As we are fast-approaching Easter, I will be focusing on the theme of The Journey to Easter for the next five Sundays. Each week we will study some of the events that take place as Jesus draws close to Jerusalem, the crucifixion, and the resurrection. Some of them will be very familiar, and some, perhaps, less so.
This week’s Scripture passage is probably not one we generally associate with the Easter story, but it is an important preface to the final stage of the ministry of Jesus, and before this passage we see where he was butting heads with the religious leaders. This is what we might call the “fine print” of Jesus’ teaching, and it is very important fine print.
25 Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said:
26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.
27 And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
28 “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it?
29 For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you,
30 saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’
31 “Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand?
32 If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace.
33 In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.
34 “Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?
35 It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; it is thrown out. “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”
Do we have any “fine print” readers here this morning? We’ve all received mailings that promise great deals, espcially at Christmas, where a flyer might advertise a computer or large screen TV for an outrageously low price, but in the fine print it will say only one per store, or includes no monitor, hard drive, software or anything you actually need to make a computer work. I especially like the car commercials, that advertise a car for $99 a month and no money down. But the announcer at the end goes through the disclaimers so fast that you can’t hear them say, offer applies only to people who are filthy rich and make a down payment of $30,000.
Our Scripture passage for this morning is one we might call the fine print of the gospel. It’s very easy to focus on the Scriptural passages of comfort, encouragement, and beauty. This is not one of those passages. It is a tough and difficult passage, reminding us that life – and faith – can be very difficult. Jesus was never one to underestimate either the difficulty of life or the difficulty of faith. At this point in his ministry Jesus was drawing large crowds, and he seems to come to a point where he wants people to understand that there is an element of faith that is very challenging. In these verses he is careful to present the plain truth to his followers. Truth is not always easy to hear, but we can be grateful that Jesus did not “sugar coat” the facts about life and faith.
Jesus is talking about building a life of faith that will stand the test of time and the test of any challenge, so how does a person build the kind of faith to last, and to stand the test of time?
By Building a Strong Foundation.
In front of our house, on our small farm, was a field extending a couple hundred yards to the road. About half the length of that field, just on the other side of the property line, was the foundation of a never-completed house. As kids, we liked to play around that foundation, which had the block walls in place and the openings for doors and windows. It was a great fort for our pretend adventures. The foundation, obviously, had been there a long time, as there were trees growing in the middle of it and also out of the mounds of dirt that had long ago been piled up in order to level the ground. Many times over the years I wondered about that foundation. Why was it never completed? Did they run out of money? Did they move? No one in our neighborhood that I asked seemed to have any idea. It was a visible reminder of the words of Jesus, that anyone building a tower must first calculate the cost so they can determine whether or not they have the finances to complete the project.
Building a foundation of faith is a lot like building a house. You have to have a good foundation if it is going to last across the years. Building that foundation takes work, it takes sweat and effort. It is much more than just memorizing a few rules and regulations that allow a person to give a “correct” theological answer. If you can’t build an adequate foundation, it is impossible to build a strong building.
I believe there should be disclaimers on some things, such as a marriage certificate, saying sometimes things will be difficult. There should be a disclaimer on faith as well. Perhaps that is what Jesus does in this passage – he is providing a disclaimer. He is saying it will be difficult to follow him. He certainly could have added that it can be dangerous to be his follower as well. Reading through the book of Acts we certainly see the danger that befell the apostles. Every one of the twelve, with the exception of John, was martyred for their faith. Reading through the book of Acts things become dangerous for the church in general. We read of the apostles being imprisoned, and of the first Christian martyr of record, Stephen. As we progress through the book of Acts we read of the looming trial of Paul, in Rome, where he was eventually martyred for his faith. The early centuries of the church is filled with periods of persecution of the followers of Jesus. It continues today. In parts of our world it remains very dangerous to be a follower of Jesus, and some estimate that more people are martyred for their faith in the 21st century than any other period in the history of the church. China, where the church is booming, is cracking down in increasingly harsh ways as a way to inhibit the growth of the church. The government of China – officially atheistic – has tried to stop the church but is unable to do so. In about twenty years China will have more Christians than any other country, in spite of persecution. The followers of Jesus in such areas are well aware of the dangers of being a follower of Jesus. We are blessed – so blessed – that we are not persecuted for our faith. I know that some people say Christians are persecuted in our country but we have no idea what persecution really looks like, certainly when compared to the parts of our world where being a follower of Jesus can put one at risk of death.
Jesus wanted people to carefully consider the implications of faith to their lives, and what it meant to follow him. What would they do when they discovered it might bring difficulty upon them? What would they do when they discovered he was not interested in becoming a political messiah? What would they do when they discovered they would not receive everything they wanted and their lives are not magically made simpler and easier?
This is similar to the 3rd or 4th date, when people begin to consider is this “the” person? Can I spend my life with them? Can I pledge my life to this person? Or is it merely infatuation. Love and infatuation are very different. There were probably some people who were merely infatuated with Jesus.
Be Remaining Faithful, Even When Life and Faith Are Tough.
My MacBook is now six years old. Last fall, I went into the Apple store to ask a question about fixing a problem and they referred to it as “vintage.” Vintage? At the time it was less than six years old, so what does that make me? Ancient? I don’t mean to pick on a business, but Apple is the world’s most valuable company and they will certainly not be harmed by my critique. I don’t like dealing with their stores. When I walk into an Apple store to ask for help, they imply that I’m old. I asked them a very basic question, looking to fix something, and they kept telling me that I should just bring my computer in for them to take a look. I finally realized they were implying that I was too old to understand how to fix it myself.
But here is the reality – companies don’t want their products to last very long. Are you familiar with the concept of “planned obsolescence”? Planned obsolescence is the idea that manufacturers “plan” for their products to last for a shorter period of time so they can sell more products. Imagine a care that lasts fifty years, an appliance that lasts sixty years, and clothing that not only lasted, but stayed in style, for several generations. If products last a long time, sales decline. When Tanya and I married, her parents gave us a washer and dryer set, and they lasted almost twenty-five years. The next set lasted only five or six. Our third set, that we just purchased, will hopefully last longer.
We live in an era of disposability and impermanence, and in a disposable, impermanent society, everything is in danger of becoming merely temporary and disposable. The question that lurks behind this passage, does anything last? And, sadly, we learn by experience that not everything does last, and I’m not talking about products, but much deeper and more important things, such as relationships. Even love, sadly, can become temporary. Not every relationship survives. Not every friendship survives. Not every marriage survives. Not every person’s faith survives.
What lasts? Jesus talks about building a faith that lasts, and moving beyond the temporariness of so much of life. There are, certainly, a lot of fads that capture our imagination, and these influence our attitudes just the same as so many of the other temporary and impermanent things of life. If you are around my age, you may remember “Pet Rocks.” Where else, but in American, can someone get rich by selling us what we can pick up for free in our backyards. But even in the spiritual realm we can get caught up in fads. Remember the WWJD bracelets from not too many years ago? It was quite a big fad. What Would Jesus Do? Well, for starters, he probably wouldn’t get caught up in a fad.
Build a strong spiritual foundation to your life.
In this passage, Jesus is not telling us we need to hate our families. Those first verses can be a bit of a jolt, because the language sounds so strong – If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple – that they are sometimes misunderstood. The language Jesus uses in those verses is his way of framing the deepest kind of love we can imagine. It is the deepest, greatest love of all – the love we call agape, which is the divine love of God. This is the love to which we aspire, and compared to the often stumbling, limited human love, the love of God, by way of comparison, makes all other loves seem very slight indeed. It is a divine love that lifts us above the pettiness, the conflicts, and the struggles of life. It is a love that allows us to love the unlovable and forgive the unforgiveable. It is the love that enables someone to sacrifice for another – even to the point of laying down their life, as did Jesus. It is extremely challenging, yes, but this is the love to which we are called.
When I was in college, a friend of mine spent a summer working in Eastern Europe. This was the late 70s, when the Soviet Union still dominated that part of the world and the Berlin Wall divided Germany. He worked with some house churches that met in secret because of the persecution in that part of the world. When he returned to school in the fall he told us some amazing stories. One story was about a young man who wanted to join a church. The church met in the attic of a home, and worshipped in secret. On an evening when my friend met with them, the young man expressed his desire to live a life of faith and to join their small fellowship. What do we do when someone wants to make a profession of faith and join a church? We gladly receive them and celebrate their decision. My friend told us of how this group responded, which was very different from our experience. Instead of receiving him with joy and celebrating his decision, they placed him in the midst of their small circle and asked if he was sure that he wanted to take such a step. Did he understand that he might lose his job because of his decision? Did he understand that his family might turn their backs on him? It was as if they were trying to talk him out of his decision. But this was a group that could understand the words of Jesus in today’s passage. They had not only read the small print; they understood the reality of the small print.
Don’t ever underestimate the reality of hatred and evil in this world. We hear of it ever day and sometimes we experience it. Hatred and evil has, and always will, push back against love, especially God’s love. It is not always easy to be a follower of Jesus, and in some parts of our world, it is difficult and very dangerous. We must pray for our brothers and sisters who live in such difficult circumstances, and we must be certain and build a foundation for our faith that will see us through until the end.