Imagine that you have gone into town to purchase lumber. While they are loading your truck, you step around the corner to grab a bite to eat. After getting your food, you sit down and begin eating. Even though this is Ramadan, you are a Christian, so there is nothing wrong with you eating in middle of the day. However, you live in a predominantly Muslim area. So as you eat, a group of Muslim youth surround you, demanding to know why you are not following the fasting rules. They guess that you are a Christian and begin beating you. One pulls a knife, stabbing you in the neck, arm and face.
This is the cost of discipleship as experienced on June 8th by Francis Emmanuel, a Nigerian believer. He knows what it means to be “all in”.
Imagine that you live in Chaingbai, China. Your father is a pastor. He is sympathetic to the plight of Christian refugees from North Korea -a country which is at the top of the list of the countries which most persecute Christians. Secretly your father has been assisting these refugees. However, North Korean operatives discover that your father is helping them. He is attacked and hacked to death as a warning to others not to assist North Koreans fleeing persecution.
This is the cost of discipleship experienced by a Pastor named Han and his family, also in June of this year. Pastor Han understood what it meant to be “all in.”
Finally imagine that you are a Pakastani Christian. You offer a cup of water to a coworker. Your co-worker knows that you are a Christian, while she is a Muslim. Because you touched the water, it is now haram or forbidden to a Muslim. You are told to convert to Islam to cleanse yourself of your ritual impurity. You, being a disciple of Jesus, refuse. Your refusal is considered an insult to Islam. You are imprisoned and held for almost 6 years. If your appeal to the Paskistani high court is lost, you will be executed.
This is the Cost of Discipleship for Asia Bibi who will have her appeal heard by the Pakistani high court in October. As of this moment, she is imprisoned. Asia Bibi is “all in.”
Each month 322 Christians are killed for their faith, 214 Churches or Church properties are destroyed, and 772 forms of violence including beatings, rape, and torture are carried out against Christians. Over 75% of the world’s Christians, representing over 60 countries, live in places where to be a Christian means a serious risk or serious persecution. (all stories and statistics, OpenDoorsUSA.org)
I offer these stories as real-life illustrations of a principle we see Jesus clearly holding up before us in today’s Gospel -the Cost of Discipleship.
This isn’t a very popular topic, but it is a crucial one.
J.C. Ryle says this about today’s Gospel lesson, “It costs something to be a true Christian. To be a mere nominal Christian, and go to church is cheap and easy work. But to hear Christ’s voice, and follow Christ, and believe in Christ, and confess Christ, requires much self-denial. It will cost us our sins, and our self-righteousness, and our ease, and our worldliness. All -all must be given up.” (Ryle, J.C. Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, page 126)
Let’s dive in to the Gospel.
Hate Your Family?
Let’s start at verse 25: “Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”
This is a pretty startling passage. It’s startling because it’s not the most user friendly way to get someone to follow you! This is not the winsome, come-to-me and your life is going to be all rosy and easy sales pitch. It’s quite the opposite. It’s a demanding call. In fact, it’s an absolute and unwavering call. And to Jesus this is basic discipleship!
The first thing to understand is that Jesus is calling for is absolute devotion, the highest place in the order of lives.
Is he really calling us to “hate” our families? Would Jesus call us to break the 5th commandment which says we are to honor our father and our mother? That doesn’t seem to make sense. So what is Jesus saying? The expression he is using was a Jewish way of comparing love between two things. It is a Biblical way of expressing preference. The call is to love Him to the extent that all other loves pale by comparison. It is a call to absolute and unswerving devotion.
Consider Matthew 22, where a man comes to Jesus and says, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he [Jesus] said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
What might this look like? As an example, it might look like having a difficult discussion within your family about right and wrong. It may mean saying, “I know that society around you is saying that living together before marriage is perfectly fine and accepted and normal. But we are Christian and that is not the way we believe God desires us to live.” It may mean saying, “Sorry dear, but sports should not trump our commitment to worship. We don’t go to church only when we have nothing else to do or just when you are on the schedule to do something. We go to worship to keep the Sabbath and because we have a duty to worship our God. He is the highest priority.” It may well mean saying, “Instead of spending that money on ourselves, let’s give sacrificially to the needs of the poor or the persecuted or to missions.”
There are an infinite number of ways this can play out in our Christian walk, but at its core it means setting our priorities with Christ at the very top of the list.
So the question before us is: Do we have that kind of love for him? Do we want that kind of love for him?
Take Up Your Cross
In the next verse, Jesus takes the commitment to discipleship even further. Look at verse 27. Jesus says, “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”
This would not just a part of speech in Jesus’ day. It was a very real event and distinct possibility. To take up your cross is to allow your love for Christ and his priority in your life to be so high, that you would literally follow him to your death. That’s what it means to take up your cross.
I wonder if it was about here in Jesus’ teaching that one of the Disciples tugged on Jesus’ sleeve and asked, “Jesus, are you trying to talk people into following you or into not following you?!” I mean this is, in many ways, is the worst evangelistic speech ever!
We live in a time and in a place where this demand, right now, is not very likely to play out. But as I outlined at the beginning, there are many places around the world where it is a very real possibility. And who knows? It could come to that for us as well. But even if literal martyrdom is not our calling, we are called to die all the same. To die to ourselves. To die to our wants and preferences. To die to our agendas. To die to everything other than Him. This is Jesus calling us to complete and utter abandonment –even to the abandonment of ourselves. It is a call to be “all in”.
Why all this talk about abandonment and cost? Because, beloved this is the truth. Jesus himself said in John 15:20, “Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” And St. Paul said it in 2 Timothy 3:12, “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”
David Platt has noted that, “The more our lives are conformed to His, the more we will receive what He received in this world.” (Platt, Radical, Multnomah, 2010, page 167)
Count the Cost
This is precisely why Jesus says what he does in the next verses as he calls would-be followers of his to truly count the cost:
“For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace.” (Luke 14:28-32)
Jesus obviously knows that he is asking a lot of his followers, in fact he is asking for everything. So he counsels us against quick, emotionally-based decisions. He tells us to count the cost just as a builder would or as leader of an army would.
Modern Christianity has focused so much on making discipleship accessible and easy that we have actually been denying Jesus’ own words. Nowhere in the Gospels does following Jesus have anything whatsoever to do with a life of ease. He does tell us that following him will bring fulfillment, will bring joy, will bring peace. But it will also bring hardship, persecution, and difficulty.
Ask the persecuted church their experience! And then ask yourself how other than through the power of the Risen Lord can a church under extreme persecution still praise God and still love God and sincerely pray for and love their enemies? Ask yourself how, other than the power of the Holy Spirit, can a church under persecution grow faster than any of the churches of the U.S., Canada, or Europe? The only way through all of this is abandonment to Christ himself -to be “all in”. We may call this radical, but Biblically this is 100% normal Christianity.
So let’s let our imaginations run again. This time imagine that you are in the crowds that are following Jesus. You want to follow him. Maybe you think you have been following him. Maybe you even think you’ve been doing a pretty good job at it overall. But then the Lord turns, clears his throat and speaks the words of today’s Gospel -that He is to have the highest place of love and allegiance in your heart and be the dominating voice in your life. You hear his call to total abandonment, even to the abandonment of your own life. This, according to Jesus, is discipleship. Then he tells us to count the cost. He challenges us to come forward. Are we ready for this kind of authentic, all-in, discipleship?
You see this is not Jesus the politician. Politicians tell you what you want to hear (regardless if they intend to follow through, which they usually don’t). This is Jesus as the jumpmaster. Let me tell you about Jumpmasters.
In the summer of 1993 I attended the U.S. Army Airborne school at Ft. Benning, Georgia. This school is designed to take the uninitiated, non-parachutist soldiers, which are referred to as “legs”, and qualify them in jump operations. Basically they teach you how to make successful static line jumps. The jumpmaster is the nice enlisted man who gently teaches you during the three-week school. Not really. They are demanding, exacting, loud, profane, and tough. They will bust your rear-end relentlessly. They want to form you physically and mentally to do something that is quite unnatural –jump from a perfectly good airplane. They are demanding because your safety depends on it. Forget a step. Panic. Be silly or careless and you can get hurt or killed.
When the day finally came for my first jump. It just so happened that I was the first one out of the plane. I got the thrill (frightening thrill) of standing in the door, watching for the red light to turn green which would indicate it was time to leap out of the plane. It turned green and I jumped.
Jumping from a plane requires total commitment. It requires complete trust in the rigger who has packed your chute and in the jumpmaster that has instructed you. There is cost and there is risk and there is reward. In those ways it is like discipleship. Following Jesus is a total commitment to Christ and trust in His ways. And this is how he calls us, his people, to follow Him. He calls us to go all-in.
I think our persecuted brothers and sisters learn this lesson a little faster than we do. Their situation brings this to light in a much more focused way. But we need this lesson. May we step to the edge and jump with total commitment and complete abandon. With Jesus as our greatest love, our highest priority and listening to him as the dominant voice in our lives, may we begin to experience the life he has called us to live and answer his call to be his disciples. May we go all-in. AMEN+