I really did not want to preach on this text when we are celebrating a Baptism, but it is the lectionary, and Baptism does not mean avoiding hard things--but trustiing God is with us to deal with them, so hear we go.
We have all grown accustomed to almost every product we buy coming with a warning label. Medicines warn us of side effects. Every package with a plastic bag warns us to keep them away from children and not to put them over our head. Even mattresses and couches come with legal warnings about removing tags that guarantee their manufacturing materials. I dried my hair this morning while a big label hanging from the cord warned me not to take a bath with my hair dryer(!).
Our Gospel reading today is like a big white warning label in the middle of Luke. Jesus is warning us about what it really means to follow him. Don’t do this lightly or easily. It may be fun now, but there may be side effects later. Some warnings may seem unnecessary, but plastic bags and electricity can be dangerous, and following Jesus has a cost, so when Luke compiles his Gospel, he does not remove the label. There is a cross in Jesus’ future, and there is persecution in the early church to which Luke is writing. Jesus wants truth in advertising about what it means to follow him.
At first Jesus warning about the requirements of discipleship sound impossible—none of us would ever make the cut—If hating my family and giving away everything I have is the litmus test for discipleship, then I am flunking—perhaps all of us are, and everyone who first followed him did, too. But Jesus is not encouraging us to have violent animosity toward our family, or even toward life itself.
Jesus is, however, using hyperbole in the starkest of terms, warning us to count the cost of discipleship, making sure our values and priorities are straight so that we put first things first every day—that is, our relationship with him and our devotion God. This is a first commandment passage. “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt. You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:2). Jesus takes our first commandment faith in God alone and includes devotion to him as God’s Son, and to his reign of justice and love that his kingdom embodies. This requires a wholehearted faith that comes before all else in our life. This kind of discipleship comes with side effects in the world—things we have to give up, or do without, priorities we pass by, and pain we are willing to endure. Are Jesus’ followers ready for this?
Up to this point, Jesus has throngs of people following him throughout his ministry—they are mesmerized and amazed at the miraculous healings he has done. Huge crowds witnessed him raising from the dead the widow’s son at Nain. Throngs heard him preach his sermon on the plain—they are awed by this wonder-worker who is full of the Holy Spirit as he heals a leper, a paralytic, a man with a withered hand, the demon-possessed and feeds 5,000 of them miraculously.
Discipleship is easy when Jesus is healing and teaching and people feel loved, connected to God, and renewed. But what is going to happen when the authorities in the government become threatened by his power, and consider it treason to call Jesus, “Lord” instead of Caesar? And where will the crowds be when the religious leaders disagree with Jesus’ teachings or become angered at how many people follow him? And how devoted a Jesus-follower will they be when Christians are persecuted after the resurrection and they might be jailed for it and tortured, or even killed?
Jesus drops down in the middle of all of this healing and teaching with a warning label. The kingdom is feeling good to you now, but what happens when the going gets tough?
Right before this passage, Jesus tells the parable of the great banquet and when it is ready—all the invited guests offer excuses for their absence-—“I just bought a field, so I cannot come. I just bought 5 oxen, I just got married, please excuse me, I cannot come.” So, the host of the banquet sends his servant out to the streets and country roads inviting the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame and everyone else available to fill his house to overflowing.
Sitting in the background of this warning label is the question, “what’s your excuse?” What is getting in the way of following Jesus with a wholehearted faith? Is it relationships? Is it possessions? Earthly status and power? Fear?
I visited a family last week who gave me a profound example of wholehearted Christian faith. This family is a member of my husband, Dan’s church, and they are from Pakistan. They have been in the US for 6 years, seeking asylum and safety because of the persecution of Christians in Pakistan. Due to Covid slowdowns, their case is still pending. The government of Pakistan is unfortunately run by an extreme form of Islam that does not allow any evangelism of the Christian faith—before I continue their story, I will say we must be careful not to stereotype the Islamic faith based on this. The Muslim community here in Richardson is involved in interfaith activities and very open to dialog and cooperation. Our Feeding Starving Children event next Sunday is at the Islamic Center in Plano, but this is not the case in Pakistan. We do not want to be stereotyped ourselves by Christians who picket gay funerals, so we must agree before I continue, not to use this one story of one faction of Islam to stereotype the Islamic faith or Muslims in general--are we clear?
Ok, in Pakistan, many Christian churches have been bombed. The father of this family, I’ll call him Steve, had a good friend from the Muslim faith, and over the course of their friendship, his friend came to believe in Jesus Christ. Steve was careful not to evangelize since it was against the law, but just the witness of his life and his family changed his friend’s heart and faith. They had to keep this conversion a secret because if anyone found out, his friend would be killed along with Steve, his wife and their 3 children. Their greatest joy, bringing someone to faith in Jesus Christ by the witness of their lives, became their greatest threat. So, Steve brought his family here to the US seeking asylum, first to save their lives and that of their friend, and second, so they could be free to worship and live their Christian faith without fear of death.
The oldest 2 children are in college, and the oldest one has to pay out of state tuition because they did not go to high school long here long enough. This family of 5 lives in a small 2-bedroom apt, where the daughter just as a "space" in the upstairs hallway instead of a bedroom. They all gratefully sacrifice whatever it takes to pull together college tuition money and to build their Christian Pakistani community here because living out their faith freely is everything to them.
When we ask what American Christians can learn from Pakistani Christians who are fleeing persecution and the threat of death for their faith, they tell us, “our faith really matters. It is the center of our lives and to freely worship, share, fellowship and tell others about Jesus’ love is the greatest gift we can imagine.” The church community is the center of social life and all that they have—their life and breath and hope comes from Jesus Christ.
Even though we do not live in such extreme circumstance, I have had similar faith conversations with many of you—that you could not get through the hardships of your life—illness, death, grief, calamity and crisis without your faith—because our faith matters and most days, it is all that matters because Jesus calls us to wholehearted faith where nothing comes between us and him. Jesus offers us truth in advertising—he gives us fair warning that we will face adversity in this life, and difficulty in following him. And when we do—whether it is at the hospital bedside, the graveside, a dark night of the soul, or a family crisis, we, as disciples of Christ, look to Jesus as the source of our strength and salvation:
• Family members and friends can support us, of course, but only Jesus saves us;
• Material possessions give us means to live, but only Jesus gives us life and life eternal.
And when we are crystal clear and rock solid in our faith—that Jesus is the beginning and the end, and everything in between, then we can rest each day in Christ, living wholeheartedly centered in him. And we can give that hope to one another, which is why we need the Christian community to encourage us forward. This is how Martin Luther taught us to live, daily reminding ourselves as we wash our face or shower in the morning that we are baptized into Jesus Christ and claimed by him with Giuseppe today in the waters of Baptism. When Martin Luther had a troubled soul, he would run into the sanctuary and splash water on his head and say to himself, “remember you are baptized, Martin, remember you are baptized.”
The same Jesus who claimsus in the waters of Baptism invites us to this banquet of love and forgiveness, healing and salvation, hope and new life—we have left our excuses behind, and we will come even when the going gets tough. The tough like us will stay faithful and still follow Jesus. Regardless of the side effects or the cost, we will love the unlovable, and still invite the outcast to join us. We will welcome sinners like us and forgive the unpopular. We will welcome those who society and even other Christians will not accept, and we will carry that cross together, because our faith matters and we know how precious it is and how important it is to share it. That’s what it means to put God first in our life and live wholeheartedly for Jesus.