If you like early American paintings, Norman Rockwell is the man. His art is nostalgic, understandable. He captures a moment in time that we all know. I especially like the boy at the old-fashioned soda fountain, looking at the delicious choices of ice cream and asking how much will it cost. That’s what we ask when we are about to buy a car, or a nice outfit or a kitchen appliance — how much will it cost? Relationships carry a price tag, too. There is a cost for each person when two individuals become a couple.
When Jesus talks about discipleship, we should ask, “What is the cost” to following him. Will we pay the price? As Jesus turns toward Jerusalem, he knows he must soon get his message across. Great crowds are following him, and in that setting Jesus tells the cost of discipleship. Whoever, he says, does not bear the cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple.
In our religious experience, there are many times when we are led by the spirit toward the cross. First, we come to the desert. We must face the unforgiving realities of burning sands, glaring sun, wild beasts on the prowl – and I wish we were talking about sun and sand and animal life. There is no place to hide. When we deal with God, we’re always living on the edge of a personal decision that must be made many times throughout life. Our involvement with God is not a thing done once and it’s over.
A certain man* thought of himself as always in the moment of responding to God. In one of his prayers, Soren Kirkegaard wrote, “You loved us first, O God. Alas, we speak of it as if You loved us the first one time only, historically speaking, when in very truth without ceasing, you love us first many times all day long and all life through.
“When we awaken in the morning and our souls turn at once toward thee, you are there first. You have already turned toward us. If I rise at dawn and in the very first second of my awakening my soul turns to you in prayer, you have beat me to it. You have already turned in love toward me. Thus we speak as ingrates, if un-thankful and unaware, we speak of you as having loved us first only one time.”
In that moment, there is no crowd in which we can become nameless and unknown. We cannot become one more average person unnoticed in a sea of average faces. We are beyond the last outpost of reason, long past the territory protected by earthly prudence. We are fully exposed and in this unrelenting confrontation with our own mortality, God asks the question, “Where is your cross?”
Or to put it differently, lest we misinterpret his words, Jesus asks, “What are you doing as a disciple?” Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and for those who wish to go with him, he has laid his demands on the line. His enemies in Jerusalem are lying in wait, looking for any accusation with which they can bring him to trial. He is talking about a kingdom, and every Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin is afraid his talk will upset the Roman officials. But crowds are following Jesus and he must be honest with them by spelling out what following him will require.
So it was not a private audience of carefully selected fans to whom Jesus says, “If anyone come to me and does not hate his own family, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” No, it was precisely to the great crowds whose attention made him look good, that he said so plainly, “If you want to be my follower, give your first loyalty to God.” Then in exaggerated terms, he says that everything must take a back seat – family, nation, friends, career, ambition, personal or private plans.
Jesus insists that we look at the personal dimension. It is not possible to hide in the crowd and read a formal statement of the group’s corporate belief. God is speaking to me, each of us must say, and until we hear the call of Jesus Christ in personal terms, with personal awareness, with personal inwardness, we have not heard the gospel.
We must individually realize three great affirmations: First, “God the Father made this world and gave me birth into it.” Second, “Jesus Christ lived and died and rose;” and Third, “The Spirit touches me to say all this story of salvation is true for the world and therefore true for me.”
Until we can say, “God has redeemed me a lost and condemned creature,” then we have not grasped the personal dimension of the gospel. Like the burning sun in the desert, the gospel turns the spotlight of God upon each of us so that we can see ourselves as a remodeled sinner whom God is making into a saint ready for life eternal. But the practice of Christianity is not an exercise in religious solitaire. The meaning and the implications of the gospel direct our attention to the church. The church is the legacy of the spirit of Pentecost, and it is not optional. When we enter the church, by adult or infant baptism, as birthright Lutherans or from another religious camp, we take our place in the body of fellow Christians made visible in the church.
What we are part of is not a vague agreement with the general cause of the church at large, but we join a body of people who meet together to worship God. In worship all around the world, disciples of every age follow the example of Jesus and his disciples in the upper room. I saw a newsletter from a sister congregation with a list of people who had not attended worship in the past 10 years – but who once promised to be faithful members.
Not only were they absent from the life of the church, but they could not even be located. The newsletter said that if no one could offer a reasonable objection, these names would be removed from the roll so as to make official what had been true for so many years. How sad.
Once, those individuals said “yes” to the kingdom of God as translated into a group at worship in the name of the Risen Christ. They said once that they would give priority to God as he speaks and moves and works in this particular group.
In contrast, where individuals are willing to set aside their own schedules, activities, wishes, preferences and priorities in favor of the worship of God, then we can be certain that the spirit comes with power and blessing. Baptism is where it all starts, when we are adopted into the family of God. As maturity comes, we each discover what it means to bear the cross as a disciple of Jesus Christ.
God is not looking for impulsive loyalty that comes like being swept along by a mob.” God expects a conscious decision much in the fashion of a king who wishes to go into battle and first counts his troops.
God asks how many troops can He count on? We ask, “What does my faith require of me? What will it cost me? What am I putting aside so I can be more committed to the kingdom? What am I denying myself in order to be of greater service?”
We wonder at times how much more demanding Jesus Christ can become. But we are not alone, and we never lose anything by being what we are called to be, the children of God.
It appeared all was lost on that Friday afternoon on the hill outside the city. Jesus was dying, but God was not finished.
Now Jesus, resurrected, lives in this age and in every heart and life who hears his victorious voice. God has called us to share in his family and in the great mission of enabling others to share in this family.
We are somebody. We are important.
We have a divine destiny. We have been noticed by the maker of all things. God honors us as his partners in love and mercy and hope.
His presence keeps us moving through this life. We know where we are going, and because we know, we thank God for his call to be his disciples, forever and ever.
May the Spirit visit and remain with you all.