Count the cost. It’s good advice, whether engaging in construction or destruction, whether building or going to war. The picture on our bulletin cover has a man at his abacus, doing the math. Today he’d be at a computer running the numbers on a spreadsheet. Think of how many abandoned projects, how many ill-conceived wars, how many bad business decisions could have been averted by a little preemptive bookkeeping.
Now the temptation in today’s Gospel reading from Luke would be to label this “the cost of discipleship.” Hardly encouraging words! Jesus is talking about hating, yes hating, one’s own family – father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters. Wow! Just when you think that Christians are supposed to be focused on the family, Jesus comes along and says you have to hate your family in order to follow Him. This is definitely one of those passages that the atheist types love to parade around to show how crazy religion, and specifically Christianity, can be. On the one hand you’re supposed to love your enemies, and then on the other hand, you have to hate your family. On the one hand you are commanded to honor father and mother, and then on the other hand, you are told you must hate father and mother along with the rest of clan.
And if that’s not bad enough, it gets even worse. Not only your family, but also your own life. The life God gave you in the first place, the life we cling to with all our, well – life, Jesus now wants you to renounce and even hate in order to be His disciples. It’s a wonder Jesus had any disciples left at all after this. He puts it as bluntly as possible. “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” While crucifixions have fallen from favor as cruel and unusual punishment, the metaphor still holds quite nicely. Crosses kill. They’re inevitably fatal. This isn’t some sort of superficial flesh wound of self-mortification Jesus is talking about here, like giving up chocolate or bacon or cheese for Lent. This is plain as day dropping dead to your entire life – your family, your friends, your health, wealth, loves, and everything you can’t possibly live without. “So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”
We’re not talking inconvenience here. We’re talking dropping dead. We’re not talking about enduring a random insult or having one’s civil rights taken away or having the family disinherit you because you are a Christian. Well, maybe the last part. Jesus is talking about losing your life, everything you are, everything you have, your entire life support system, in order to save your life.
And to drive the point home, He fires off a couple of rhetorical parables about counting the cost. Who among you, desiring to build a tower, or say, a home in the hills, doesn’t count the cost to make sure he has enough to complete the project? And you know the embarrassment when the foundation is laid, the walls are half built and the project comes to a grinding halt due to lack of funds. Karen and I rode our bicycles past such a house in St. Louis when we were living there. Nothing grinds a building project to a halt better or faster than a divorce. Just as the McCourts.
Or, what king goes out to encounter another king in war without first calculating whether his ten thousand troops can stand up to his enemy’s twenty thousand? And if not, then he sends a peace delegation post haste. It’s all pretty much common sense. And so in the same way, in the very words of Jesus, “any one of you who does not renounce all that he has, who does not hate father, mother, husband, wife, children, even his own life, cannot be my disciple.”
Remember to whom Jesus is speaking. The crowds. The great hordes of humanity that were following Jesus all over the place, seeking miracles, favors, special dispensations, and other divine favors because Jesus was dishing them out left and right. There were the looky-los and the religiously curious. There were the theology wonks and people trying to trap Jesus in HIs own words. Jesus couldn’t go anywhere without drawing this sort of crowd. But did they have any idea where He was heading?
Therein lies the key. Jesus is heading to Jerusalem, to His cross, to His atoning death as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He has counted the cost. He’s run the numbers in collaboration with the Father and the Holy Spirit. He was going to depart from the right hand of the Father, empty Himself of HIs divine honor and glory, humble Himself under His own Law as the obedient Servant of the Lord, take up His cross and die on it to redeem lost and sinful humanity from sin, death, devil, and the condemnation of the Law. He was going to build His church, laying the foundation by His own death and resurrection. He was going to do battle with Sin, Death, and devil, not with an army of soldiers willing to die for the cause, but entirely on His own. Not 20,000 versus 10,000 but singlehandedly. He had counted the cost, and did not consider it something to be grasped but laid down His life to save the world.
So while everyone else is bugging Jesus for some little favor to make this life a little easier and a little more convenient and a little less painful and stressful, Jesus was taking up the ultimate battle to win our eternal life with God, to restore fallen humanity to the image of God, to bring us up from death to life. He renounced all – family, friends, wealth, power, influence, His whole life. To save us. To save you.
Jesus counted the cost of your salvation, and considered you worth the price of HIs Blood. Not with gold or silver were you purchased and won for God, but with the holy precious Blood and the innocent suffering and death of Jesus, so that you may be God’s own, a child of God, and live under Him in HIs kingdom, and serve Him in His everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness that He gives you as a free gift of His grace.
Here’s the truth: None of us would be disciples of Jesus if we counted the cost. We’d never dig the foundation. We’d never send the troops to battle. We’re dead. Born dead in sin. We can’t free ourselves and no amount of cost accounting and bookkeeping is going to help.
You want to build a tower to God like they tried to do at Babel? Good luck! Our stairways to heaven fall far short of the glory of God and simply become a laughingstock among the religious. You want to do battle with Sin, Death, and devil? You want to deal with the wrath of God under the Law on your own terms? Count the cost, and see if you have enough to justify yourself. You don’t.
Your cross won’t save you. It will kill you. Simply dying doesn’t save you. Dying in Christ is what saves you. Being buried with Christ is what saves you. Being joined to Him through Baptism into His death on His cross saves you. “Hating your life” in this life means letting go of your life as you hold it so that you can receive it as Christ hold it. Renouncing your life means letting go of your control of it recognizing that Christ has better control of it. Hating father and mother, wife and children, brother and sister, does not mean dishonoring them or doing evil to them, or even feeling negatively toward them.
This is not about “hate” the feeling. This is about the two ways of having things – the way of death and the way of life. We can hold things, including our own life, in a death grip, and in the end we will lose everything. Or we can recognize that God in Christ holds these things for us in a way that we cannot, and instead hold everything with an open, dead hand of faith. That’s the way of life- loving the Lord, hearkening to His voice, holding fast to Him in faith. “For He is your life,” as Deuteronomy says.
We die in Christ in order to live. This is what makes us Christians. We die to live. We see the cross of Jesus as an instrument of life, not of death. This is the “salt” that makes us salty, that seasons the world with the savor of Jesus’ death and life. And if we lose that, if we lose the one needful thing, if we lose Jesus’ death and resurrection as the heart and center of what it means to be a disciple, then we are indeed not fit for the soil or the manure pile. And the same holds for the church. A church that doesn’t hold fast to the death and resurrection of Jesus, that focuses on this life, whether family, health, wealth, or whatever, is not worthy of even being tossed on the manure pile for compost. It has lost its saltiness, as much of Christianity in America has, being focused as it is on being comfortable rather than crucified, of saving one’s life rather than losing it, of being a winner rather than a loser.
This is about dying in Jesus in order to live. This is about being crucified with Christ in order to have life to God. This is about the way of life instead of the way of death. Father, mother, son, daughter, husband, wife, brother, sister – they can’t save your life, they can’t give you life. You can’t save your life. Only Jesus can. Only His death and resurrection can do it.
Count the cost of discipleship, and give thanks and praise to Jesus that because of Him, the cost is paid in full.
In the name of Jesus,