This coming Sunday is likely to cast fear into the hearts of those preachers who attempt to follow the Revised Common Lectionary assigned readings as the guide for their preaching.

It is a tough call which to tackle. The preacher could take on Jeremiah 18:11 –

11Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord:

Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you.

If that does not seem an entirely palatable choice, the Gospel option is not much easier –

26Whoever 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.( Luke 14:26)

Nine years ago, back in the days when I was still writing sermons out rather than preaching from notes, I tackled the Luke reading. The sermon that resulted is rather long and a bit dense. But here is my brave effort for anyone with the patience to wade through the whole thing:

SUNDAY SERMON – SEPTEMBER 9, 2007

DISCOVERING THE LOVE THAT SETS US FREE

LUKE 14:25-33

It is a fundamental principle of existence that nothing comes to life except through death.  If there is going to be life, there must be death.  Moving forward always involves letting go of something.  Every letting go is an acceptance of death.  Sometimes the deaths are big; sometimes they are small.  But there is no way forward without the radical practice of surrender, without a willingness to die.

So important is this principle that Jesus chose to express it in the starkest, most startling, even offensive terms imaginable.  Jesus said,

“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.” (Luke 14:26)

Can you imagine the emails Jesus must have received after that particular sermon?

Jesus takes the most intimate personal human relationships and says you have to be willing to “hate them” – father, mother, wife, children, brothers and sisters.  This is unimaginable.

It would be nice to be able to translate our way out of this challenge.  Unfortunately the Greek word miseo has an unusually limited range of meanings and the fundamental impact of the word is “hate.”  In Luke 14:26 Jesus is in fact saying, “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.”

If we are to understand this, we need to understand two things.  First we need to understand something about the nature of Jesus’ teaching.  Second, we need to understand something about the nature of Jesus’ person.

When Jesus taught, he was not simply trying to impart information.  Jesus was not an abstract teacher of theoretical philosophical principles.  He was not attempting to impart dogma to passive listeners. Jesus was actually trying to cause something to happen in peoples’ lives.  He was attempting to illicit an active response.

In the case of this difficult teaching in Luke’s Gospel, Luke tells us Jesus was addressing “large crowds.” (Luke 14:25)  In these “large crowds” there would have been people in a variety of different places in relationship to Jesus and his teaching.  There would have been casual listeners and some thrill seekers.  There would have been people listening to Jesus who were looking for some sort of spectacle, or others who just happened to be on the scene with nothing better to do than listen to one more crazy teacher traveling around the countryside.  There would also have been people in the crowd who had heard Jesus before and who had made some level of commitment to him as their teacher.

When Jesus said to these “large crowds” “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 was attempting to cause people to look inside their own hearts.  Jesus wanted people to ask where am I in relationship to this teacher?

This is where the second of the two things I said were important in this passage comes in.  Who exactly is this teacher who is challenging people to examine the nature of their relationship?

The most succinct answer to that question is given in John’s Gospel 14:6 where Jesus says,

“I am the way, and the truth and the life.” 

When Christians use the word “Jesus” we signify life and truth.  Jesus is light and love and hope and blessing.  Jesus stands for everything that is most true and most real about the human creation.  He is all for which we long and the best and most noble aspirations of our hearts.  He is us as we were created to be.

So, if we put together these two important things – how Jesus taught and who Jesus was – we discover that the crisis Jesus was attempting to stimulate in his audience was the crisis of decision.  He was attempting to drive his audience to ask themselves, what do I really want in life?

Do I truly and deeply long for all that is best, deepest, and most real in the human condition?  Or, am I willing to settle for something less?  Am I willing to put some human relationship ahead of what it means to be truly human?  Am I determined to cling to something other than God in an attempt to satisfy the deepest longing of my heart?  Or will I let go of absolutely anything that might hinder the fullness of my created identity as God’s child?

When Jesus says to the “large crowds,” “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 is actually trying to push them away.  Because if you can be pushed away from true life by anything, you will be pushed away by something.

The call to live fully and deeply is costly and challenging. Jesus wants us to recognize the cost and consider whether we believe true life is worth it, or whether we would rather settle for something less.  This is why he goes on in Luke to talk about a person trying to build a building, needing to consider whether they have enough resources to fulfill the task before they begin, and a king going off to war needing to consider whether he has adequate power to complete the campaign before launching into battle.

In verse 33 Jesus says,

“So, therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

This is not about possessions. It is about possessiveness. It is about clinging, about our determination to get our way.

There is only one ultimate attachment in life that is ever appropriate.  We can only finally be attached to the God who gives us the gift of life and who sustains us throughout our lives in living the fullness of that gift.  Any other attachment will hinder us from becoming all we were created to be.  Therefore, those who desire true life, who desire to live deeply and authentically must surrender over and over any attachment, any clinging that might in any way separate them from the fullness of God’s purpose for their lives.

True life requires a willingness to die.

Jesus says in Luke 14:27,

“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” 

The problem with cross carrying is that it is painful.  Cross carrying means being willing to be betrayed, to be let down, to be hurt, to suffer.  Cross carrying is not for the feint of heart.  If you are going to carry your cross and follow Jesus, you need to know that it is going to hurt. Letting go is not easy.

To “carry the cross” is to bear the burden of your own pain. And this, perhaps more than anything, is the thing we are unwilling to do.  We do not want pain.  We live in a culture that thinks pain is a strange, foreign, inappropriate experience.  But everything Jesus taught, suggests pain is a human reality and we better get used to it.

The dysfunction of our lives is most often caused by our refusal to bear patiently the reality of our own pain.  We fight and argue because we are afraid of pain.  We run and hide because we fear pain will overwhelm and destroy us.  We escape into addictions, illusion, and an obsessive need for entertainment and distraction, because our pain seems too great to face. We use intimate relationships in an attempt to ease the ache of loneliness and dissatisfaction.  We are dishonest and live on the surface of life because we feel we cannot bear the pain we know lies just beneath the surface.

To take up our cross is to refuse to turn away from our pain.  It is to bear willingly the struggle and challenge of human existence.

It is not the pain itself that is destructive.  It is our fear of the pain that keeps us bound.  Somewhere in the unfolding journey of our lives, we have become convinced that we are terribly and tragically vulnerable.  We have come to believe that there are forces out there that can destroy us, and so we work frantically to preserve the illusion of safety and security in the external world. Perhaps this is why Jesus uses the most intimate human relationships to challenge his audience.

Surely, above all, if we can expect to be sheltered from pain anywhere, we hope that it will be in relationship to “father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters.” Surely in these relationships we should feel safe, protected and supported.  But it never works. Even these intimate deep relationships let us down.

Even “father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters” will at some point become a source of pain. There are always more opportunities for us to experience the fragility of life.  There are always more things that will threaten our sense of security.  There are always more storms on the horizon.  The problem is that we have not truly heard or taken to heart the Good News of Jesus Christ.

The Good News of the Gospel says that there is no pain, no tragedy, no brokenness, no suffering that can overcome the steady faithfulness and love of God that is the presence of Christ in our lives.

On the cross Jesus plumbed the depths of human suffering.  He faced the worst that human beings can do to one another.  He met betrayal, rejection, ridicule, humiliation, abandonment, agonizing physical pain and he triumphed over them all.  He stepped boldly into the worst of all human experiences and transcended all human suffering by his willingness to accept the way of the cross.  In doing so, Jesus opened to us the way of life.  But that way does not pass around the cross.  It does not go over the cross.  The way of life cannot escape or deny the painful realities of life.  The way that is resurrection passes through the darkness.

John’s Gospel says,

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:5)

This means, if you are going to see the light, you must be willing to enter the dark.  It is in the darkness that light is found.  It is not in spite of the pain that we come to life. It is in the very midst of the difficulties and struggles that the light shines.

Every day we face moments of decision.  We are confronted again and again with the fundamental question – do I want to live? Or do I want to avoid pain?  If I truly want to live the life that Jesus lived and that I was created to live, I will never allow anything to get in the way of that living.

And of course there is a tremendous irony in Jesus’ challenge to the crowds.  If I determine that I will not allow anything to get in the way of my fully living my true identity, that is to say, if I am willing to “hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself,” in order to be Jesus’ disciple, then I will find that in fact I am set free to truly love “father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself.”

Love is only love when it is truly free.  As long as I am seeking something from “father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself” I will never really be able to love them.  As long as I seek security or an end to my pain in human relationships, I will never be free to truly love.  The love Jesus demonstrated on the cross is love that simply gives; it simply pours forth.  It does not require anything in return.  It is not a deal we do with anyone.  It simply gives because it is the nature of love to give.

In the next chapter of Luke’s Gospel Jesus tells the story of the Prodigal son.  In this story, a son comes to his father and asks for his inheritance.  The father knows the character of this son; he knows his son will squander his inheritance; but he gives it anyway.  Then when the son has lost everything, is destitute and ruined, he returns to his father hoping to be hired as a slave.  But the father runs down the road to greet his son.  And, before the returning son can say a word the father orders that he be clothed in the finest robe and that a great meal be provided to celebrate his return.  This is the love that can surrender everything for the sake of the beloved.  The father does not stand on ceremony; he does not look for justice.  He does not administer any little moralistic lecture to his wayward son.  He simply embraces him, welcomes him home and celebrates his return.

There is another son in this story.  This second, older son, plays by the rules.  He is the “good” son, the one who never goes astray.  The one who does not let down his father, and has not wasted his father’s goods.  He is the hardworking, moralistic, good guy, the son we all want to have.  When this older son hears that his younger brother’s return is being celebrated with joy, he is resentful and jealous.  He refuses to come into the house and share in the banquet.  When the older son complains to his father about the unfairness of his treatment, the father replies, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” (Luke 15:31) This is the gospel.  This is the good news of Jesus Christ.

God is always with us.  All that is God’s is ours because the Spirit of God dwells within us.  We are filled with the loving presence of God.  There is nothing more we need to know.  It is worth leaving absolutely everything to discover within ourselves this abundant outpouring reality of God.  There is no cost too high to discover within ourselves that love that sets us free and makes it possible for us to live freely in this world.

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