Discipleship: Not for the Faint of Heart

Yesterday was a special day at St. Paul’s–we had a pulpit swap with our partner congregation Mediator Lutheran, Philadelphia. So I preached this sermon at Mediator, and Pastor Regina Goodrich preached at St. Paul’s. We used the same texts, though: Luke 9, and Galatians 5. I wonder if the Spirit led us in similar or different ways?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

My dad, before he went to seminary at age sixty to become a pastor, was a financial advisor. Growing up, I always thought it was just a fancy way to say he sold insurance. He did more than sell insurance, but selling—whether it was insurance, investment options, plans of action—selling was a large part of his job. And he was really good at it.

He often jokes that sales skills transferred surprisingly well to ministry. Because selling was just listening to people, he told me. It was making clients feel important and heard. Making them feel like their needs, their concerns, their questions, mattered. I think that my dad was probably so good at it, because he wasn’t just making his clients feel important, they actually were important to him. The things his clients were worried about mattered to him and he genuinely wanted to be of service to them. To be a good salesman, he told me, people need to know you care.

Can I just say, Jesus would make a terrible salesman? At least Jesus from this reading from Gospel of Luke would. I have to be honest, I don’t really like Jesus in this reading. He doesn’t seem to care about the people and their feelings, like, at all. He’s abrupt, insensitive, dismissive. And he’s doing a terrible job of marketing this whole discipleship thing.

Based on what Jesus has to say, who would ever want to come and be a part of this? According to him, following Jesus might make you unwanted in certain places. Following Jesus might mean you’re looked down on and have no place to call home. Following Jesus might challenge your relationships. Following Jesus might re-order your priorities.

If the Evangelism Team suggested putting that on the church sign, or on the flyers handed out in the neighborhood, I think we’d be looking for a new evangelism team. Come join us, no one will like you and you have to leave your family and friends behind.

And the things that these would-be disciples have asked Jesus for time to do, they don’t seem like unreasonable things at all. To bury one’s father? Surely Jesus isn’t against honoring our parents. There’s a commandment about that. To simply say goodbye to one’s family before leaving, possibly forever? Why would Jesus be so harsh?

But Jesus isn’t about a nice sales pitch. He’s not going to sugarcoat what following him means with taglines and glossy images of happy children. He wants these people to know: discipleship isn’t something to be taken lightly. Real discipleship has real consequences.

If we’re looking for a way of life that’s gentle and nice, Jesus’ way isn’t it. If we’re looking for a God who will respect our priorities; show deference to our social, cultural and economic boundaries; and keep our lives simple and clean, Jesus is not that God. If we want a spirituality that is comfortable rather than costly, and reliable instead of transformative, we should walk away now. Discipleship is not for the faint of heart.

In Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia, he’s trying to get this point across. Living as Christians in the world isn’t always the easy thing to do. To live in Christ is to live by the Spirit, and not by the flesh. Which is to say, to live for one another, instead of for ourselves.

Paul gives a long list of the works of the flesh—they’re almost all things that hurt the community, things that hurt our neighbors: enmities, strife, jealousy, anger. Even the ones that seem individual like idolatry and drunkenness—we know these hurt more than just ourselves. By contrast, the works of the Spirit build up the community instead of tearing it down. This is how we are meant to live in Christ.

In short, Paul is saying that following Jesus means your life is going to look different than if you didn’t follow him. Following Jesus means that you will value different things than if you didn’t. And I thought about my own life and wondered, is this true for me? Is it true for you?

Does Jesus make a noticeable difference in our lives? Does the grace, mercy, and love of God made incarnate in Jesus trump our plans and shape our lives, or do we instead shape our faith to fit the lives we’ve already planned?

How are our lives different as followers of Jesus than what they might have been otherwise? I once heard the question posed this way: if you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?

Do we look at images of children being kept in tents with not even the bare minimum of care and turn our heads? Or do we speak up on behalf of the powerless and vulnerable? Do we respond to those with whom we disagree with anger and condemnation, like James and John? Or do we respond in love and kindness—which isn’t the same thing as agreeing?

Do we tear each other down with enmity and quarrels and factions? Or do we seek the best for our neighbors? Do we let ourselves be ruled by selfish desires? Or do we think of how our actions affect others? Would someone observing our actions think we lived by the way of the flesh or by the way of the Spirit?

When I take an honest look at myself, my answer would have to be, “both.” Sometimes God’s love is the driving force in my life, and sometimes I let it take a backseat to other cares and concerns. I think most of us would answer similarly. We all fall short of the ideal of discipleship laid out here, both by Jesus and by Paul. It’s good to be honest about that. Because if we don’t take an honest look at where we’ve gone wrong, we’ll never grow.

So, none of us is the perfect disciple. Even the actual disciples weren’t the perfect disciples. And honesty demands that we admit we’ll never actually achieve perfection. And we can either use that as an excuse to give up and stop trying, or we can hear the call of Jesus, bidding us to come and follow.

In the chilling words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jesus bids each of us to “come and die.” Those of us who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. In our baptisms, we are drowned to self, and God raises us to new life. Life lived for each other and for the community.

Christ has set us free. Free from the selfish desires that threaten to consume and overtake us. Free from commodifying ourselves and others. Free from living only for the sake of ourselves. But Christ has set us free that we might be bound to one another in love. Free to live in the Spirit. Free to take on one another’s burdens and cares. Free to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Every day Christ sets us free. We are constantly needing to be reborn, released from our a life of selfishness and raised to a life of discipleship. Our journey as disciples is not something we ever finish. But we do not journey alone. Follow me, Christ says. Follow him in the way of the Spirit. We never walk alone. For Christ walks with us. Amen.

One thought on “Discipleship: Not for the Faint of Heart

  1. First, I have to say that it’s easier for me to comment on your sermon when I’ve actually heard you deliver it, because it seems more memorable that way, but i still enjoyed reading it. I appreciate your honesty in saying you didn’t like Jesus so much in the Gospel reading because he seemed kind of harsh, and I totally agree with that. However, I know he was making the point that discipleship is hard, and I agree with that too. I guess the takeaway line for me is your question about whether we try to order our faith around the life we’ve already fashioned for ourselves, rather than the other way around and molding our lives around our faith. It made me think about which of those choices I make, and I’m afraid it’s not always the right one. But it gives me incentive to try harder to remedy that..


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