Sermon: Losing our lives

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
4th of September 2022

Luke 14:25-33

So many of my Reflections recently have started with me saying something along the lines of: What on earth can we do with today’s reading from the Gospel according to Luke? I’d hate to break that tradition now, so: What on earth are we to do with today’s reading from the Gospel according to Luke? One of the commentators I read this week said that preachers would be tempted to look at it and say, ‘Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. Read.’[1] That is very tempting; you know that Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of my heroes, and I will be quoting him later in this Reflection. But I cannot entirely outsource my preaching to him.

Today’s passage starts with Jesus telling those following him that to become his disciples they must hate both their families and their lives, and it ends with him telling them to give up all their possessions. I am not sure which is the more shockingly blasphemous saying; which the more counter-cultural; which the more impossible to take ‘literally’. The author of the Gospel according to Matthew seems to be softening Jesus’ words when they quote Jesus as saying instead: ‘Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.’ (Matthew 10:37-38) In Matthew’s version we do not need to hate our families, we simply need to love Jesus more. This may in fact be what Jesus meant; ‘hate’ may simply be a rhetorical exaggeration that Jesus is using to get his hearers’ attention.

Of course, as I have repeated again and again in this Ordinary Season, we must put the passage into context. So let me once again remind you that Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem and his death. As he journeys towards his lonely death on the cross Jesus has been surrounded by people. In last week’s passage Jesus was at ‘the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath,’ part of a smaller group of his disciples, his host, and other dinner guests. But with this week’s passage we are back on the road, with Jesus surrounded again by ‘large crowds [who] were travelling with him’. These large crowds may have been made up of those who wanted more of the blessings, the healings and other miracles, that they had seen Jesus do. Or they may be those who are looking forward to a projected clash between Jesus and those ruling in Jerusalem: a conflict between Galileans and Judeans, between peasants and the powerful, between the laity and the priests, or between Jews and Romans. The crowd to whom Jesus speaks is made up not just of those who have chosen to commit their lives to him. It includes dilettantes interested in the newest guru. It is probably the uncommitted, then, who Jesus wants to challenge and shock, rather than committed disciples.

To these people, those following him to Jerusalem out of enthusiasm or because they anticipate a political victory, Jesus has a stark warning. Do not follow him without counting the cost. Just as the owner of a vineyard will not begin to build a tower from which to watch against thieves and marauding animals if they do not know they can complete it, and just as a king will not go to war unless they believe they have the resources to win, so no one, whether poor or rich, rural or urban, should become a disciple of Jesus without first determining whether they can pay the price. Will they be able to put their loyalty to Jesus above their relationships with even their closest and most beloved family? Will they be able to use their possessions to care for ‘the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind’ (Luke 14:13) rather than keep them for themselves?

Even understanding that Jesus’ warning is aimed at uncommitted dabblers, rather than at those who have made the considered decision to follow him, the command to carry one’s cross is stark. Commentators are divided on whether we can read the crucifixion, the resurrection, and the ascension back into this saying. At this stage of Luke’s gospel, Jesus has told his disciples that ‘the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised,’ (Luke 9:21-2) but the crowds would know nothing of that. For them, carrying one’s cross could only refer to the horrifying and humiliating form of execution used by Rome to break the will of conquered peoples. There could be nothing positive about carrying one’s cross.

On the other hand, of course, the Gospel is being written post-resurrection, and those hearing and reading it know, as we do, that Jesus’ crucifixion was the prelude to something astounding, terrifying but wonderful. In the post-resurrection context, maybe carrying one’s cross could be seen as life-affirming, rather than life-denying, because Jesus’ story did not end with death. Father Brendan Byrne, also quoted by Alistair last week, says that today’s passage must be put in the context of the whole gospel, and particularly as following last week’s Parable of the Great Dinner at which the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame were invited to eat the bread of the kingdom.[2] And of course I want to argue that the terror of these commands is softened by everything else Jesus says about love and welcome and feasting in the kingdom.

There are two things, though, that have lodged in my brain as I have thought about this passage; two things that have made me reluctant to move too quickly from describing Jesus’ sayings as ‘absolutely terrifying’ to describing them as ‘ultimately life-affirming’. The first is an incredibly memorable sentence from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship, which springs immediately to my mind whenever the subject of carrying the cross is raised: ‘When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die’.[3] Bishop Bell of Chichester, an old friend of  Bonhoeffer’s, begins his foreword to the English translation of The Cost of Discipleship with that line,[4] and in the ‘Memoir’ he wrote for English readers of the book Bonhoeffer’s brother-in-law, Gerhard Leibholz, wrote that because of Bonhoeffer’s execution by the Nazis everything he had written about the cost of discipleship ‘gained a new and deep significance’.[5] ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate … even life itself, cannot be my disciple,’ Jesus says, and carries his cross to his crucifixion. ‘When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die,’ writes Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and is imprisoned and murdered by the Nazis. The history of our faith tells us that Jesus’ call on a Christian’s life can lead to literal death, and we should not be too quick to turn away from that possibility.

The other reason that I want us to sit with the shock of these hard sayings a little longer is because I believe that mainstream churches in countries like Australia are being called to collectively lose our lives and take up our cross. In last week’s Reflection Alistair talked about the fall in the number of Australians identifying as Christian, and the rise in the number of people who claim ‘no religion’ as revealed by the recent Census. I have also mentioned the Census numbers, because every church in Australia needs to take them seriously. They could be seen as evidence that Christianity in Australia is dying. I do not believe that it is. I believe that Christianity is becoming what it always meant to be: the salt, not the whole meal; the yeast, not the whole loaf. For too long Australian Christians have enjoyed the privilege and possessions that come with being the default state religion. We were respected by the community, and had an automatic place at the tables of politicians. Now we need to earn our place in the same way that the early church did – through our actions. The Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans is written to a small community in a hostile Empire, and his advice on how to live as a minority within an indifferent or hostile majority is:

If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:18-21)

Christians in Australia are again becoming a minority within an indifferent or hostile majority, and our ancestors in the faith have wisdom for us when in this situation.

A couple of Black American commentators have advice for white churches in the USA that is equally applicable in Australia. In an article on today’s passage published in the American magazine Christian Century, William H. Lamar IV, pastor of the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. writes:

Right now … I want to talk to you – a Century reader and likely a white person. I want you to know that we live in different worlds. There’s a good chance your church is a white church, driven by the history of white people. And if you’re white, when you leave your church you enter a world made for you – a world that assumes your house is the best on the block and that all sensible people should seek to dwell therein.

Writing of the difficulty of hating one’s life and giving up one’s possessions Lamar points out that:

Black Christians are well practiced in cultural renunciation. My ancestors rejected the notion of America as ‘a shining city on a hill.’ For them and for many still today, that city’s lights of justice and peace are so dim as to be inconsequential. White Christians have not been similarly compelled to renounce the power and principality of white supremacy or American empire.[6]

And in a book titled Dear Church: A Love Letter From A Black Preacher To The Whitest Denomination In The U.S. queer Black preacher Lenny Duncan writes to members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church worried that their denomination is dying: ‘Dear Church, you aren’t dying. … I know it feels like you are dying. … Dear Church, you aren’t dying; you are being refined.’[7]

What on earth can we do with today’s reading? I am not sure. As another commentator I read this week put it: ‘There is little that is gentle or reassuring in this,’[8] and as a preacher I tend to lean always towards the gentle and the reassuring. But Bonhoeffer and William H. Lamar IV and Lenny Duncan make me wonder whether the life we are being called to deny is our past power and privilege in broader society, and whether the cross we are being called to take up is a willingness to be refined in ‘the furnace of adversity’. (Isaiah 48:10) Again and again the prophets talked about God refining God’s people, testing and purifying them like silver and gold. (See, for example, Jeremiah 9.7, Daniel 12.10, Zechariah 13.9, Malachi 3.3) Thinking about the state of Australian Christianity this way does not make this week’s reading less frightening, but it does remind us that even in adversity God is with us. And for that we can say thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Emilie M. Towner in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (ed.), Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 4, p. 44.

[2] Brendan Byrne, The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel (Strathfield: St Paul’s, 2000), p. 125.

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, London: SCM Press, 2001), p. 44.

[4] Bishop G. K. A. Bell, ‘Forward,’ (1958) in The Cost of Discipleship, p. xi.

[5] G. Leibholz, ‘Memoir,’ in The Cost of Discipleship, p. xiv.

[6] William H. Lamar IV, ‘Reflections on the lectionary,’ Christian Century, August 17, 2016, p. 21.

[7] Dear Church, pp. 146ff quoted in A Provocation: Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 18 (23): September 8, 2019: Luke 14:25-35 | provokingthegospel (wordpress.com)

[8] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina Volume 3, p. 233.

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