The hard edge of Jesus
I hang out with a diverse group of friends and sometimes strangers (who don’t stay strangers for very long) on Wednesday nights. We’ve been taking turns picking Jesus stories to uncover and apply, among other things, and last night my friend brought this one:
Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters — yes, even their own life — such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’
“Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.”
It’s a hard edge that can sound daunting, unappealing and even impossible. Why then, we remarked out loud, do we keep feeling drawn to this guy? Why is our experience with God — even in suffering and “giving things up” — characterized by a growing sense of welcome and freedom? We pondered this mystery and came up with a few observations together (theology practiced in community is my favorite way to “study”):
1. Jesus is expanding our family. It’s not that he is calling us away from those we love already, it is that he is calling us toward those we don’t know yet. He is multiplying love and our capacity to live in it and express it. Sometimes we do experience loss in this stretching, and maybe that’s part of the cross Jesus is talking about. We are dying to our contentment with small, controlled, protected lives. We are called into a transcultural, transhistorical worldwide family that moves to love and include everyone in the redemption plan.
2. “Giving up everything” could be responsive partnership with God. My friend Mike said that he often feels directed to lay aside his own plans and responsibilities throughout the day or night in order to respond to someone who needs help. The “giving up” what he wants done in the moment is hard, but he thinks this might be what Jesus is talking about. God calls us into a partnering relationship. Our awareness of that relationship and willingness to respond to God — often in normal moment-by-moment practical ways — is characteristic of a disciple.
3. We need God in order to be disciples at all. What Jesus is describing is rather impossible on our own cognition, which is why he doesn’t say anything about needing to do it on our own. His whole life, death and resurrection indicates that we can trust God in us and us in God, and not waste time assessing our own worthiness based on our piles of perceived limitations. Of course we have lots of limitations, but they need not keep us from becoming our truest selves. We talk a lot around my faith community, Circle of Hope, about “doing things that are hard enough to require God.” How else could we attempt to love everyone, understand the Bible, meet regularly, share money and other resources, serve creatively and compassionately, and make peace? Jesus is calling us to discipleship that welcomes, frees, expands, and enables us to make a difference, even in trying times. Being part of a cell group reminds me of that every week. I can’t help but experience that the cost of discipleship is also an “easy yoke” in how we share it.
Rachel DeMara Sensenig is a pastor with Circle of Hope, a Brethren in Christ church in Philadelphia. She holds a bachelor’s degree in sociology and philosophy from Messiah College and a master’s of social work from Temple University. She’s worked previously as a wilderness camp director with adjudicated youth and a therapist in the HIV/AIDS community. She blogs at rachelsensenig.wordpress.com, where this post originally appeared.
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