Well. I bet that speech thinned out the “large crowds”! The Gospel of Luke is “crowded” with crowds – large numbers of people following Jesus when he just wants to be alone, and flocking to wherever he is rumored to be headed next. They are in awe. They are in need. They are hungry for life-changing healing or teachings. He meets their needs, yet he doesn’t call them all to become his disciples. To the vast majority of the people he heals and teaches, he does not say “follow me” but instead something like, “return home, your faith has made you well” or “go in peace”. Jesus’ message of grace – that God loves you unconditionally, just as you are – is for everyone, but the demands of discipleship are not. Unless you can give up the relationships, possessions and the life that make you who you are, you cannot be his disciple.
So. Either Jesus gives this speech in order to cut down on the crowds, or he was being brutally honest because that can be godly too: true individual disciples are very rare indeed. Is anybody interested in signing up after that rousing position description?
In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus himself shows he would willingly get out of the sacrifice to come, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; … yet, not my will but yours be done.” How long do you think the pause was between those two phrases?
Jesus also knew that Peter, the strong-willed, person of action, would abandon him, deny knowing him multiple times, and hide when he was most threatened. Jesus warns Peter about this before it happens, and processes it with him again after he comes back from the dead. There we go – the top 2 leaders faltering on this mission. Very few can count this cost and single mindedly head towards it. Jesus is not exaggerating.
“Friends of disciples”
Author and Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor’s take on this Gospel is that maybe once or twice in a generation there are these genuine, “all in” disciples that meet Jesus’ description, who count the cost, and pay it with their relationships, possessions and lives – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr. – but the vast majority of us are more like “friends of the disciples,” who return home instead of laying down everything to follow him, but we do keep wondering about Jesus and his mission, and at certain points in our lives get more involved, then back off again later. So how can we be good friends of the “all-in” disciples? Taylor suggests that the best way to be friends of the disciples of Jesus is to keep telling their stories, and to try to emulate their sacrifices in smaller ways, where we are. We can return to our homes, our people, and share the good news, make grace real in our spheres of influence.
Acting as one
What if instead of laying a guilt trip on us for not measuring up, Jesus is doing what the builder and the king should do before embarking on a project of massive scale: taking stock of who he has with him, noting the practical size of the workforce? Because – besides Jesus – this movement is largely not dependent on individual heroes, but gathering a community around the mission. In other words, if you’re not Jesus, “Get off the cross, honey, we need the wood.” The Jesus movement – punctuated by extraordinary leaders sometimes – is built more consistently by gathering flawed people together to act as one. We need the faith community to bolster our courage, our wavering commitment, and our fatigue at practicing the ways of Jesus. Only when some of us have rested and are dragging along the ones who have become weary, will we have any forward motion.
Was there enough dedication among the first disciples who knew Jesus in person, such as the women who stayed by him until the end, to witness the resurrection and carry the good news forward? Individually, no. But collectively, yes. Are there enough practicing “friends of disciples” in today’s faith communities to do the terribly hard work of repenting and giving up all that we’ve hoarded, to lay down what really isn’t “mine” anyway, to repair the harm we have done in the name of Christ?
Communities of trust
Building communities of trust and accountability is much less dramatic and therefore less interesting than looking to spiritual heroes who do what we cannot. Movements are built on one-on-one visits to see what makes someone else tick, hurting when someone else hurts, showing up together to raise a ruckus against injustice, and feeding the sheep, as Jesus commanded Peter after he had denied him three times. It takes practice, but as we act, we become the people formed by those behaviors. Those behaviors become us. We start to change from people who cannot, to those who can as long as they are with me. And then, what we build together – all of us – is the body of Christ continuing to live, on the move in this world.
I’m going to suggest 3 practices for the church to try – together- to do what Jesus is asking of disciples.
With regards to our relationships, Jesus says: “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.” He’s coming after who we consider family. Faith communities must lead on who “belongs” to us and therefore who we care about. It’s not only your nuclear family or your ethnic group or your faith group that are worth your concern, resources and dogged advocacy. It is every last child of God. When someone comes after them, they are coming after us. We can act like it.
With regards to suffering, Jesus says: “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Taking up our cross is a very heavy metaphor. Who is going to willingly agree to suffering? I know church mirrors the culture, but it is not Christlike to minimize our requests like, “if you have a little extra, please give us a tiny bit of your time, money, energy.” A faith practice of extravagant requests teaches us to practice extravagant generosity. The kind of generosity that takes over major life decisions, for the congregation or your own household. We need to hear and tell extravagant stories of commitment to prove that giving sacrificially is a thing people can do. People like us.
With regards to our possessions, Jesus says: “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” Well, we have to start somewhere. One urban congregation I was part of referred to those who lived in the neighborhood as their “members,” even putting that on posters around the building. The building belonged to the neighborhood, and was there for the community. That starts a shift in how everybody talks and thinks about what is “mine”. What we used to call “mine” or “ours” can be “all of ours”. What are the practices in this faith community that are moving us together towards discipleship? Congregations are to be communities of practice, acting Christlike together repeatedly, until we can go out and do so on our own. This we can do, together.