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Discipleship Made Difficult

Luke 9:51-62

 THE HIGH COST OF DIFFICULT CHOICES

Life was good for Jerry. He represented some of the most gifted and talented athletes in sports. He lived in the fast lane, dashing from one meeting to the next, wheeling and dealing in multi-million dollar contracts. But then something happened. He started seeing the greed, the selfishness, and most importantly the destroyed lives. Jerry McGuire knew something had to change. He could no longer represent spoiled, overpaid athletes. 

One night he suffered a "breakdown." He tossed and turned in bed, unable to sleep. He finally got up, turned on his computer, and started typing a mission statement for the future of his company. He tried to recapture his first love for the profession. The excitement he felt while watching an athlete perform. He wrote about the values that his profession once had but had lost in its quest for more money and more power. By the time he stopped typing, he had written 25 pages. In the middle of the night, he took the document to a copy center and made 110 copies. He entitled it "The Things we Think and Do Not Say." Everyone in his company got a copy.

The next morning he realized what he had done and timidly walked into his office. He received a standing ovation for his act of courage. One person says, "Finally, somebody said it." Jerry felt alive. He was 35 but he felt like he was starting his life all over again. However, a week later Jerry was fired by one of his closet friends who believed that the new Jerry McGuire posed a threat to the company. The new Jerry McGuire did not conform to the company's values and could not achieve the company's goals. Jerry was tossed out on the street. Within a few days of losing his job, he lost his finance who did not want to be married to a loser.

The movie has a stunning realism. When a person stands up and speaks out for what is right, defends what is true, there is usually a high cost to pay. "The movie does not romanticize or sentimentalize the role of the courageous reformer." Jerry never gets his job back. He loses the contract for the #1 draft choice to the man who fired him. He does not get revenge. The tables do not turn. Jerry McGuire learns that hard choices demand high costs.1 

 THREE WOULD-BE DISCIPLES

In today's Scripture, passage Jesus presents the high costs of discipleship. His words are not easy. Jesus would have made a terrible parish pastor. Pastors are supposed to be diplomatic and non-threatening. They are supposed to comfort not convict. They are supposed to encourage not demand. Jesus says all the wrong things. His words to his would-be disciples are sharp, tough, and unreasonable. The first disciple approaches Jesus beaming with enthusiasm offering his time and talents announcing that he is willing to follow the Rabbi from Nazareth anywhere. Jesus tells the man; if you follow me expect to be homeless, hungry, and alone.2

In the second encounter, the would-be disciple is not a volunteer but a recruit. You would think that Jesus would try to be more persuasive, maybe a bit more low key. You would think that Jesus would try to accommodate the man's schedule with his call to committment. Jesus does none of the above. He tells the man that discipleship, that ministry takes precedence over family. Your family commitments, your family obligations must be put aside if you want to be a disciple.

The third aspiring disciple only asks for one small request. Before he signs on the dotted line, he wants to go home, one last time and say good-bye to his family. The request seems reasonable. But once again, in his call to commitment, Jesus issues a rebuke. "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God." (v. 62)

The approach of our Lord contrasts with the advice of church growth experts. They advocate for a consumer friendly approach to religion. Church leaders are encouraged to make religion easy and accessible for seekers. Faith, discipleship, and the church should be appealing. 

I believe that one of the reasons for this is that most people have a book shelve approach to God. Most people believe in God but they place him on the shelf to admire or to refer to in the proper company. God becomes a possession; one commodity among many. Every home should have at least one. When they invite company over they can then show off their new living room furniture, their new dinning room table, their new kitchen cabinets and their quaint little 'bookshelf god.' And that is where he stays until a crisis strikes. Then believer offers "bail out" prayer and expects their 'bookshelf god' to comfort, support and assist with a miracle to salvage a hopeless situation. This is not the God of the Bible. This is a sentimentalized, Hallmark characterized idol. The God that Jesus worshipped makes discipleship difficult. He is more than back rubbing, hand holding personal friend. He calls his followers to make difficult decisions that require sacrifice and commitment.

In Ann Tyler's novel Saint Maybe, the central character, Ian Bedloe, becomes involved in a small congregation, the Church of the Second Chance. Under the guidance of his pastor, Ian takes on the task of raising his deceased brother's children. It is a form of repentance, for Ian had suggested to his brother that his wife had been unfaithful to him. Following that conversation, Ian's brother drove his car into a brick wall, committing suicide. Now, Ian's parents, Doug and Bee, are perplexed by the change in son's life, and especially by the 19-year-old's intention to raise three small children with the help of people from his church. 

The following exchange occurs between Ian and his parents: 

"Ian, have you fallen into the hands of some kind of sect?" his father asked. 

"No, I haven't," Ian said. "I have merely discovered a religion that makes sense to me, the way Dober Street Presbyterian makes sense to you and Mom." 

"Dober Street didn't ask us to abandon our educations," his mother told him. "Of course, we have nothing against religion; we raised all of you children to be Christians. But our church never asked us to abandon our entire way of life." 

"Well, maybe it should have," Ian said. 

His parents looked at each other.

His mother said, "I don't believe this. I do not believe it. No matter how long I've been a mother, it seems my children can still come up with something new and unexpected to do to me."3 


Discipleship is not about creating a safe, caring environment where people's needs will be met. It is about a different way of life. It is about making difficult choices. It is about responding in faith to the demands of God.
That does not mean that the church should not strive to create a safe, caring environment. What it means is that we cannot create a loving and supportive community of faith unless people are willing to sacrifice their lives to the difficult demands of discipleship. "We should never forget that our deepest need is to give ourselves wholly, to commit ourselves fully, to give ourselves so completely that nothing is left over..."4

In the book of Revelation, the angel opens seven letters to the seven churches. Each letter offers a warning to be warring of falling into heresy or disobedience. To the church of Laodicia, the warning is particularly harsh. The letter reads ",,,I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other!  16 So, because you are lukewarm-neither hot nor cold-I am about to spit you out of my mouth." (Revelation 3: 15,16) God rejoices over faithful people. His heart aches over those who recognize that they are enslaved to their sin but he does not accept a lethargic spirit or a halfhearted commitment.

 EXCUSES

The church contracted with a consultant to train their visitation team for an every member canvas. The training manual contained a section entitled "Excuses." The section listed common excuses parishioners give for not supporting a church fund drive. All the excuses seemed reasonable, and plausible even noble.
"If we ask people to make this kind of commitment, won't some people feel left out?" 

 "My health has to come first." 

 "In the church, at least, no one should be required to do anything."  

Throughout the session, the consultant offered suggestions for how to respond to each excuse. At the end of the session he then summarized by reminding the participates that "All excuses should be treated as a sign of insufficient commitment." Those are tough words. They are not the kind of words you expect to hear in church. Maybe that is why so many churches are struggling to grow. They try to offer a feel good religion that requires nothing.
Jesus offers a difficult discipleship. His demands seem so implausible, so excessive, and so unreasonable:
"Those who want to save their life will lose it."

 "Let the dead bury their own dead."

 "The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head."

 "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."

The call to discipleship is difficult. It does not promise a happy-ending. It does not promise a successful career. But it does promise a life of freedom. Those who have embraced this life have also discovered the inner peace and joy of giving oneself wholly to God through self-surrender.

1 William H. Willimon, "Journeying with Jesus," Pulpit Resource, June 28, 1998 Vol. 26, No. 2, 56.
2 Anthony B. Robinson, "Discipleship Made Difficult," Pulpit Resource, July 1, 2001 Vol. 29, No. 2, 4.
3 Anne Tyler, Saint Maybe [New York: Ballantine Books, 1991], p. 127 quoted by Anthony B. Robinson, "Discipleship Made Difficult."
4 Anthony B. Robinson, "Discipleship Made Difficult,"
 


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