The Cost-Benefit of Discipleship


A sermon on Luke 14: 25-33

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here]

In last week’s gospel, Jesus played the part of the offensive guest in his enacted parable – publicly rebuking his host and shaming his fellow guests. This week, it appears that the readings have been selected to up the ante by just offending us directly! Or at least that’s my instinctive reaction.

First, we get a reading from the law in Deuteronomy that simplistically contrasts life & prosperity against death & adversity: combining all the worst elements of works righteousness with the prosperity gospel.

Then, our epistle reading is a letter that Paul has an escaped slave bring back to his master… a letter that does NOT unequivocally require that master to free his slave (and has thereby been repeatedly used as a justification for slavery in our nation’s history).

Then we hear from Jesus again, and he is telling anyone who wants to be his disciples (which – I presume – includes all of us) that we have to:

  • Give up all our possessions;

  • Carry our cross (an implement of shameful and painful death), and

  • HATE our parents, spouses, children, siblings, and even our own lives!

That all seems calculated to offend our Lutheran sensibilities!

And Jesus doesn't seem to be worried about offending us. He’s not making a sales pitch. Rather, he’s calling his would-be followers to make a cost-benefit analysis. The life of discipleship – the life of anyone who actually wants to follow Jesus – is not cheap. It’s not casual. It’s not something we can just add on to the side of our normal lives. It will cost us a total reorientation of our entire lives. We need to know this up front to decide if we are willing to make this kind of investment.

Of course, the cost is not the only factor to take into account when we are talking about how we are going to invest our lives. The other side of the accounting is the benefit: what we are investing in. That’s why, while each of today’s readings poses some very real challenges when read in isolation, they are instructive when read together.

Let’s start with Deuteronomy:

I’ve already revealed my reaction against the over-simplified formula of obedience to God = life and prosperity, while disobedience = death and adversity. I cringe at this formula because people of faith too often try to work it in reverse: looking at the circumstances of one’s life as evidence of the state of one’s faith, which leads to the result of heaping blame and shame on people who are already suffering… because it must be their fault!

But if the life of discipleship means taking up our cross, as Jesus teaches, then adversity is to be expected! It’s not a sign of disobedience, but quite the opposite.

So, what is the promise in Deuteronomy for followers of Christ – if not a “health and wealth gospel”? Well, if we set aside the promises of rewards in the Promised Land (which don't really apply to us anyway), we can notice instead what the reading is saying about “choosing life,” which the Deuteronomist defines as “loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him” (Deut. 30:2).

In other words, the benefit of discipleship – of choosing life - is not primarily about our life circumstances, it’s about our relationship with God.

Our reading from Philemon gives us a much fuller picture of what the value of this relationship with God looks like.

To appreciate that picture, we have to understand the context of the letter: Most scholars agree that Paul wrote this letter to a man – Philemon – whom Paul had converted to faith in Christ, and who was leading the house church in Collosae.

Philemon was a man of some status and wealth in the city, AND he was a man who had already experienced the transformation of his life through faith in Christ. He already understood that the transformative value of a reconciled relationship with God is worth the cost of discipleship!

And have no doubt, Philemon was facing very real costs: Paul was asking him to grant freedom to a returned slave. And that meant a lot more than just a loss of property (which we probably have a hard time sympathizing with, since the idea of owning other people is so repugnant to our morality).

But the cost Philemon is facing is much bigger than that: He is also facing public shame. Because, even though this letter addresses him personally, it is to be read aloud in the church. Paul’s appeal puts a spotlight on Philemon’s moral deliberation. His decision on whether to choose the way of Christ, or the way of the established social structure, is very public.

And this means that the consequences of his decision will be bigger than just the question of Onesimus’s freedom. Philemon's compliance with Paul’s request would set a new standard for the relationships and identity in the entire faith community. It would dismantle the assumptions of entitlement that went unquestioned in stratified Greco-Roman society, and it would create a new expectation… an expectation that (as one commentator summaries) “(Christian) love can require suspending one’s own rights and privileges for the good of another.”[1] In other words: in Christian community, the claim “I have my rights” loses its moral power, if those rights do harm to others.

And this reorientation of social expectations would mean significant social and economic disruption in the whole community. The appeal being made is not an appeal for generosity, or magnanimity. It’s an appeal based on identity as the family of Christ. Onesimus is presented as a brother. And that means that freeing one slave, would have implications for all other slaves. In Philemon’s households, and the other households in his church. And if all the Christians suddenly freed their slaves… you can bet that would get the attention of the Roman authorities. It would be a threat to the entire social order.

So, yes. Philemon is facing very steep costs to discipleship.

But the power of this letter is in recognizing the Paul does not coerce Philemon into taking on these costs. It is clear that Paul could order Philemon to free Onesimus – such is his apostolic authority. But Paul doesn’t do that. Nor does he just keep Onesimus with him. He writes that “I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced” (Philemon 1:14). And the rest of the letter makes it clear that Paul could do this – could make a request, rather than a demand – because Philemon understood the life-transforming value of true discipleship.

Paul apparently believes that, for Philemon, the decision to release Onesimus – despite the very steep costs of this decision – is not only imaginable; it is undeniable. Because Philemon’s life has already shown the evidence of his relationship with God – through his “love for all the saints and (his) faith toward Jesus Christ” (Philemon 1:5) That’s why Paul is able to make his appeal “on the basis of love” (Philemon 1:9). Because Philemon knows the unparalleled value of a life lived in love.

That’s the benefit of a life of discipleship. That’s the investment that’s worth any cost: The kind of inner transformation that makes us actually able to live in the way of love… not worried about the cost because we actually have LIFE. Life the way it was created to be lived.

Which brings us to one last question… one last challenge in today’s readings: If the benefit of a life of costly discipleship is the ability to live transformed by love… then why does Jesus tell us we have to HATE our families to be disciples?

It seems like a complete contradiction! But actually, it’s a transformation of our understanding of how love works. Because our imperfect instincts for love (especially when applied to our families) can so easily get mixed up with possessiveness, and anxiety. And our loved ones can become little idols in our lives – relationships to which we look for our security and happiness.

So, when Jesus tells us we must hate them, he’s not telling us to despise them, or even to deny them love. He’s telling us to reorder our priorities when it comes to love. To not love them most.

Discipleship means loving God most.

And that’s actually good news for everyone else we love, because God is the source of love. So, when God comes first – when God is at the center of our lives, we experience the transformation that allows us to love others, including our family, more perfectly. Because we love them through the self-giving, life-transforming love of God. NOT out of our need to be loved back, or made to feel secure.

Lives of discipleship, lives lived in and through God’s love, are the good news that Lutheran churches across the country seek to embody today in the celebration of “God’s Work Our Hands” service projects. Because when we describe our service as really being God’s work, just done through our hands, we blur the boundary between what is ours and what is God's. We begin to get a hint of the joy of renouncing our claims to ownership, to possession, because in the life of discipleship everything of ours is God’s.

As Jesus teaches us, that renunciation is the COST of discipleship. But it’s also the BENEFIT – Because when everything we have, and everything we love, and everything we are belongs to God… then we belong to Love. And that will change our lives in a way that is WORTH the cost of discipleship.

Thanks be to God

[1] Professor Jennifer Pietz, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4176

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