The Discipline of Discipleship

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Wesley Chapel, FL
Preacher: The Rev. Adrienne R. Hymes
Proper 18/Year C: September 4, 2022
Gospel: Luke 14:25-33

Lord, take our minds and think through them. Take our Lips and speak through them. Take our hearts and set them on fire for Christ’s sake—Amen.

At the very beginning of this church planting journey, long before any heavy lifting had begun, there was a lot of interest and much enthusiasm. I soon learned that for many interested persons, planting a new church meant that they would happily fill a seat on Sundays. In having truthful conversations about the demands of the journey ahead I told the non-sugarcoated truth: “If you’re looking for a church where you can show up for service and leave; we’re probably not what you’re looking for right now. If you’re looking for a life-giving adventure in the Lord, filled with uncertainty, which will challenge you spiritually, physically and emotionally, please take time to prayerfully discern a commitment to this ministry.”

As you might imagine, it didn’t take long for the demanding realities of church planting to take a back seat to other day-to-day priorities. Those who fell away from the ministry shared with me similar realizations, “I’m sorry; I didn’t really know how much work this would be.” Do we ever really know the costs of any commitment until we start to faithfully walk in it?

We enter our gospel narrative today with Jesus addressing a crowd of his followers.  By this time in Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ public ministry was in full swing. He had healed the afflicted, driven out demons, raised the dead, fed 5,000 people with only five loaves of bread and two fish, and he had called out the hypocrisy of the Jewish religious leaders. Jesus had become a celebrity with the growing crowds as he traveled from Galilee to Jerusalem where he will suffer and die.

Jesus knew the fate that awaited him, but the scripture gives us no hint about the enthusiastic crowds’ understanding of what they were actually participating in as they followed this celebrity, Jesus.  Had Jesus’ enthusiastic followers known that they were traveling with him on a death march, would their enthusiasm have waned? Would they have had the stomach to commit to bearing weight of being his disciples for the long haul?

A commentary on the cost of discipleship by William Barclay tells a story about someone who was talking to a great scholar about a certain young man. The person said to the scholar, “So and so tells me that he was one of your students.” The great scholar answered, “He may have attended my lectures, but he was not one of my students.”1

Such is the case for the enthusiastic followers of Jesus who will be challenged to decide whether or not they will be an unwitting follower or an intentional disciple? Jesus turned to the crowd, and educated them about the cost of discipleship. “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,” Jesus said.  “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

This statement may sound harsh to our 21st century ears, but the word “hate,” in this Semitic context, means “to turn away from” or “to detach oneself from.” Jesus warned that anything or anyone held dear to one’s heart, can cause an enthusiastic follower of Jesus to lack follow through and fall away. God requires a loyalty that surpasses all other loyalties in a person’s life, and that necessarily requires detaching and reprioritizing so that one freely turns to God, and God becomes the object of their unwavering loyalty. 

Jesus’ expectation for his disciples was that they be “all in,” for the duration of God’s mission.  Just as the builder of a vineyard tower carefully estimates the costs of materials and manpower, Jesus also needed to determine whether or not he had people upon whom he could depend to be effective vehicles for the gospel message after his death, and for whom turning away from the mission would never be an option. Anyone who committed to being Jesus’ disciple, without weighing the costs, could potentially jeopardize the earthly mission. 

Notice that Jesus was not actually calling disciples out of the crowd, with his signature imperative, “Follow me.” The people are already following him, and his response was a loving one that allowed anyone with ears to hear to carefully weigh the costs of choosing life as Jesus’ disciple. 

Jesus told the truth about what it meant to become his disciple so that anyone who would choose to do so would do it with their hearts and eyes wide open.  It is a loving thing to tell someone the truth about what it means to obediently follow Jesus. Anyone who spreads the falsehood that all you need to do to be a good Christian is to show up to church where there’s comfortable seating, great music, and friendly people, does a great disservice to anyone seeking Jesus and seeking to be His disciple, and seeking to build the kingdom of God.

I sometimes type my sermon thoughts into my phone. It strikes me that every time I type the word, “disciple,” my annoying auto-correct, changes the word to discipline. A lesson from my “smart” phone landed on me. True discipleship requires discipline, and the reality is that it’s not fun; there can be painful sacrifices and it will inconvenience lifestyles and behaviors. 

There is a real cost of discipleship.  Though the cost can be expressed in many currencies, we must tell people the truth—that this life we live is not easy; it is not focused on fun or convenience.  Discipleship is a life of discipline, sacrifice and inconvenience.  Nothing about the life of a disciple is for the faint of heart or for the weak in stomach.  Jesus knew this, and lovingly offered an early “out” for unwitting, enthusiastic followers.

And yet, we, as faithful followers of Jesus, remain committed to life-long formation into the full stature of Christ—each of us growing into our own sense of discipleship, while growing together in our shared purpose of building up God’s kingdom here on earth.

As I reflect on the beginnings of this faith community from the time of conception on a piece of paper, to having conversations with those who were curious about this adventure that we call church planting, the critcial truth-telling message that I shared back in 2017 remains the same, and I would venture to say, is even more necessary: “If you’re looking for a church where you can show up for service and leave; we’re still probably not what you’re looking for right now. We need all hands-on deck to sustain this body and to nurture its vitality.

If you’re looking for a life-giving adventure in the Lord, filled with uncertainty, which will challenge you spiritually, physically and emotionally, this is the community of faith for you!

Jesus is counting on us to hold ourselves accountable to the inconvenient truth of the cost of discipleship, in its myriad forms. Will we be unwitting followers, wearing rose-colored glasses, or will we live an intentional life of discipline as his disciples—members of the body of Christ who are “all in.”  Come, let us labor on for Christ’s sake. Amen.  

1 Barclay, William. The Gospel of Luke Revised Edition (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press), 1975, p. 196.