When my office was on a college campus during the student protests in the 1960s and 70s, the students knew my door was always open. One of them came just before a long holiday. We engaged in the usual topics, being out of class for about 3 weeks, a trip home and the change of scenery. I asked whether she expected to spend much time with her family. She looked away and waited more than a moment before she spoke.
She said, “You know, I love my family, and after hugs all around, I’ll sit down with my mother and we’ll talk for 20 or 30 minutes. Then things will get tense.” She meant that after the usual conversation about classes and professors, and friends and social life, her mother would say something like, “Tell me about yourself. How are you, really? Are you involved in those terrible demonstrations?”
She was referring to the simple fact that grown children change when they leave home. When they return for a holiday visit, it may not be easy or possible for them to pick up what once were the usual habits and attitudes.
In Matthew’s story, Jesus questions whether usual habits and basic attitudes should sometimes be challenged, questioned, or even confronted. I think Jesus is applying a life boat mentality. If the ship is sinking and you are about to get into the lifeboat, you don’t go back to pick up a jewelry case, no matter how many diamonds may go down with the ship. You don’t even think about so-called valuables if you can save your life. Jesus challenges us, keeps confronting us to get beyond the usual conversations and to take a hard look at our priorities.
This may be a story where we might want to lower our voices and read faster because some of Jesus’ words are just not what we want to hear. He is explaining to his disciples, as part of their training before they go out to preach and heal in the villages, that his claim is above all else. He says so succinctly about a dozen verses earlier than today’s gospel, that the disciple is not above the teacher and the slave is not above the master. His says his primary mission is not to bring peace to the earth by a sword.
He says his higher priority may even divide families and relatives because there is something more important than having blood relatives. The strangest bond among people is that of being one in him. Merely being blood relations is not the priority relationship within the kingdom. The Jews thought the day of the Lord would certainly divide families and that the division would come because of loyalty to God.
Now they hear him appropriating that day of God to himself, saying that he is the pivotal point for life’s big decisions. He is asking his disciples to face up to the possibility of even being sacrificed in order to maintain their witness to him. Even though this incident is still early in his ministry, the movement to Jerusalem – and the cross – has begun.
Here is the crucial question in this lesson: What does it take to be a follower, a disciple? What is the personal cost to someone who says he or she wants to be a follower of Jesus Christ? Whoever accompanies Jesus on his final trip to Jerusalem must do so in expectation of the cross. The only assurance for his followers is that nothing except sacrifice is certain. Even old relationships and long term loyalties cannot stand in the way of devotion to him who died on the cross as the last full measure of giving himself.
Once the commitment to the enterprise in which Jesus is engaged has been made, there is no possibility of turning back.
Turning away from the responsibility of the kingdom disqualifies that person from participation in the age to come, an age that Jesus announces by his insistence on supreme loyalty.
Such a picture is different than the one we most often see. Too often he is seen as a gentle universal humanitarian.
Here he appears as a burning-eyed messenger sent directly from Jehovah in heaven to say there is a radical break, a difference when a disciple says, “Yes, I will follow you.” His promise is that losing one’s life for his sake means opening the door to a still greater life. We are to seek and take up our cross and follow him.
Jesus gave himself in our place on the cross. He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities. Upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed, as Isaiah predicted.
Now, a cross laid on us is not simply some intolerable or even inconvenient burden. But he is saying that his followers should lose their life for his sake, and thereby find true life. Confrontation is the word here, a concept that our age desperately tries to avoid especially in religious matters. Jesus warns those who would join him that the cause is urgent and the stakes are ultimate. What a contrast between what he asks and what the world holds out as attractive. The ultimate question is this: Are you loyal to Christ or are you not? The cause is urgent; the stakes are total. The winner wins everything.
Such resolution and determination in the face of the pleasures of this world are not easily accepted in others or easy to come by for ourselves. The responsibility for answering the call to follow Jesus is much greater than the institutional life of a single congregation.
Rather, it is the individual members of the congregation who are its true ministers out in the world and not just on Sunday.
The pastor is called to a pastoral function but the lay members are called to vital ministries of service to others, to those works of mercy and love which are a response to God’s grace. The church has survived by the grace and help of God these twenty centuries, of course, but humanly speaking, the church survives because there are people who do accept their responsibilities of ministering to each other and to the world around.
I recently talked with a pastor who was entering a new field of service after an excellent work of 12 years in a small parish where there were many difficulties. He said it was time for him to leave because the people had begun to expect him, even demand of him, to do everything from purchasing the wine for communion to carrying out the trash.
All of us in the church, that is, pastors and lay members always need to keep on rethinking the question of what each one of us is called to do. Our answer to that call will reflect our understanding of our responsibility, as well as our understanding of how we should work to please God.
The church’s gravest problem may be those among us whose actions indicate they are just half committed, those who can give an excellent opening conversation but for whom things get tense once the reality of discipleship is confronted. We can be certain that God called Abraham, or Jeremiah or Amos or Paul and Timothy and Luke, or the great heroes of the faith down through the centuries since the first Pentecost, but somehow we think he is less serious about a call to us in this generation.
I suspect that if some among us were confronted with the idea that God has called them by name to a greater measure of devotion and sacrifice and duty and responsibility their first reaction would be to say, “Me? I want to be just an average church member.”
Like that mythical Minnesota town of Lake Wobegon where all the children are way above average, being part of the Christian church extends far beyond a sometime attendance at worship and an average commitment out in the world Monday thru Saturday.
It may be true that our personal resources our talents or skills may not be nearly as spectacular as the gifts of those lived in earlier ages but there can be no difference in the urgency with which we respond to the call in our own time and place.
We are always in company with Jesus and his disciples. We are always at the turning point, a point of decision when we must go forward with him to witness, to serve, to suffer, to sacrifice.
We are not called to succeed, to win, to make a bigger mark than others who have gone before. But we are called to report for duty, to shoulder our portion of responsibility.
The test of discipleship is to offer immediate and complete loyalty to Jesus Christ not because the end of the story is clearly in sight but rather because we trust the teller of the story.
Then, there is an additional response to Christ’s radical claim. Not only must we be ready to sacrifice everything in this world that pulls us away from him, not only must we be aware that losing our life in his cause is really the only way to find greater life, but he holds out the ideal of hospitality .
Giving a cup of cool water – and whoever picked these lessons must have known they would be read on a hot July day – a cup of water can be an expression of God’s grace in our mobile and impersonal society.
According to Jesus, the simple gesture of human hospitality, particularly among the sisters and brothers of the household of faith, contains an eternal reward.
Christian loyalty and discipleship is not dull and lifeless. Jesus Christ says that loyalty to him cuts across all of life. From the sublime height of laying down one’s life, or renouncing all that is precious and dear, thru the middle ground of loving day by day, bearing gladly the cross of service and self-giving that his example holds before us, down to giving a cup of water – we belong to him.
Above all we say or do, he is Lord, Master, supreme example. Who will follow in his train?