The Cost of Discipleship
Saint Luke 9:57-62 and Saint Luke 14:25-33
This evening we again join our Lord Jesus in “Facing the Cross.” Throughout our Saviour’s journey on the way to the Cross and His suffering and death and His resurrection on the third day, He speaks with those following along with Him about a number of things. Two topics, however, stand out as seeming to be of greater significance. The danger of hypocrisy is one of these that we’ve already taken up in our Lenten meditations. The other, which we’ll consider this evening, is The Cost of Discipleship.
Here we are only a short way removed from the start of Holy Week and our Lord’s Palm Sunday entrance into Jerusalem and the end of His sojourn to the Cross, and we are only now beginning to talk about what it means to follow Jesus—what it costs to be a disciple of Jesus. Perhaps this should have come up earlier in our Lenten meditations, for it’s the first matter, after setting His face to go to Jerusalem, that our Saviour chooses to talk about.
Right away after leaving the Samaritan village where the people did not receive Him “because his face was set toward Jerusalem,” and while He and those following Him are “going along the road” on the way “to another village,” someone says to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go,” to which Jesus responds rather enigmatically, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Then immediately, to another, Jesus says, “Follow me.” This one replies to Jesus, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” Sounds reasonable enough, doesn’t it? But Jesus tells him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” When another says to Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home,” Jesus says to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
I get the point that Jesus makes with His first comment about having no place to lay His head. Those who follow Jesus shouldn’t expect anything different. The reward of faith, after all, comes to us not from this world or in this life. We all know this, but since the devil tempts us to think otherwise, it’s good to hear this reminder from our Lord Jesus.
With the other two comments made by Jesus, it’s much more difficult to see the positive side to it. On the surface it sounds rather harsh and not what we would expect from Jesus. “Leave the dead to bury their own?” Not “fit for the kingdom of God” just because the guy wants to say good-bye to his family? And in the other Gospel reading for tonight, you can’t be a disciple of Jesus unless you hate your own “father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters?” This is more than just harsh sounding. Taken literally it goes against the very Law of God. “Honour your father and your mother,” we are commanded, which includes also that we “love and cherish them.” And husbands and wives, children, and siblings are also to be loved and cherished according to God’s Law. We also hear Jesus say that, if you don’t renounce all that you have, you can’t be His disciple. Again, when we look at what the Word of God says with regard to possessions and the things of this world, we are directed, not to renounce them and go off to live like a hermit in a cave, but to give thanks to God for giving us the good gifts of His bounty. Therefore, in considering what Jesus says in the two readings before us this evening from the Gospel of Luke, we need, with the help of God, to look past the evidently over-the-top rhetoric to understand the real meaning of our Lord’s words for us.
First, it would be helpful to understand why Jesus would engage in hyperbole like this. Well, dear friends, when Jewish people back then spoke to one another, overstating things for the sake of emphasis is what was considered to be quite normal. It’s how they would underscore the importance of what was being said. This is evidently what’s happening here, in both of these times that Jesus speaks about the cost of discipleship on His way to Jerusalem. It’s important! Pay attention!
Now, in the second Gospel text, from the 14th chapter of Luke, Jesus also goes on for a fair bit about counting the cost before building a tower and a king making sure he has a big enough army to go against another king in war. This is all very much like what He said in chapter 9 about not having a place to lay His head. In other words, there are certain realities to what it means to be a Christian; there’s a cost to following Jesus of which everyone should be well aware before beginning the walk of faith with Him. You must know that following in the way of Jesus means more than just watching Him bear His cross; it also means that you have a cross to bear, too.
The cost of discipleship is no easy matter. Luther points this out in a booklet he wrote for those involved in bringing infants to Holy Baptism. To the parents, baptismal sponsors, and pastors, Luther writes, “Therefore, you have to realize that it is no joke at all to take action against the devil and not only to drive him away from the little child but also to hang around the child’s neck such a mighty, lifelong enemy.” From the moment the child is emerged into baptism’s life-giving flood and washing away of sin, the child becomes an enemy of the devil, because baptism has placed the child clearly on the side of Jesus.
And it’s not just the devil who considers followers of Jesus to be his enemy; so does the sinful, unbelieving world—all those whom the devil has on his side. Jesus, in the Upper Room, on the night He was betrayed, told His disciples, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. … If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” The cross is indeed a heavy burden to bear, and Jesus wants those who follow Him to know this right from the start, lest the great cost of discipleship catch you unprepared and in fear you fall away.
It’s interesting to note, that the Christians who are the most firm in their faith—unmoving and steadfast—are those who face life-threatening persecution for the faith every day. This is the way it has been in every day and age since the time of the cross and the beginning of the Christian Church. Such faithful Christians are exactly on the same page as Saint Paul who declared, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Those who do fall away—those who will fall away—are the ones who have their minds set more on the things of this world than the things of God. For them, it’s not life-threatening persecution that will cause them to fall but the inconvenience that Christianity brings to them. It gets in the way of their love for the things of this world. This is the truth in all that hyperbole that we hear tonight from Jesus.
None of us are free from sinful wants and desires to have treasures and pleasures and joys from this world—the things that can trip us up and cause us to stumble and fall as we follow after Jesus. We’re sinners, after all—sinners as well as saints. But, as Saint Peter’s words remind us tonight, there is a way for saints who stumble to be put back on their feet again. There is a way for straying sheep to return to their Shepherd and Overseer of their souls. “By his wounds you are healed,” he tells you. The forgiveness that our blessed Lord Jesus won for you with His innocent suffering and death on the cross is what restores you in the way of discipleship—the way of faith—when your sinful thoughts and words and deeds send you veering away from the path that leads through the cross to Easter’s resurrection.
Dear friends, perhaps we could use a bit of hyperbole when talking about our faith—just enough to jolt us into realizing that, even though Jesus paid the full cost for our salvation, the cost of discipleship still remains. There is a need for repentance, a need for turning away from sin, and a need for remaining always in the grace of God in Christ, through whom we have the full remission of our sins and life everlasting. You are forgiven. You are washed clean of sin. And the devil and the world hate you because of it—because they first hated Jesus. The cost of discipleship is a heavy burden—a heavy cross to bear, but in Christ the burden is light. So, rejoice and proclaim with the Psalmist: “Blessed be the Lord, who daily bears our burden, the God who is our salvation.” Amen.