can create something out of nothing! God, who can grant righteousness to sinners! God, who makes something impossible possible! Because God raises Jesus from death to life, he changes the whole story of the cross! And because God invents resurrection for Jesus, life spills over onto his followers and fills us with God’s own Spirit. Then it becomes true that Jesus is like a tree “planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; everything he does shall prosper.”
When we bring Mathias to the baptismal waters in a few moments, we will say that he is being put to death and raised with Chris. This is the cost and the promise of being God’s followers. This is what it means to say that in Christ everything is being made new. In that moment, the “old person” dies, and a new creation is born—a new child of God joins the church.
Turning away from the old brings about something new. Deuteronomy warns that “to bow down to other gods and serve them” leads to death, but “loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him…means life to you…” And the really good news here is that this “you” is plural. God doesn’t want us to choose only our own individual life; God is at work in Jesus for the life of the whole world. When Mathias joins the people of Trinity, he also belongs to a community of those who follow Jesus all over the world! God plants believers everywhere by the water so that they too will flourish and bear fruit. God’s notion of prosperity is prosperity for everyone.
Yes, that means that we have to turn our backs on traditional idea of prosperity being something we can have at the expense of others. We have to let that understanding go—Jesus says, hate it—so we can experience God’s dream of prosperity. When we choose life for ourselves and others, all of creation flourishes. Making picnic tables and baked goods for Habitat for Humanity is symbolic of a whole way of living. Of course, following Jesus involves more than a one-hour volunteer gig on behalf of others; it takes a lifetime. Following Jesus means tracing our money and our time and our energy to see how we spend our lives. Following Jesus means connecting with our sisters and brothers around the world with open arms and minds and hearts, no matter what the world says about what divides us.
That is not easy. It is only possible because Christ gives us into one another’s care. In Christ, water is thicker than blood. The waters of baptism unite us with all believers anywhere, so we will always belong, will always have a place. Following Jesus together, we encourage one another in the cross-bearing path of discipleship. And it will give us life.
~Pastor Susan Schneider