Sunday, September 08, 2013

It ain't cheap ... or easy

Jeremiah 18:1-11
Revelation 12:10-12
Luke 14:25-33

“Grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Christ Jesus.”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer

"Hate" is a strong word, too strong especially when it comes to the relations we have with our parents, our siblings, our spouses, and our children.  In fact the very idea of Jesus' seeming ultimatum commanding that in order to follow Him we must "hate" our families makes such passages not only hard to digest - but easy to ignore.  This, of course, is the real travesty because when we make the conscious decision to deliberately side-step those passages that make us uncomfortable, we redefine the relationship altogether.  We become our own "creator" and assign the Holy Father the subordinate role of "created"; a "creature" of our own making - in an image of our own choosing.  And when I choose an image and you and you and you choose an image, we have a God who is unrecognizable.

This can be overcome (in fact, must be overcome for the sake of the Church in the world today), but it will require real effort, real commitment, and a genuine desire to overcome.  It requires that we not get so bowed up that we say stupid things such as, "I don't care what it says ..."  or "The preacher is an idiot" ... Or worse: "That's not what it means" but then be completely detached from its meaning with no clue or concern about what it does mean and take no action to discover for ourselves what our Lord is really saying to the WHOLE Church.  

Reading the Bible, memorizing verses, reading what is written on a page with no concern for what is meant in our lives and our relationship to the Lord through the Church and with no intention to do much more than move from one moment to the next is wasted, purposeless motion akin to one of the seven deadly sins known as "sloth"; a complete and utter disengagement from the Word and the Church - spiritual laziness.  It is perhaps the slowest and most painful of deaths, ironically, because as it becomes easier to disengage and remain disengaged, the resulting spiritual vacuum becomes impossible to fill because by our own means we lack the capacity to fill that void which will, incidentally, only get bigger and more aggressive if neglected - actually very much like a life-threatening tumor.

Jesus was nothing if not radical, and this is the first thing we must understand in reading from the New Testament accounts of Jesus' ministry.  There was certainly not a complacent bone in Jesus' body, and He made it very clear He had no interest - NO INTEREST - in being popular, being "liked", or "going along to get along".  The ultimatum to "hate" was as shocking to a contemporary audience as a command to "eat [His] flesh and drink [His] blood", all three prohibited by what is written in the Scriptures. 

Yet these things are tagged by our Lord as necessary (not merely recommended) components of discipleship - AND - Eternal Life.  A refusal to accommodate this radical language and choose instead to simply walk away because it is too difficult - as many did in Jesus' day - means we walk away from discovery, we walk away from discipleship, we walk away from one another, we walk away from Him.  And as our Lord Himself states very clearly, a refusal to accommodate the Word, to engage the Word, to "ingest" the Word which is Christ Himself means "there is no life in you" (John 6:53).

As difficult as these passages can be, however, we are compelled to draw closer; to "count the cost" BEFORE we do anything.  The very reason Jesus used these peculiar words and phrases and taught primarily by parable is because what we need to know about discipleship and the Kingdom of Heaven cannot be reduced to "yes" and "no", it "is" or it "ain't", cheap and easy answers - for there are none. 

In boot camp our drill instructors used to tell us that in order to march in formation and respond appropriately to commands - for the sake of the WHOLE unit - requires complete engagement of body, mind, and soul to the command given - AND - willing submission to the authority from which that command comes.  The senior drill instructor used to say, "Drill (what Marines call marching) is a thinking man's game because you will never become a robot". 

So, too, is discipleship a total engagement of body, mind, and soul to the "commands" given - AND - a complete submission to the Authority from which these commands come for sake of the WHOLE Church; and if we do not completely understand the commands (i.e., "commandments"), we are compelled to listen more closely rather than walk away because a "left face" turn when the "right face" command is given will end in disaster on the parade deck, on the battle field, and in the mission field.  The chaos and complacency in the Church today is no less profound when we refuse to submit and respond for the sake of the WHOLE Church.

So Jesus says we "cannot" be His disciples if we do not "hate" those we typically love most, but there is the problem.  We cannot love our families "most"; that is, above and beyond the love our Lord requires of us because this is where a great deal of the Church's trouble begins - when we demand that our families come "first" and our "neighbors" as defined by Jesus come a very distant "second".  Strangely enough, we call these "Christian family values" when there is in fact and in Scripture nothing "Christian" about that upended priority - it does not come from Christ.  It is a value we have assigned for ourselves, our own pleasures, and our own priorities; it has nothing whatsoever to do with the Holy Father. 

Jesus does not "command" us to hate our loved ones, and He certainly does not suggest we neglect those who depend on us.  The "hate" language is the attention-getter, to be sure, but the radical component and the great challenge to us is to consider our love of family within the context of Divine Love which also encompasses love of neighbor.  Like faith and works, it is not an "either/or" proposition; it is two sides of the same coin.  There cannot be one without the other, and yet we cannot displace this reality: only one such love is eternal and will exist beyond the grave; that is, without limits, without boundaries.  Apart from Divine Love, there can be nothing but limits and boundaries.

"Counting the cost" means this must all be taken into account BEFORE a child is presented for baptism, BEFORE vows are taken when joining the Church, BEFORE undertaking such vows for matrimony.  If love for the Holy Father does not take precedence over all these things, all these relationships, there will always be limits to our capacity to love.  There will always be boundaries to our willingness to love.  There will always be restrictions on what we will do for or offer to the Church when we would drop Christ "like a bad habit" if it means choosing between Him (who IS The Church) and our spouses, our parents, or our children.  That is what is so radical about what Jesus proposes - because it involves our "neighbors".

One 4th-century theologian put it this way: "He who pursues his own will, however slightly, will never be able to observe the law of Christ the Savior" (Symeon the New Theologian, Ancient Commentary).  So when Jesus says we "cannot" be His disciples, He is not talking about His willingness to "allow" us to follow Him, for He will always "allow" a willing disciple. 

Rather He is referring to our "capacity" to follow Him if we are not fully engaged, fully submitted, fully committed to the Lord - if He is only the God of Sunday (as long as there are no tournaments), the God of special favors (as long as OUR will be done), or the God of cheesy Facebook postings (by which we "witness" without actually engaging the mission field - that is, people).  The limited capacity we are burdened with comes by the choices we make for ourselves and what WE decide must come first - OUR will be done, which makes a mockery of the Lord's Prayer. 

Knowing all this, then, coupled with the radical language of "hate", we find it easy to walk away and ignore while convincing ourselves we are "saved" because that is "cheap" and "easy", but it isn't Christ.  As the Scriptures make abundantly clear, we cannot have Eternal Life until we surrender our Whole Life.  It is only in surrendering our lives to Him by which Eternal Life will be found - as Jesus teaches one cannot serve both God and "mammon" just as "none of you can become My disciple if you do not give up all your possessions".  Jesus suggests by this radical context that even our families can be a hindrance to a fuller and more complete relationship with the Church - that is, the Body of Christ in the world today.    

So we take upon ourselves these unnecessary burdens and add to the chaos that already is in the world and in our lives.  We make bad choices with the best of intentions, and in doing so we miss the greater meaning when we disengage from Messiah and choose our own paths.  Yes, Jesus asks a lot - but He offers much more.  And He settles the confusion when we hear and respond to His invitation: "Come to Me, all you who are tired and overburdened, and I will give you rest; for My yoke is easy and My burden is light." 

What will it take for us to believe Him?  What will it take for us to become convinced we may not be going in the right direction as the Church?  How can we learn to appreciate the reality that the life and well-being of the Church has everything to do with the life and well-being of our culture, our community?  How can we learn to appreciate that the philosophy of "every man for himself" has been the downfall of every civilization since the dawn of humankind? 

By coming to Christ, by drawing near to Christ, by committing our lives - our WHOLE lives - to Christ who is the Church, who is the Word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.    

No comments: