Cross of Grace

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Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)

Filtering by Tag: Discipleship

Following Jesus

Luke 14:25-33

Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, "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. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, 'This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.' Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand?

If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.


Accurate or not, I have some pretty clear pictures in my mind about the way it looked when Jesus walked around in this world – when he was being very literally followed from one place to the next. I imagine Jesus, walking around the hills of Galilee, looking a lot like Tiger Woods – not the Beatles or Michael Jackson, but Tiger Woods – making his way around the fairways of Augusta: with throngs of people following him from tee to tee, trying to get a closer look, hoping for a picture, begging for an autograph, waiting for a high five, or even just a glimpse of a fist pump or something.

I picture crowds pressing in on Jesus from all sides, trying to get as close as they could get – trying to get him to look at them, to smile at them, to say something to them. I picture kids on their parents’ shoulders. I picture the Pharisees and leaders of the synagogue watching – with envy, curiosity and suspicion – from a distance. I picture his disciples, moving along with him – like a motley crew of wannabe, impromptu security guards – trying to keep people at arm’s length.

So I imagine it wasn’t always easy being Jesus. Always being followed like that; always being sought out, always being looked for. And I imagine Jesus, the man, got sick of it sometimes. And I think maybe that’s where we find him in this Gospel – which all begins with the notion that “now, large crowds were traveling with him.” “Now.” Like maybe things were suddenly changing for Jesus. Like maybe his popularity had reached a new level that was surprising, even to him.

And I wonder if Jesus had had it. Like, maybe he’d just had enough of the "groupies" … enough of the "fair weather" friend types … enough of the people who followed him out of curiosity or because they were hoping for some sort of personal gain; those who just wanted to take advantage of some sort of “grace by association,” perhaps. I wonder if Jesus had grown weary of the fame seekers… or those who just wanted to test him… or who just wanted to see if he was for real… or who just wanted to prove that he wasn’t.

So I wonder if Jesus isn’t upping the ante with these words today when he lets them all have it – all of those followers – his disciples and whoever else was listening in that crowd. And I imagine them dropping like flies after each declaration. And I imagine Jesus wasn’t a bit surprised to see them go. After all, remember what he said to them:

"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.” Who would stick around for that? Can’t you imagine those on the fringes just sort of slowing down and drifting away and letting the crowd move along without them?

And then he says, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” The cross!? An instrument of torture and death?! An invitation to die for the good of the cause?! An invitation to the ultimate sacrifice and suffering?! Can’t you envision even more of that crowd falling away, then, remembering they had something else they needed to do that afternoon?

And then he adds, “…none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” And don’t you think this was a deal-breaker for even more of the wannabes in that crowd? That that must have sent them away, if they hadn’t gone already. “All of your possessions” is easy math, even for me. All is all, after all. What about that lamb they were going to buy for the Passover… or that new pair of sandals… or their daughter’s wedding they’d been saving for? All of it, Jesus?

Jesus couldn't make it any more plain to those who were listening and following him on that particular day. He told them he was more important than family… that allegiance to him meant suffering and sacrifice… that becoming his disciple meant getting rid of all the “stuff” and the “things” the world says are were worth something.

And Jesus’ words should get our attention, because that was and is their intention – nothing more and nothing less. Discipleship is about commitment. This life of faith means to impact all of the people and priorities and possessions that make up a life. Discipleship isn’t easy or safe or comfortable every step of the way. It can be risky. It can even be dangerous, when you do it well. And who wants to follow someone toward all of that?

But, think about any meaningful relationship you’ve ever had – a marriage, a friendship, your investment in a child, your connection to a parent or a teacher or a coach. Haven’t those relationships demanded something of you? Haven’t those relationships required some sacrifice? Some struggle, even? Some giving, maybe, more often than you’d like or ever thought you could? But haven’t those relationships been rewarding… fulfilling… life-giving in the end?

I don’t have a cute analogy or a funny story or an illustration for all of this, this time around. I guess what I’m seeing in Jesus this morning, is our God offering this kind of love and generosity and faithfulness to the world, looking for some measure of the same, in return. And not because Jesus or God need it, to do what God, in Jesus, was about to do. Where would the grace be in that.

But Jesus invites us into this relationship because he knows what a gift it is and will be for us, when we get it right; how rewarding… how fulfilling… how life-giving and world-changing this kind of love and generosity and faithfulness can be for those who practice it – and for the world who would see and be blessed by it, in the end.

This passage always shows up in the fall sometime, like today, when we are getting ready to begin another season full of more opportunities for worship, more opportunities for education, more opportunities for fellowship, and more opportunities to help make it all happen – and I happen to think that “following Jesus” means helping to make it all happen. And I think the severity of Jesus’ words are perfectly timed for us in that regard, and I can’t help but think Jesus knew what he was doing – way back then for all of those listening, and even now, for you and me.

I can’t help but wonder if Jesus talked about giving away all of our possessions – because then a tithe – 10% – or even more – would seem like the pittance it is by comparison.

And I can’t help but wonder if Jesus talked about carrying a cross, if he raised up the notion of the ultimate sacrifice – because then we might consider teaching Sunday School or serving in the nursery or signing up for a Bible Study or cleaning the church building from a different, more humble, grateful-hearted, willing sort of perspective.

And I can’t help but wonder if Jesus talked so shockingly about hating your father and mother, your wife and children, your brothers and sisters – because that would make loving your enemies a little bit more palatable and possible for the likes of you and me.

Let’s not forget that there was a time when no one followed Jesus. There was one place Jesus walked – utterly alone and completely uninterrupted. There was a day when Jesus made his way through the streets and out of the city and up a hill and to the cross. On that day, no one followed. No one reached out. No one cared to shake his hand. No one tried to catch his eye.

And let’s remember how blessed we are to be here, now, together following – receiving more than we could ask for, more than we deserve and more than we can ever even think about paying back.

Here we are together following, trying our best to be disciples – offering ourselves, our time, and our possessions – free to give away more than we ever thought we could do without. Free to give away “things” and “stuff” and time and energy and love and grace and mercy and hope and joy – because our lives and the world will be blessed and better for it, when we do.

Amen

Practical, Holy, Middle Road of Grace

John 21:19-30

After these things, Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias. This is how he showed himself to them. Gathered there were Simon Peter, Thomas who was also called the Twin, Nathaniel of Cana in Galilee, the Sons of Zebedee and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” And they went and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Just after daybreak, Jesus came and stood on the shore, but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. He said to them, “My children, you haven’t any fish, have you?” They said to him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” So they cast it and they were not able to haul in the net because it was full of so many fish. The disciple whom Jesus loved said to Simon Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was Jesus, he put on some clothes for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. The others went in the boat, bringing with them the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land; only about a hundred yards off.

When they had come ashore, they saw a charcoal fire with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring with you some of the fish you just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, one hundred fifty-three of them. But even though there were so many fish, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.”

Now, none of them dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they new that it was Jesus. He came and took the bread and gave it to them and he did the same thing with the fish. This was the third time he had appeared to them since he had been raised from the dead.

After they had eaten breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter said to him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time, Jesus said to him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter said to him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” A third time, Jesus said to him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter, upset that he had asked him a third time, “Do you love me?,” said to him, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. When you were a child, you used to fasten your own belt and go wherever you chose to go. But when you grow old you will stretch out your arms and others will fasten a belt around you and lead you to places that you may not choose to go.” (He said this in order to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) And when he had said this, he said to him, “Follow me.”


That’s a lot of Gospel for today, considering the small portion at the end of it all that I want to look at.  I don’t want to talk about the fishing or the breakfast or the net that didn’t tear or why in the world Peter fishes naked.  I just want to look at that last little bit where Jesus talks about Simon Peter’s youth, his old age, and then invites him, simply, to “Follow me.”

I got an invitation, a week or so ago, to attend my college roommate’s daughter’s high school graduation. … I wish you were as surprised by that as I was. People, this means I have a friend who has a daughter that’s graduating from high school in just a few weeks. This means his daughter is an adult. This means my friend is old enough to be the Father of an adult. This means – I think – that I’m old enough to be the Father of an adult. Theoretically.

My friend’s birthday was a couple days after the invitation came and we were texting back and forth about the surprise of it all – about how old he is; about what our kids are up to; and I wondered about whether I would/could/should try to make it over to Ohio, for the graduation party.

It may seem strange to you – and a stretch – but I thought about that invitation when I read about the one from Jesus to Peter at the end of this long Gospel story. I connected the two because of the way Jesus compares Peter’s younger days to the old age he knows is coming.

See, this friend of mine who’s old enough to be throwing a graduation party for his daughter is a fraternity brother of mine, and there was a time when one of us would call about a party and there was no wishful thinking or debate, even, about “would,” or “could,” or “should” we make it to that party. The answer was always “yes,” and “when,” and “where” or “I’ll be right over.” Just like Jesus told Simon Peter: when we were young we fastened our own belts, we made our own plans, we did our own thing; and we did it all when and how and where and if we wanted to – or not.

Nowadays, of course, there are spouses to consult, and calendars to check, and children to consider, and careers to manage. And all of that is nothing, really, to the way it will be one day, for so many of us, I know. Jesus goes on to point to a different future for Peter, too, when he predicts the way he’ll die – with his arms outstretched, being led around by people and taken to places he won’t choose for himself.

We won’t all die martyrs, led around in the way Jesus warns Peter about, but if you’ve ever cared for an aging parent, or tended to a sick loved-one, visited a nursing home, even, or if that kind of future isn’t too far off or too hard to imagine for you, you know what it means to be at the mercy of others – whether you like it or want it or need it or not.

So after Jesus imagines both of these extremes for Peter – the freedom of his youth, on one hand, and the hardship of his later years, on the other – I wonder if he isn’t suggesting a holy, middle road of grace, somewhere in between the two, when he says then, simply, “Follow me.” It seems Jesus is inviting Peter – and the rest of us, whether we’re 1 or 100 – to a holy road, somewhere in the meantime; somewhere between our own way and our own wishes at one extreme, and the way and the wishes of the world around us, at the other.

And it seems to me, that middle road of grace looks something like the life of faith and the way of discipleship we’re all trying to follow as Christian people on the planet.

Between what used to be and what is to come – in the meantime – “Follow me,” Jesus says.  In the meantime, find the middle way of God’s love and “feed my lambs.”  In the meantime, don’t rely fully on your own understanding…don’t follow every whim and every way that feels good to you…don’t just do your own thing, especially if it’s done at the expense of someone else.  In the meantime, feed my lambs – follow me.  In the mean time, tend my sheep – follow my way.  In the meantime, feed my sheep – follow my will …and your life will be blessed and better because of it.

This middle road of discipleship is one of those ways, for me, where God’s call for us is as holy as it is practical. And this middle road is one of the ways this life of discipleship can be as comforting as it is challenging. This middle road, in the meantime, calls us to do some amazing things by the world’s estimation – like love one another, like forgive our enemies, like turn the other cheek; like choose humility over pride; like choose grace instead of judgment; like choose peace instead of war; generosity instead of greed, forgiveness instead of grudges, and more.

And there are some strikingly practical ways to go about this – practical ways to follow Jesus, I mean – practical ways to feed his lambs, to tend his sheep and whatnot. We talk about them as “Marks of Discipleship” around here when we talk about “GROWing in the Word,” “SHARING our money,” “TELLing others the good news,” “PRAYing daily,” “WORSHIPing regularly,” and “GIVING of our time and abilities.” And these marks of discipleship – each of these ways of following Jesus – are as practical as they are holy.

I don’t want to debrief each of them now, but I do want to tell you what I mean about this practical… holy… “in the meantime” sort of stuff with a few examples.

In my younger days, giving financially was never a priority – and seemed an impossibility, really. My money was my money and I did what I wanted, when I wanted, and how I wanted with every penny of it. And, to be honest, it was rarely faithful, hardly wise, and never did a thing for anyone else but me.

But I’ve learned over the years – ever since I’ve seen it work in my own life and around here – that the practice of tithing (giving 10% or more of your income away for the work of the Church in the world) is as practical as it is holy. It’s a discipline. It’s a practice. It’s following God’s way. And when we do it…if we do it…not only do we “feed some sheep” as we go, we also gain a holy perspective about how much we really need, how much we actually have, and about how God blesses us with every bit of whatever that is – not just for us, but for the world around us, too.

And, like I said, giving money is just one of the many ways we try to follow Jesus, around here.

If we pray daily we’ll eventually stop praying for our own concerns and our own needs. We’ll begin to pray for others and we’ll learn to listen to God’s power and presence in our lives and be informed and encouraged by that day in and day out.  (Even the call to prayer is as practical as it is holy.)

If we use our God-given abilities – our musical gifts, our artistic craftiness, our knack for teaching children, our skills with woodworking or tools, our love for the written word, our penchant for a hard day’s work, whatever – for the sake of the kingdom, we become more of who God created us to be and the world is blessed, and fed, and changed because of it.  (Again, this following Jesus stuff is practical and it’s holy, when we get it right.)

My point is, when it comes to following Jesus, to living life as disciples, we can act like children (or fraternity brothers, for that matter!) – doing what we want, when we want, thinking only of ourselves, acting only for our own benefit and blessing.  And we can do all of that until it’s too late, until the time comes when we can’t do anything anymore – for ourselves or for anybody else. But Jesus invites us today, just like he did Peter, in the wake of Easter’s resurrection, to follow a better way; a different way; a holier way; a practical way, too – right here and right now – that benefits us and that blesses the world, all at the same time.

And all of this following – the way, for followers of the crucified, resurrected and living Jesus – is meant to be a way we choose – not because we have to, but because we get to – to be accountable to the God of our creation; to be beholden to the maker of heaven and earth.

It’s like choosing to be accountable to someone you love – a good friend, a husband, a wife, a child…it’s not always easy; it’s not always fun; sometimes it requires more than you feel like you have to give; it takes work; it requires sacrifice; it demands selflessness; it can change you from the inside out. But once you choose that kind of accountability – or once it chooses you – your life, your way, will never be the same.

And all of this is something like what the good news of Easter means to do for us.  When Jesus started showing up for those disciples after his death and resurrection (behind locked doors, like he did last week, and on beaches for breakfast, like he does this morning) he was reminding them – revealing to them and to the world – that God had chosen to do this amazing thing: to love and to redeem and to save the whole lot of us from the beginning of our lives, until the end, and even throughout eternity. 

And God’s great hope is that, in the meantime, because of God’s choice to love us, we might choose to love God back – to travel this middle road of grace and faith and discipleship – to be blessed by the journey, and to bless the world in return.

Amen

All Rights Reserved. Background image by Aaron Stamper. © Cross of Grace Lutheran Church.