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"Now great crowds accompanied Him…" We're not told who they were or why they were following Jesus. Maybe they were curious, or fascinated, or interested, or amused. Some may have hoped He might rally the nation and 'restore honor' and 'turn the nation back to God.' Who knows. Lot's of people have some pretty strange ideas about what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
Jesus seems to want to straighten out some confusion or misunderstanding they have. "And He turned and said to them, if anyone comes after me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes even his own life, he CANNOT BE MY DISCIPLE." "Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me CANNOT BE MY DISCIPLE." "Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has CANNOT BE MY DISCIPLE."
Those are some tough terms. They're harsh and demanding to say the least. Earlier, He had told His followers that, "if your hand or your foot causes you to sin cut it off. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out." The terms of discipleship require a certain, shall we say, 'detachment' from your own body, from your own family, from your own self, from your own possessions, from whatever your own cross might be. All of that will have to go if it comes between you and Jesus. Those are the terms. The point is, you don't get to set the terms of discipleship with Jesus. Jesus sets the terms.
But we don't like those terms. They're too demanding. To paraphrase Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we don't want discipleship that costs us this much. We want a 'cheaper discipleship;' discipleship that costs no more than we can comfortably afford, and that requires minimal sacrifice and involves minimal pain.
Cheap discipleship is wearing the name 'Christian' but having no desire or discipline to come to know Christ by reading and study of the Bible, which is all about Jesus. It's 'church attendance' that never allows the Word of God to actually convict me of my sin and therefore never knows the power of the words of absolution that direct the complete and total forgiveness of almighty God right at me. Cheap discipleship says, "I have been baptized." But ignores the fact that in that water, the Holy Spirit has made my body His temple. It's participation in the Lord's Supper with no real intention to amend my sinful life and no willingness to accept that the Word of God tells me that in the eating and drinking of the bread and wine, Christ is giving me His body and His blood for just that reason. It's a cheap discipleship that leaves worship on Sunday morning and renters daily life as though nothing just happened and nothing has changed.
"Now great crowds accompanied Him, and He turned and said to them" something totally radical. And therein lies our problem with Jesus and our problem with discipleship. We don't like radicals. This is extreme and we reject extremism and we condemn extremists. We like the middle of the road, not too far to the right, not too far to the left. The middle of the road is where it's comfortable. It requires faith, yes, but not blind faith; commitment, but not total commitment; forgiveness, certainly, but not without at least some punishment; grace, but not without having to do my part, as little as that may be. What do we say? "Everything in moderation." When it comes to following Jesus anyway, deep down inside, we're all die-hard moderates.
But what Jesus turns and says to the great crowd accompanying him is, you cannot be my disciple if you insist on living in the middle of the road. Discipleship is living in the extremes.
In our Old Testament reading, we heard Moses pre-echo Jesus. Great crowds were accompanying Moses, and Moses turned and said them, "See, I have set before you life and good, death and evil." Either "love the Lord your God by walking in His ways and keeping his commandments and statues and rules," and live. Or "worship other gods and serve them" and die. "I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse." (Deut.30:15-20).
You can't make it more clear-cut than that. But that's what God's Word does. It cuts right through bone and marrow, joint and tendon and all of the middle ground where love to follow Jesus and pretend we're His disciples.
Jesus instructs John to write to the church in Laodicea radical words. "I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth." (Rev.3:14-15).
Moses told the people that there's no middle ground. It's one extreme or the other. In love, he implores them to "choose life that you may live." And as we know, the people all agreed with Moses and said, "all that you have said, we will do." And we know how that went don't we. Just like it goes with us. We make our vows and our resolutions. We commit our life to Jesus. But then we discover that we haven't counted the cost as well as we should have. We discover that the foundation of our life is made up of some pretty shaky stuff that simply won't support the life that true discipleship requires. Discipleship comes from the same word as discipline and discipline requires sacrifice which involves pain. Sinful ways are simply not acceptable to Jesus no matter how culturally acceptable they may be.
The reason that Jesus' call to discipleship is so radical is because He is so radical. As C.S. Lewis famously puts it, "He is not a tame lion." He warns those who simply accompanying him to get out of the middle of the road because that is not where He is. You're only kidding yourself. Jesus lives and does His work in the extremes; in the extremes of death and the extremes of life.
On the one extreme is His Law that brings death. On the other extreme is His Gospel that gives life. And that's where we must live if we are to be true disciples.
Disciples of Jesus Christ live under the His extreme Law of God, which demands everything from us and judges every sin without mercy. Real discipleship lives under the uncompromising justice of almighty God who is holy, holy, holy and demands that we be holy too. Don't water it down to make it easier to swallow, or soften it to lessen the guilt. Don't try to tame the Law so that it won't completely destroy you but lets you hold out at least a little hope that you're alright with God just the way you are. This is just where Jesus does His radical work of putting your pride and self-righteousness before God to death.
But disciples of Jesus Christ also simultaneously live under the extreme Gospel of God, which demands nothing from us and forgives every sin according to the radical mercy of God in Jesus Christ. This is where Jesus raises you up from extreme death to extreme life. Don't water this down by trying to add your cooperation or even the slightest little something that you have contributed. It was while you were extremely dead in your sins that God made you extremely alive again solely for the sake of Jesus Christ and His blood shed for you. Don't try to tame the gospel.
True discipleship is lived in these extremes. Not in one extreme or the other but in both extremes simultaneously. It requires that you do absolutely everything and it requires that you do absolutely nothing. It costs you absolutely everything you have and it is absolutely free and cannot be bought.
These are the non-negotiable terms that Jesus sets for discipleship. They're harsh and demanding and require sacrifice and suffering and pain. And these are the terms that Jesus Himself keeps perfectly on the cross on our behalf. Jesus submits to the extreme demands of the Law and experiences the extreme death that the Law demands for our sin. Then, after He submitted to the full-strength Law of God, He submitted to the full-strength Gospel of God who raised Him from the dead.
He is the One who has laid the solid foundation, and although they mocked Him for not being able to finish what He began, from His cross-shaped tower He declared, "It is finished." He counted the cost for all of our sins and paid it in full with His precious blood. He is the King who went to war against the prince of this world to establish His peace according to His terms. And all of this, he did by His sacrifice and suffering and death. The cross cost Jesus everything.
But what cost Him everything cost us nothing. And that's the way it has to be. Don't try to water it down. Unless it costs us nothing, then there is still something we must pay before it's really finished. Then, Jesus is only our helper or the one who gets us started on the right way and it's up to us to finish the work. And that puts us right back in the middle of the road again where there is neither Law nor Gospel, neither death nor life, and we are, of all people to be the most pitied.
So, what do we do with all of this? What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus Christ and live on the extremes that cost us both everything and nothing? Let's try this on for size. True discipleship means that in our relationship to God, we live by faith as if there was no Law. And in our relationship to the world, we love our neighbor as if there were no Gospel. We live as if everything pertaining to our salvation depends entirely upon the grace of God towards us, and as if everything pertaining to our neighbor's wellbeing depends entirely upon our love toward him. The one costs us nothing, the other costs us everything.
This is the "salty" life of discipleship that Jesus calls His followers to. The gospel doesn't set us free to do nothing. It empowers us and sets us free to do everything. To love the Lord your God more than your mother and father, spouse and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even your own life; and love your neighbor, that is, your father and mother, your spouse and children, your brothers and sisters, as much as your own life.