Now large crowds were travelling with Jesus; and he turned and said to them, 26‘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. 27Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30saying, “This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.” 31Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
A recent study into the state of democracy in the UK concluded that we get the leaders we deserve. Most of us report that we want more honesty in politics, but most of us vote for politicians who make the most outlandish and unrealistic promises. So no politician who wants to be elected should ever tell the truth! They should simply promise to make us richer and happier with no pain and no cost. And since we vote for such people, knowing that their promises are mere fantasy, we get the politicians we deserve.
And even in Church, we tend ‘sell’ Christianity by giving it the most positive spin: “become a Christian if you want feel happy and loved and rid yourself of those nagging feelings of guilt and anxiety.” Now, although it is undoubtedly true that being a Christian helps us to feel happy and loved, Jesus himself often introduced his faith by putting off anyone who was half-hearted, unsure or lukewarm. And today’s Gospel is a prime example. “Don’t follow me,” Jesus is saying, “unless you’re prepared for it to cost you everything you hold most dear.” It’s a wonder anyone followed him at all.
Now, we get rather embarrassed about Jesus when he’s in this sort of mood and so we try to cover up for him. But try looking at it another way. Suppose, instead of coming to Church this morning, we had just signed up for the army in the run-up to D-day. In that case, it would seem perfectly reasonably to be told that we needed to forgo material comforts, to put our mission above family ties, to be willing to put our lives at risk and perhaps even to pay the ultimate price. But it would be worth it to rid the world of a great malice and to achieve liberation.
That is, in fact, exactly the context into which Jesus is speaking. At this point in his story, Jesus is on his final journey to Jerusalem in order to establish his kingdom. His followers needed to be serious about what they were getting into. Of course we now know that his kingdom would not be about seizing the crown and kicking out the Romans in a glorious military victory, as his contemporary followers supposed. But lest we are tempted to smugness, those first followers understood something that we have missed – the urgency of the situation. For them, the great crisis was imminent, the great battle against the evil of the world and the need to lay hold of their liberation was only days away. We, who now see Jesus’ liberation largely in terms of life after death, are rather tempted to think that things will largely look after themselves and there’s plenty of time in any case.
But Jesus is very clear. The task is so urgent it needs a complete change now. The effect of sin in our lives and on the world around us is so poisonous that any delay is seriously harmful and some of the effects will be irreversible this side of eternity. As with the climate emergency, so with every aspect of our lives, to delay is deadly.
The world is so rotten that his kingdom can only become a reality for us if we immediately renounce every aspect of secular living and completely, wholeheartedly embrace his kingdom. There is no room here for comfortable nominalism, for doing a bit of religion on the side, but not getting too enthusiastic about it in case you go a bit weird. Jesus will not just magically change things for us in the next life if we haven’t allowed him to make the change in us now. And the change has to be radical.
Now, it’s important to understand here what Jesus was and was not saying. When Jesus says that we must hate our fathers, mother, wives, children, brothers and sisters we somehow have to square this with the fact that he also showed great concern for the commandment to “honour your father and mother” and gravely criticised the Pharisees for their failure to do it. He set an even higher standard than the Old Testament for husbands tempted to divorce their wives. And his last act was to give his favoured young disciple, John, his own mother and his grieving mother a new son so that they might each have a family. Family values lie at the heart of Jesus’s faith, so clearly he wasn’t speaking against that.
But he was speaking into a world where human relationships were exclusively tribal. Your tribe affected everything – which God you worshipped, your culture, who you shared your food with, who you might marry, who you would treat as a friend and who you would treat as an enemy. Tribalism created a very strong family bond, but it was also the greatest cause of war, injustice, theft and man’s inhumanity to man. What Jesus was doing here was to create the first example of non-tribal human society, a society where our old tribal identity is dismissed and a new identity, forged on a human humanity, replaces it. Everyone is my brother and sister, regardless of class, race, politics, tribe or anything else. And we too live in an increasingly tribal age, where we define ourselves narrowly by family, community, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, class, political persuasion, Leave or Remain. We are encouraged to see our identity in these categories and repudiate those who are on the wrong side.
But Jesus calls us to repudiate the whole worldly system of human identity and to recognise our true identity in Christ, rather like the slave Onesimus and his owner Philemon who met Christ and became brothers. We can only assume a new identity completely and wholeheartedly. You can’t sort of become a new person. Our worldly selves must die on the Cross and we must rise with Christ to a new life, a new identity, a new being, a new humanity.
Likewise, the two little parables about the man who can’t afford to finish building his tower and the man whose army isn’t quite big enough to win the war, are warnings about the inadequacy of this world to save us from our greatest problems. The parables can be taken very simply at face value. You can’t win a war by having an army that is almost good enough and by the same token you can’t be saved by a moderate devotion to religion.
But the parables work deeper too because in Jesus’ time there was a very famous man who was building an important building and trying to amass an army – Herod the Great. He had tried completing the Jerusalem Temple in the hope that God would return to it, as in the Old Testament days, and empower Israel’s army to smite its opponents in order to establish God’s kingdom by force. But the Temple project was always hopelessly short of money and their dreams of an army capable of overthrowing Rome were like so many politicians’ promises – hopelessly fantastic and unrealistic (though it didn’t stop people believing in it). But Jesus’ little parable about the idiot with his unbuilt building and his too small army showed up the entire project for what it was.
And for Jesus, all worldly solutions are equally hopeless and inadequate to the task. There is only one solution for the world, only one way of salvation: the Cross. Sin is such a serious and urgent problem that we need to be rid of it utterly. There is no level of sin in our lives that can be acceptable, because it can only hurt and destroy – for us and for the world. Only the Cross can take it away utterly from our lives. Worldly solutions are not solutions at all. But the Cross is a complete and utter solution, when we die to sin and come alive to Christ we are saved, liberated. We live instead to serve the kingdom of Christ in our daily lives and, in doing so, we truly begin to change the course of the world.
When we leave behind the old world with its tribal relationships, its self-interest, its dangerous fantasy-based politics, its love of material wealth and its flimsy hope of a few happy years before we all die, and lay hold of real life, with its new family, based on self-sacrificial love that cares for the vulnerable and the outsider, with a renewed love of the creation, treating it as sacred, when we see through the dangerous deception of sin and all its fantasies and recognise the true treasure of this world, then we glimpse the true nature of hope: a transformation we can believe in, that we can be part of, a quality of life that is worth so much more than the half-life this world can offer: a glimpse of a future that is an eternity of hope.
So don’t follow Jesus, don’t come to church, don’t call yourself a Christian, unless you really want to change, unless you really want this world to change, unless you are willing to lay down your old life and and become part of the change, unless you are willing to serve and and become part of Jesus’s new non-tribal family. But if you are willing…come, leave this world and all its values behind, take up your Cross and let’s follow, right now, today, when you leave your pews in a few moments to come up to the communion rail, lets leave our old selves behind and give ourselves fully to Jesus and his kingdom: the hope of the world and the salvation of my life.
Preached: Askham (joint) 8 September 2019