Well, here we go again. Another group of shocking sayings from Jesus. I should have took off this Sunday and let Dr. Bailey preach this text. Now, it should be obvious that when Jesus talks about hating father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even life itself, he doesn’t really mean what we mean when we employ the word “hate” in reference to an emotional or psychological state of being. But we, too, use the word in different ways. When I hear some “not so” good news, like when a marriage breaks up, or a job opportunity falls through, or I hear about someone being sick, I will say, “O, I hate that” meaning, “I wish it wasn’t so.” Scholars tell us that in the ancient Semitic context “hate” was frequently used figuratively the way Jesus uses it here, to speak of a decisive, radical kind of renouncement or subordination or detachment. Jesus is talking about a kind of commitment here that take precedence over all other commitments – even family.
This is not the first set of stringent demands made by Jesus with regard to discipleship. In Luke 9 Jesus calls a man to follow him, and the man says, “Let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus says, “Let the dead bury the dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another person Jesus calls says, “Let me first say farewell to those at my home.” And Jesus says, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Now, once again, in the text today we face some hard sayings about discipleship.
Now, I personally think there are degrees of discipleship and levels of commitment, and we are not all called to the same degree or level of commitment, though all of us must be prepared for it. And I think we have to understand these sayings in the context of both Luke’s story/narrative and Jesus’ actual life. Keep in mind that Jesus knows he’s going to die and at this point in Luke’s narrative he has already told the disciples twice that he will undergo suffering from the powers that be and be killed. When Jesus first tells them he is going to suffer and be killed, he also tells them that they need to be prepared to die to. After he tells them a second time he is going to suffer and die, Luke says that the disciples did not understand what he was telling them. After, which, they argue about who is the greatest among them. The disciples are still in the dark, they still don’t understand the kind of kingdom Jesus has been proclaiming. And this is very contemporary. I’m convinced that there are many Christians today who have no clue regarding the kind of kingdom Jesus was about. I speak from experience. For the first part of my Christian life and ministry I had no clue either.
When Jesus talked about the kingdom of God they thought about the kingdom of Israel under David and Solomon when it was at the height of its power and glory. This is the kind of kingdom they envisioned the Messiah would usher in, either through human agency or by supernatural means. So when Jesus talks about his own suffering and death, this makes no sense to them. What they did not realize at this stage in their journey with Jesus is that God’s kingdom is really a kin-dom. It’s not like the kingdoms they were familiar with at all. God’s kingdom is about being the family of God and the focus is on how we live together as family, how we treat one another and care for one another and love one other. The kingdoms of the world operate by greed and force and violence and love of power. The kingdom of God is based on love of neighbor. It is grounded in an inclusive love that even includes love of enemy. It is a completely different kind of kingdom, an alternative kingdom. It is a kin-dom that is pervaded by love.
Now Jesus knows that if the kingdom of God is to make any headway at all, if it is to have any effect or influence in a world dominated by kingdoms that operate by a completely different set of values, then he will need help. Jesus is going to die. He needs disciples, he needs followers who will continue to embody and incarnate the values of God’s kingdom after he is gone. Historically, Jesus’ mission was about launching a movement that would spread the light of God’s kingdom of love in the midst of human kingdoms, which are centered more in power and egotism and greed than in love of neighbor. Jesus needed disciples who would accept this challenge. He still does. The Apostle Paul clearly understood this when he spoke of Jesus’ followers being the body of Christ in the world. And even though, at this point in the story, his disciples still don’t get it, he knows they will get it. Even though they still don’t understand, he knows that some will come to understand and some will get it, and when they do, it will require total commitment. He knows they will face the same obstacles and the same kind of opposition he faced. It will take complete dedication and commitment to the cause to spread the good news of God’s kingdom of love and grace and righteousness in the midst of kingdoms that operate by control and violence and greed.
So this is the context for the radical demands of discipleship that Jesus makes in Luke. Jesus needs some disciples who will be all-out and fully committed if his mission is to continue. Family can’t stand in the way. Lands and houses and possessions and all earthly stuff can’t stand in the way. The task at hand is more important than anything else, even one’s own earthly life. Jesus feels that the future of God’s kingdom of love is at stake, so he is not hesitant in asking his followers to renounce everything. It’s that important.
Now, I know that we don’t live in the same cultural and historical context. We live in a different time and setting. But I think that all of us who claim Jesus is Lord must ask ourselves if we could make that kind of commitment if asked. Would you and I be willing to put the cause of God’s kingdom before family, before job, before pleasure, before everything else in life? And would we be willing to lay down our lives if necessary for the cause of love and justice in the world? These are the questions a text like this should cause us to ask.
This text is not about (these demands of discipleship are not about) what you have to do to experience God’s love. Let’s be clear on that. God’s love is universal and it is unconditional. God’s love falls on the world like rain drops. It falls indiscriminately on all. It is not based on any system of meritocracy. It is not determined by a system of reward and retribution. (However, I need to clarify – that doesn’t mean that reward and retribution doesn’t have a place at all in God’s kingdom. I personally think it does, but it’s not the main thing. I can imagine how reward and punishment might function on a level that furthers the cause of love, which is the main thing.) The main thing is God’s kingdom of love, which is so very different than the kingdoms most people live in and are governed by. Jesus needed followers who would continue what he started, who would continue to incarnate the amazing grace and inclusive love of God. And he still does. Jesus still needs followers committed to God’s cause. There are many Christians today who do not see this as their mission at all.
Yes, we live in a different time with a different set of circumstances, and we are not all called to go about spreading God’s inclusive love in the same way. But commitment is still needed. So what Jesus says about counting the cost, about calculating the time and energy and effort required is just as important today at it was then. Sometimes it’s the circumstances of our lives and the context of time and place, the context of where we live that shapes the nature of God’s calling to pursue God’s kingdom. Pursuing the kingdom of love can take many forms and shapes and can be lived out in a number of different ways. I can understand, for example, how a parent of a child killed in a school shooting would feel a calling to take up the cause of getting much needed legislation passed requiring mandatory background checks or banning military grade weapons from public purchase. I can understand how that person may feel completely called to give his or her life to this particular aspect of the kingdom of God.
There were those in the era of the civil rights struggle who felt called to give everything to that cause. Some completely gave their lives to the cause of ending segregation and getting legislation passed that would help bring about equality and justice in our society. And some did literally give up their lives. They were killed doing this good work. But you know, sisters and brother, every follower of Jesus should have supported that cause grounded in love of neighbor. I don’t mean that every disciple of Jesus had to be on the front line. But every follower of Jesus should have supported and spoke out for civil rights. Now, some were on the front line. Some had to renounce everything to be out there on the front line working for freedom and justice. We all have to search our hearts and see what we can do and what we feel called to do, but every follower of Jesus should have felt some call to commitment to that cause. There are some things, sisters and brothers, that are just clear and obvious.
Clarence Jordan, the Baptist minister who founded an interracial farm community in Americus, Georgia in 1942, even before the era of civil rights, understood this better than anyone. Their community was ridiculed and scorned and persecuted for their commitment to the inclusive love of God. Jordan called Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount the platform for the God movement, which is exactly what they are. And the God movement is not just a spiritual movement. It is a spiritual movement for sure, but it is also social, political, economical, and everything else. Jesus’ teachings on love of neighbor and how we are to treat others formed the basis of his movement and what he meant when he talked about the kingdom of God. What it means to love our neighbor as ourselves should be at the heart and center of every Christian community. But of course, today, it’s not, which just shows how far we have deviated from the movement of Jesus and from the kingdom of God as Jesus embodied it and envisioned it. Every Christian community, if it is serious about following Jesus, has to ask itself constantly: Do we live by and mirror the inclusive love of the kingdom of God? Living by the kingdom of God, living by the teaching of Jesus and the inclusive love of God calls for commitment.
Back in the day of the struggle for civil rights, Clarence Jordan put it this way, “I don’t know of anything that has caused me more real suffering and real anxiety than to see the Christian church sit in this great social revolution which is rocking the Southland, and our whole nation, as though nothing were transpiring, keeping God’s salt in a saltcellar that we call the sanctuary.” He tells about a preacher friend saying to him, “Clarence, we’ve just to lay low on this thing, and let it all blow over, and when it all blows over, then we can afford to take a stand on it.” Clarence asked him if he felt that way about all sin. He said, “Reverend, are you going to wait until sin just blows over and then hop up and say, ‘I’m against it. Glory be.’”
I honestly don’t think I could claim to be a follower of Jesus and not stand up and speak out against how we are treating the undocumented, immigrants, and people who are coming here seeking asylum in this country. My discipleship to Jesus calls for that much at the very least. Let me tell you what I think it means to be a committed disciple and a committed American. It means celebrating the freedoms we have, while at the same time standing against and speaking against the injustices that still pervade our land. Some people say, “America, love it or leave it,” but that’s not what they mean. What they mean is “America, obey it or leave it.” Love of country should never be equated with blind obedience. One of the great freedoms we should celebrate is the freedom we have to protest. I love the way William Sloan Coffin expresses this. He says there are “three kinds of patriots in America, two bad, and one good. The bad kind are the uncritical lovers and the loveless critics.” He says “the good kind are the kind who carry on a lover’s quarrel with the country,” which mirrors God’s lover’s quarrel with the world. I believe it is our duty as disciples of Jesus to push for policies that support love of neighbor and protest those that don’t.
Our discipleship to Jesus is expressed in different ways, and certainly there are levels of commitment required. But if Jesus really is our Lord, then all of us must live out a commitment to do what we can do to express and spread an inclusive love of neighbor in our families, our church, our local community, our nation, and our world.
Our good God, help us to take our discipleship to Jesus seriously. Help us spread your inclusive love through the means we have available. And as we share together now in the bread and the cup, let us be ready to pour out our lives the way Jesus poured out his for the good of all people.