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Sermons: The Cost of Discipleship

a meditation on Luke 9:18-23

Jesus said to them all: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me." (Luke 9:23)

The trouble with many of us who call ourselves Christians is that we expect Jesus to do all the dying.

There’s nothing particularly new about this. Thomas Kempis, the author of the classic medieval work of Christian devotion, The Imitation of Christ, made a famous observation along just such lines:

Jesus hath now many lovers of his kingdom but few bearers of his cross. He hath many that are desirous of consolation, but few of tribulation. All desire to rejoice with him, but few are willing to suffer for this sake.

So I guess it has always been the same. Most of us become Christians for essentially selfish reasons; because of some felt need that we want Jesus to satisfy or some blessing we want him to provide.

When Peter confessed Jesus as "the Christ of God" (Luke 9:20) it was, in all probability, a highly politicised image of messianic kingship that filled his mind. Like so many in Israel, he hoped Jesus would end Israel’s national humiliation by winning a military victory over the forces of imperialism. That’s why it came as such a mind-numbing shock when he and the others heard him respond by predicting his coming death. They simply were not ready for a crucified Messiah. And it must have been even more disturbing when he followed that grim news with the additional chilling observation that his disciples must be prepared to face the same painful and premature end themselves. Little wonder Luke tells us a little later that the disciples experienced a kind of collective mental block about it all.

They did not understand what it meant... and they were afraid to ask (Luke 9:45)

Who can blame them? It is a depressing enough thought that Jesus himself should choose the path of suffering. But for many of us it defeats the whole object of our decision to become Christians if he insists that we should tread that unhappy path with him. But that is the way things are. You and I cannot follow Jesus on the condition that he does all the dying. If we want to be Christians there will be sacrifices that must be made; there will be pain that must be accepted; there is a price that must be paid. Jesus himself made that quite plain and urged all prospective disciples to weigh it carefully.

We must not misunderstand Jesus on the point. The cost of discipleship to which he often refers is not a fee that heaven charges for an entrance ticket. There is no way we can purchase eternal life by deeds of religious devotion, no matter how heroic. No, this cost that Jesus talks about is simply a consequence of having our life and destiny linked to his. Personal relationships never come cheap. You hold another person’s hand and you promise to love them and stick by them no matter what. Neither of you knows when you take such unconditional words on your lips what that vow will cost you... but cost you it will, and potentially that cost could be huge. It is the same with Jesus. He did not come to solicit customers. He called disciples—people who were prepared to make an unconditional commitment to him personally, and to be faithful to that commitment even to the point of death itself.

I fear we Christians don’t talk enough about that side of things, probably because we don’t like to think about it too much. It takes a lot of faith to believe that you achieve more in the long-term through sacrifice and humility than through aggression and self-assertion. As I say, our problem is that we want Jesus to do all the dying.

Jesus hath now many lovers of his kingdom but few bearers of his cross

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