Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Customers at a British coffee shop were offered a special discount one morning. All they had to do to activate it was to sign their name on the back of their cup. But, once they signed, they were told that in addition to their discount, they had also activated their coffee club membership. They were now contractually obligated to buy coffee at this shop once a week. They couldn’t believe it; they were livid. But the manager simply pointed out to them the small print on the cup they had signed. The terms and conditions of the discount were all right there. Not one of them had actually read what they were signing.
The good news is this was all a hoax. The people were being filmed for a practical joke show. The bad news is it’s a hoax I would have easily fallen for. It seems like I’m always being asked to sign something, to agree to something. Every time you want to use a new website or app, you have to agree to their terms and conditions. When you want to enter the raffle for cheap Hamilton tickets, terms and conditions apply. If you’re like me, you just check the box that says “accept” without really reading the fine print of what you’re agreeing to. If I was offered discounted coffee—I’m not sure I would have asked too many questions about the terms before signing up.
And it’s that kind of behavior—the sign up now, worry about the details later mindset—that has Jesus so fired up in today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus has some pretty harsh words for us this morning. If you do not hate your mother and father, brother and sister, even your very life—you cannot be my disciple. Hold on, Jesus, this isn’t what you’re supposed to be saying. Aren’t you the same guy who said that you should love your neighbor as yourself, you should love your enemies? So why would he tell us to hate those closest to us?
There’s a hint of what’s going on right at the beginning of the passage: “Now large crowds were following him.” Jesus, who started with this tiny following of twelve disciples, has started to see the crowds around him grow. And grow. A lot. They’ve heard about Jesus healing and doing miracles and they want to see what all this is about. But what has Jesus upset is he knows they haven’t read the fine print. He doesn’t want followers who don’t know what they’re really signing up for.
Like the builder who makes sure they have everything they need before starting a tower, like the king who calculates all the costs before going to war, Jesus is saying: you need to read the fine print on this discipleship thing, or you’re going to get halfway in and realize you had no idea what you were in for. The crowds don’t understand. They’ve just checked the “terms and conditions” box without reading them and are ready to move on.
But that’s not good enough. Jesus is being upfront with them. He wants them to know that being his disciple is not going to be an easy thing to do. It’s not for the faint of heart. Jesus knows its hard, so he advises his listeners to stop and count the costs before they sign up. Discipleship isn’t a weekend hobby or a vacation destination. It’s a full soul, full body, full mind endeavor that involves a reordering of our identities and our priorities.
Like the reading from Deuteronomy, discipleship involves a choice about what is most important. Choose what is going to be your priority, Moses tells the people. God and God’s commandments, or idols and false gods. I heard it said once that idols aren’t really bad things. Instead, idols are good things that we misuse and mis-prioritize. Money, careers, good grades, even our families can all become idols when we value them for the wrong reasons and seek to control and possess them.
Becoming my disciple, Jesus says, will mean we reorder those priorities. This discipleship agreement comes with warnings. Because discipleship involves death. It means death to the temptation of false gods. It means death to all that tempts us away from complete reliance upon God. We are to die to all the things that stand between us and complete commitment to Christ. Jesus names them: family, possessions, even life itself. Discipleship is death to the way we used to live. Better to count the cost of following me, Jesus counsels, and know what you’re dying to.
Living as disciples means changing how we do things. In Paul’s letter to Philemon, which we read all of today, he tells Philemon to accept his slave, Onesimus, back. But not as a slave, as a brother. Because they are brothers in Christ. If Philemon listened to Paul and did this—we don’t actually know what happens to him and Onesimus—but if he freed his slave for the sake of their oneness in Christ, can you imagine how the people around him would react? They’d laugh at him, call him stupid and crazy. Anyone who is not willing to be laughed at and shunned is not able to be my disciple.
Being a disciple means letting what we read and hear and say and do in church on Sunday affect how we live our lives the rest of the week. It affects everything: how we do our jobs, how we care for our families, how we spend our money, how we treat everyone we encounter. And be prepared for raised eyebrows and questions.
Count the cost, says Jesus, because the cost of discipleship is nothing short of your whole lives. But if the discipleship contract comes with these warnings, it also comes with amazing promises, too. And they’re not hidden in the fine print. In following Jesus, we find true life. In losing our lives, we find them.
The way of discipleship is the way of life, real life, life that doesn’t deny the reality of death but instead overcomes it with the power of the resurrection. Life that transforms us, that challenges us, that calls us to live in hope and love with one another. And there’s no catch. There’s no fine print. Just a promise. This is the life that God wants for each of us. That God gives to each of us through Jesus. In Christ, our lives are transformed so that we get to experience God’s life.
So yes, read the fine print. Because discipleship isn’t easy. But it’s part of God’s great gift to us: a life of love and redemption, of healing and wholeness, for us and for the world. Without any pesky terms and conditions. Amen.