Year C, Pentecost 17
If you have read the September newsletter, you will know that we are starting a campaign here at St. John’s called the “Come and See” campaign. It is based on a very simple concept, invitation. The idea is that if you love your church and you love Jesus, you will want people to come and see what we are all about here. It is our call as Christians to share the love of Jesus Christ. That is what Jesus told us to do. After his resurrection and before he ascended to heaven, Jesus told his disciples to, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” They did and as a result this small group of people touched the entire world. Christianity spread across the continents in a very short period of time. Clearly, Jesus wanted and still wants the church to grow.
However, if you read our Gospel reading for today, that does not seem to be the case. It seems as though Jesus was trying to make his group of followers smaller, not bigger. The first line of our reading said that large crowds were travelling with Jesus. That sounds like great news. People liked him. People were following him. His message was spreading. This is what was meant to happen. This is how we make disciples of all nations. Jesus must have been thrilled by this.
He did not seem thrilled. Remember where we are in Jesus’ life. He was on his way to Jerusalem, on his way to his crucifixion. He knew what was happening. He had been trying to explain it to his disciples, but even the disciples, the people who were closest to him, did not appreciate what was about to happen—the horror they would soon experience. Jesus knew that this large crowd was probably not in it for the long haul.
He took an interesting tactic. Instead of trying to encourage them or soothe their fears, he went for the unvarnished truth. “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Who here would want to sign on to that? Now you might think, well I am sure that there is something I am missing here and once Samantha puts it in context, well then I will be ready to sign on.
It’s true, Jesus was known for occasional hyperboles. He liked to get people’s attention and speak on a grand scale. He was a master story teller. I don’t think that was what was happening here. The word that seems to concern most people is the word “hate.” God is love. It says that somewhere in the Bible. The Bible talks a lot about love and Jesus even said that we are to love God and love our neighbor as we love ourselves. How can we love our neighbor as we love ourselves if we hate our family and our own lives?
The word hate has a slightly different meaning than we expect. It’s not an emotion. When Jesus used the word hate, it probably meant something along the lines of detaching or turning away from. Jesus was not telling people they had to actually hate their family. They simply had to detach from them. They had to be willing to choose Jesus over their families.
While that is better than hate, it’s still a pretty serious request, especially during this time. Today, it is not uncommon to move away from your family for a job, a spouse, or just to start fresh. In Jesus’ day, family was everything. If you had no family, you had no support system. If you left your family, you would most likely be ostracized by the community. Not only was there a social and emotional impact, there was a financial impact. In these days, your economic well-being was dependent on your family. Your family was you identity.
Why was he telling the crowds to detach from their very identity? He must have known this was going to turn people away. I imagine the disciples looking at one another and muttering, “There he goes again. This man is a public relations nightmare. We are never going to get more followers this way.” It’s true, most people shook their heads and walked away because this guy was just a little too intense. We know they did. The crowds turned against him and demanded his crucifixion when that time came. Even his own disciples were not able to follow him to the end. Jesus was essentially saying, “Being my disciple, following me, is not an easy road. If you are not ready to choose me and make me the most important thing in your life, then walk away now.” That’s what they did.
I imagine that most mega churches are not preaching this text– because they know it’s not popular. It will not appeal to the masses. I have to admit that I was slightly relieved that this text was coming Labor Day weekend as opposed to next Sunday, Kick off Sunday, which is the day we have encouraged you to invite your friends. These words of Jesus are not exactly a rallying cry. These are Jesus’ words. We cannot water down this text just because it is inconvenient to our hope for church growth and evangelism. However, I feel like saying to Jesus, cut us some slack. The church as a whole is declining. Fewer and fewer people are coming to church at all and you want me to tell the people who do show up that they need to turn away from the people and things they love and focus on you? That’s not going to work.
Here is the amazing thing, it did. It had to or we would not be sitting here today listening to these words. If these words turned everyone away, they would never have made it into the Bible. We would not have a Bible. It makes you wonder, what the secret sauce was. How did Jesus create such a loyal following? This answer is both simple and painfully difficult. He defeated death. He was resurrected and after that happened he came to his disciples who had denied and abandoned him. He returned to them and he gave them another chance. Jesus was not the only one who was resurrected.
When Jesus came back from the dead, he gave us all a second chance. He did not preach to the masses after his resurrection. That would have been the easy thing to do. It would have left no doubt. No, he went to his disciples and he said, it’s your turn now. He spent some time with them and then told them to make disciples of all nations.
While that happened about 2000 years ago, in some ways we are in a very similar position here and now. The church, especially in the United States gets smaller every year. The fate of the Christian community rests with each us. We have the opportunity to live into the resurrection, this land of second chances. You might think this is too hard. It is hard, but it’s not impossible. Consider the things that really matter to you. Perhaps you always attend your kids’ games, meets, recitals, or plays. You never miss it because you care deeply about your child. Or you rarely miss a sail boat race because that is what gives you joy. That is what fuels you. Or you take a walk or exercise almost every morning, or you never miss a Virginia Tech football game. Most people have something in there life that is like that for them. It’s part of their identity.
Now imagine God being that important thing in your life. This does not mean you do not have those other things. It’s just that God comes first. Here’s the thing. If you are able to make God your number one priority in life, those other things in your life that you truly love, most of that will still happen. Furthermore, those things will mean more than they did before. If you choose God, you will not hate your family or your friends, your relationships will very well improve. When God comes first, there less is space for anger, jealousy, and bitter emotions. God fill that space with love. God is love. By making God our number one priority, we share that love. What could be more important than that?