Great Themes of the Bible (#10 - Discipleship)

"Anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple."

My father taught me: "Son, there are no free lunches." I wonder if we should hang that sign over the Lord's Supper? The redemption we commemorate in Holy Communion certainly wasn't free to him. How dare we think we can eat the bread and drink the wine of that communion meal and not pay a price for doing so.

Discipleship is a costly thing. If it isn't to be taken seriously in my life, I would give God more honor by not paying lip-service to it. A theology that minimizes the commitment involved in following Jesus belies the significance of both Jesus' cross and our own.

The Gospel of Grace

"But what are you saying about the gospel?" someone asks. "Aren't we saved by the grace of God? Doesn't that mean that salvation is a ‘free gift' to us?" In terms of its provision, salvation from sin is indeed free to us. Heaven paid the price for our redemption at the cross of Jesus. In terms of accepting and living out its implications, however, the gospel is hardly free at all. It demands everything one can give in return.

Across the ages of Christian history, we may have produced far more consumers of religion than true disciples. So we buy gold-edged Bibles, listen to Christian music, and attend user-friendly churches. Yet our lives are not particularly upright or civil — much less Christ-like. Every bonus or raise signals the possibility of a bigger house or luxury car instead of greater generosity. We think we have achieved a great moral victory simply in not cheating on our income taxes or our wives. If we are generally pleasant and polite, we judge ourselves to be Christians.

"When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die," wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer. When Jesus called you to follow him, he didn't call you to pleasantries and politeness. He called you to join him in battling against the spiritual forces of darkness that war against the human soul. He called you to step into the breach to battle for what is holy, pure, and just. To do that, I have to die to sin and self-will. You have to be willing to suffer for what you believe. Occasionally, as with Bonhoeffer, Christ's call means physical death.

The Crowds Were Large

In our text for today, Luke notes that "large crowds were traveling with Jesus" (v.25). The carpenter from the backwater town of Nazareth was a howling success. The crowds were big and getting bigger. So Jesus turned around to the huge crowd and said, "You'd better think seriously about this! If you go with me into Jerusalem, it will be dangerous. If you follow me to the end, it could cost you your life. In fact, if you take what I've been saying seriously, it will cost you your life — if not at Jerusalem, in your home or classroom or workplace."

Anyone who comes to me but refuses to let go of father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters — yes, even one's own self! — can't be my disciple. Anyone who won't shoulder his own cross and follow behind me can't be my disciple. . . . Simply put, if you're not willing to take what is dearest to you, whether plans or people, and kiss it goodbye, you can't be my disciple. . . . Are you listening to this? Really listening? (Luke 14:26-27, 33, 35b, The Message).
Jesus illustrates his meaning as he moves along in these verses. Would you start building a house without sitting down first and figuring the cost? How embarrassing to start such a project and not be able to finish it (vs. 28-30). Can you imagine a king going into battle against an enemy army without calculating his manpower and weaponry? He'd be foolish to do it (vs. 31-33).

You and I are supposed to count the cost of being Jesus' disciples, but some of us have been misled into thinking there's no cost involved, that this is a "free lunch." Well, my friend, you've got another think coming!

Discipleship and Discipline

We must rise above the temptation to trivialize both Jesus' cross and our own. We must learn to make disciples instead of what one writer dubbed "inspiration junkies" out of Christians. People who are serious about following Jesus understand that there is a relationship between discipleship and discipline.

Warning bells go off in some of us when we hear such language, for it is has been used to mask and convey pharisaism, legalism, and self-righteousness. On the other hand, some have recoiled from it into a defense of moral indulgence.

The Christian alternative to Pharisaism is not Publicanism but costly discipleship. The laxity of the Publican is just as repugnant to God as the self- righteousness of the Pharisee. In the parable it is not the Publican as such but the repentant Publican who is praised.[1]
There was once a thirteen-year-old boy who wanted to be a musician. He envisioned being cheered on stage, being admired by huge crowds, and raking in millions of dollars. Then he found out it would take hours of practice every week over a long period of time to learn to play and perform; he decided he didn't want to be a musician after all. So a year later he decided instead that he would be not a rock star but an athlete. He saw himself in the NBA, envisioned a $10-million per year contract, and beautiful women fawning over him. So he went to the basketball coach and told him he wanted to join the team. When he learned about practicing every day, running laps, and staying in shape during the off-season, he decided he didn't really want to be an athlete either. And so on with fantasized careers in medicine, law, and business. They would require too many years in school, too many hours in the library and lab, too long an interval between decision and payoff. So he didn't do any of those things.

He is a very unhappy man today. Most of the regret he verbalizes seems to focus on the things he never tried to do, the sacrifices he couldn't bring himself to make, and the waste he thinks he has made of his life.

Conclusion

Three military recruiters were to address a high school class to tell them about options in America's armed forces. There was a rigid 45-minute time limit for the assembly, and each recruiter would have no more than fifteen minutes for his pitch. The Army recruiter went first and became so absorbed in his task that he talked for over twenty minutes. Not to be outdone, the Navy recruiter spoke for twenty minutes too.

The Marine Corps recruiter, realizing that his speaking time had been cut to five minutes, walked up to the podium and spent the first 60 seconds in silence. Wordlessly, he gazed over the group of high school seniors. They knew he was sizing them up. After what seemed to be an eternity, the recruiter said, "I doubt whether there are two or three of you in this room who could cut it as Marines. I want to see those three men as soon as this assembly is dismissed." He then turned on his heel and sat down. Predictably, he was mobbed by a herd of young men when he arrived in the cafeteria.[2]
Jesus hasn't issued a call for "consumers of religion" or "inspiration junkies." Discipleship isn't something to be "talked into"; it is the divine challenge that makes everything about life on Planet Earth meaningful. Jesus has called for a few devoted men and women who will join him in the difficult task of building his church. They must be willing to be misunderstood by unbelievers always and by fellow-believers at times. They will always be under attack from an invisible-yet-powerful enemy. They may see no fruit from their labors, and their full reward will never come in this life. It may cost them everything and everybody they once held dear.

Crosses aren't "user friendly." They kill people! And until we are ready to die with him, it is sacrilege to claim we are following the Christ of the cross. My Father in Heaven has taught me that there are no free lunches in his kingdom.

[1]Donald G. Bloesch, "Theological Notebook I," Christianity Today (Vol. 40, No. 2).
[2]Steve Farrar, Point Man (Portland: Multnomah Press, 1990), p. 47.

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