“Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.” So read Ernest Shackleton’s famous advert in The Times newspaper just over 100 years ago. Shackleton was seeking volunteers for an expedition to Antarctica, and wanted potential applicants to be in no doubt what lay ahead. He wanted them to be well aware what signing up for his polar expedition would involve – what the costs and benefits could be.
In our passage from Luke’s Gospel this morning, Jesus presents all of us with an equally radical challenge. Luke tells us that a large crowd was travelling with Jesus. Then as now, people found Jesus interesting, curious – an attractive personality. Many were tempted to follow him – to become one of his disciples. But before they (and we) commit, Jesus wants them to be fully aware what Christian discipleship entails. He doesn’t want to deter or discourage us, but he does wants us to fully understand what being his disciple really means. And so in today’s passage, Jesus teaches us that following him
- Means making him our top priority
- Requires us to count the cost
- And it requires us to remain distinctively different.
- Following Jesus… means he is your first priority! (v.26)
Anyone following American politics over the past year will have heard some shocking statements come from the mouth of Donald Trump. During his election campaign he made shocking remarks about Mexicans, muslims and women. Remarks I will not be repeating from the pulpit! But at first glance even Trump’s remarks seem mild compared to Jesus’ words in verse 26 today. Let me remind you what Jesus said: ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate their father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters – yes, even their own life – they cannot be my disciple.”
I wonder what you thought when you heard them read just now? Is Jesus really saying we should hate our nearest and dearest. Is he really saying that Christians should despise and detest our spouses, our siblings – even ourselves? And doesn’t the Bible say elsewhere that we should love other people and honour our parents?
Well, properly understood, Jesus’ words are radical but not cruel. If we understand them rightly, his words are incredibly challenging but certainly not immoral.
Because when Jesus uses the word ‘hate’ here, he doesn’t mean ‘hate’ in the sense we do today. Hate here doesn’t mean to actively dislike someone or something. Like other Jews of his day, Jesus is using the word ‘hate’ to mean “love less than something else”. To hate something in this sense is merely to love it less than something else. So for example, if I said I ‘hate’ cheese compared to cake, I would mean that even though I enjoy a slice of cheddar, I prefer a slice of Victoria sponge! You get the point, I hope? Jesus is using the word hate to express priority and preference, not detesting and despising.
So what Jesus is saying in verse 26 is that Christians should love him ahead of anyone and anything else. Even more than we love our family, friends and our very selves. Jesus is saying that Christians should give him their ultimate loyalty and love. He is saying that we should put him before our family, our career, our social life – ahead of anything that tries to claim ‘top spot’ in our lives. I wonder who (or what) would have to make way in your heart?
So with these challenging words, Jesus is calling us to put him first in our affections. Jesus wants Christians to be wholehearted, not half-hearted. He wants us to be committed disciples not casual consumers – disciples who are ‘on fire’ for Jesus, not just lukewarm!
But why does Jesus deserve such loyalty? How can he possibly claim ‘pole position’ in our hearts and minds? Well I think there are at least two good reasons:
Firstly, because of who Jesus is. If we have rightly recognised who he is, we will want to love and serve him above all else. Once we realise that Jesus isn’t just a historical figure but the divine King of creation, it becomes obvious that we should trust and obey him. Once we truly appreciate than Jesus laid down his life for our salvation, we will automatically adore him. A careful look at Christ should provoke our loyalty and love.
And secondly, we should love Jesus first, because he will enable us to love others more effectively. Loyal followers of Jesus will obey his instruction to love their neigbour. Truly obedient Christians will even obey Christ’s command to love their enemies. And Christian husbands will sacrificially love their wives, because they have seen how Christ sacrificed himself for the one he loved – for his bride, the Church.
So for the sake of the ones you love, make Jesus your first love, your top priority.
- Following Jesus … comes at a cost! (v.27-33)
The “Cost of Discipleship”, is a famous book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a German church leader during World War 2 who saw it as his Christian duty to publicly oppose Hitler and the Nazi regime. He made that decision at great personal cost to himself. He was persecuted, arrested and imprisoned for his stance. And ultimately he was executed by the Nazis shortly before the end of the war. Bonhoeffer didn’t just write about the cost of discipleship, he experienced it first-hand. And of course, in many parts of the world becoming a Christian remains a life-threatening choice. Today, in places like North Korea, Somalia and Pakistan, you risk persecution and even death for following Jesus.
Hopefully none of us will literally lose our life for following Christ, but it does come at a cost. A cost Jesus describes in verse 27 as carrying our cross. You see, making Jesus number one in our lives will involve sacrifice. It will come at some cost. Living Jesus’ way will put us in conflict with the flesh, the world and the devil:
- You see, obedience to Christ will plunge us into a daily battle against our own desires.
- Living for Jesus will put us in conflict with the beliefs and behaviours of our secular society.
- And loyalty to Christ will make us an enemy of the Evil One.
Make no mistake – Christian discipleship comes at a cost.
Many of you will know that before I became a Church of England minister, I worked as an economist at the Treasury in Westminster. It was my job to help the government make public spending decisions. So, for example, should taxpayers money be spent on roads or railways? On more hospitals or more schools? On police or prisons? And one tool we used to help make those tricky decisions was called Cost-Benefit Analysis.
As its name suggests, Cost Benefit Analysis is when economists try calculate every possible cost and benefit associated with different spending options. They try to work out which would offer the greatest return on taxpayers’ money. Sometimes costs and benefits are easy to quantify, like the cost of building a new bridge or efficiency savings from new technology. But sometimes costs and benefits are harder to estimate. For example, what value can you put on a cleaner environment, a healthier population or a higher quality of life? What costs should be assigned to the effects of crime, pollution or poor education? A lot of careful thought is required to reach the right conclusion.
In our passage today, Jesus urges potential disciples us to carefully count the cost before following him. And in verses 28 to 32 he tells two stories of people who counted the cost before making a decision.
- Jesus’ first example is someone deciding whether to build a tower. If he starts building before counting the cost he may run out of money before he can finish it. If he can only afford the tower’s foundations “everyone who sees it will ridicule him” – he will be a laughing stock. A wise man compares his construction costs to his bank balance before he decides to build!
- In his second story, Jesus describes a wise king who weighs up his chances of victory before engaging in battle. A wise king will certainly ask for peace if he’s properly considered the cost of defeat.
So what costs of discipleship should we consider in twenty-first century Britain? What will it cost us to commit to Christ today?
- It will cost us our time, as we sacrifice our social life or leisure to spend more time serving our neighbour, sharing the Gospel or ministering at church.
- It will certainly hurt our wallets, as we give sacrificially to our church, to mission agencies and to other Christian charities.
- Being a faithful disciple may also affect our career path, our standard of living, or our reputation amongst non-Christian friends and colleagues.
- And it will be costly and painful for us to give up bad habits and fight personal temptations that we know God doesn’t approve of.
If the costs are so great, why should we bother becoming Christians? Why not skip the cost and follow someone or something other than Christ?
Well the first thing to realise is that Jesus himself experienced great cost in his ministry. He personally endured hardship, misunderstanding, misrepresentation and persecution. And at the end, the cross he carried was real, not merely metaphorical. As we count the cost of following Jesus, remember he’s not asking us to endure anything worse than he went through himself.
But more importantly, remember the huge benefits of being a Christian believer – eternal benefits that no economist could ever hope to quantify! Because If we do decide to put our faith in Christ we become forgiven friends with God – as sinners our greatest need is satisfied. Like the wise king in verse 32 today, followers of Jesus gain peace with the most powerful ruler in the universe – God himself.
Followers of Jesus also look forward to the everlasting joys of heaven. Joys that Jesus compares to a ‘great banquet’ in verse 16 of our chapter this morning. You see, compared to the incalculable benefits of being a Christian, the costs of discipleship pale into insignificance. As the apostle Paul puts it in Romans chapter 8 “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” There is a cost of discipleship – but its well worth it!
- Following Jesus…means staying salty! (v.34)
Whether you voted Remain or Leave in the EU referendum, there is one issue where we should all be committed ‘Remainers’. Because in the final verses of our passage today, Jesus urges his disciples to remain salty. Listen again to what he says: ‘Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure heap; it is thrown out. ‘Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.’
In first century Israel, salt was used in a variety of ways – as a seasoning, a food preservative and as a fertilizer. But whatever of those uses it was put to, the key thing about salt is that it is distinctive and different to whatever it is mixed with. It stands out. And Jesus wants his disciples to be like salt and light. We are to remain distinctive and different in the world.
In fact, faithful followers of Jesus, true disciples, will inevitably stand out from our surrounding society. Our beliefs will be different. Our values will be different. Our behaviour will be different. Being different and distinct may well be difficult. In our increasingly secular liberal society in Britain its becoming increasingly difficult to be a faithful Christian. Our belief and behaviour is increasing regarded as immoral, rather than simply odd. Christendom is long gone. But we must stand firm and remain faithful, obedient disciples of Christ.
It’s actually a challenge facing the Church of England as a whole at the moment. It is under intense pressure to compromise with our culture on the nature of marriage, for example. So please pray for our church’s leadership, that they will remain faithful to Jesus’s distinctive teaching on this and every other issue. Pray that they – and us – will stay salty and effective for Christ. Why don’t we all pray now as I finish?
Lord Jesus, thank you for inviting us all to follow you. Help us to give you top priority in our lives, and make us willing to carry whatever crosses and costs you call us to bear. And give us the strength to stay salty and faithful to you, until the great day when we will be with you forever. Amen.