Cost of Discipleship


Luke 14:25-33

This is one of those weeks when every vicar will have looked at the set Gospel reading and then quickly glanced to see if any of the other readings would do instead! It is Jesus telling people what being a disciple involves and how hard it will be. The beginning of this passage is very daunting and scares many people off. It might help if it is put into context first:

Jesus has just left the Pharisee’s house and is being followed by great crowds. Why? Well its not really because they want to hear about spiritual things, more because it’s kind of parade where they hope see Jesus perform miracles or feed the hungry. Some hoping it’s a march, Jews versus Romans, peasants versus power, Jesus versus the establishment.

Their expectations were way off-beam. Jesus was on the way to the cross. The crowds thought he was on the way to an empire! Jesus addresses this large crowd rather than just the disciples, intent on turning away half-hearted, potential followers. He was not calling for spectators but recruits, not those tagging along out of curiosity or wanting to see power and glory. Jesus wanted followers who, realising there’s a price to pay, a cross to bear, would commit themselves to loyalty and sacrifice. He’s warning hasty volunteers ‘think about what you are doing and decide if you will stay all the way’.

It’s easy for a church not to preach about this. In days of dwindling numbers and resources might it be better not to mention the painful cost and quietly accept all those who are just along for the ride? But Jesus isn’t interested in growing his group just for the sake of growth, Jesus desires serious seekers with dedicated devotion.

Jesus preached a sermon that deliberately thinned out the ranks, making it clear that, when it comes to personal discipleship, He’s more interested in quality than quantity. In the matter of saving lost souls, yes, He wants His house to be filled; but in the matter of personal discipleship, He wants only those who are willing to pay the price.

A “disciple” is a learner, someone under the tuition or guidance of a teacher in order to learn a trade or a subject. Like an “apprentice,” who learns by watching and doing. Disciple was the most common name for the followers of Christ (used 264 times in the Gospels and Acts).

This isn’t about our eternal destiny but about the character of our Christian lives and Jesus seems to make a distinction between salvation and discipleship.

Salvation is open to all who will come by faith discipleship is for believers willing to pay a price.

Salvation means coming to the cross and trusting Jesus Christ, discipleship means carrying the cross and following Jesus Christ.

Jesus wants as many sinners saved as possible but He cautions us not to take discipleship lightly; and in this reading He makes it clear there’s a price to pay.

Christianity is a way of being, living and doing things differently because we’re living “in Christ” Jesus asks his disciples to sacrifice. He expects, demands even, undivided loyalty. He asks disciples to first count the cost because the Christian life is expensive: it demands commitment in terms of time, attention, and money.

To reiterate: I’m not talking about salvation. That’s done and dusted. Completed by God’s grace. What Jesus is talking about here is the cost of discipleship.

We live in an age of ‘what’s best for me because I deserve it’. Talk about sacrifice and commitment could surely risk driving even more people away from Christianity?

Sacrifice is done according to priorities. Jesus says following Him should be a priority that demands being properly planned for. The cost accounted for first.

This may not be popular, painless or easy, but Jesus never promised that following him would be. So, in the network of a disciples loyalties and relationships, the claim of Christ takes precedence. It redefines the others, which may well involve some detaching and turning away.

However Jesus has no place for literal hatred. He commanded us to love our enemies and isn’t likely to tell us to hate our nearest and dearest!

To hate is a Semitic expression meaning to turn away, or detach oneself from. It’s not the emotion we experience when saying ‘I hate you’. It’s a way of expressing preference: ‘to love this rather than that’, Here it means loving less. The love a disciple has for Christ must be so great that it makes the best of earthly love look like hatred in comparison. Jesus is not saying we are to love family less rather that we must love him more.

To put him first, and love Him even more than we love our own flesh and blood, to the point of being willing to carry our cross. This means daily identification with Christ and surrender to God’s will. It means death to self, our own plans and ambitions, and a willingness to serve Him as He directs. A “cross” should be something we accept from God as part of His will for our lives. The Christian who calls noisy neighbours the “cross he has to bear” does not understand the meaning of dying to self! Carrying our cross means following to the point of being prepared to die with Him.

We have to also reckon whether we have enough to complete. Usually we interpret the man building the tower and the king fighting the war as ourselves “counting the cost” before we start, lest we start and not be able to finish. But it could also be that the builder and the king represent Jesus. He’s the One who must “count the cost” to see whether we are the kind of material He can use to build the church and battle the enemy. He cannot get the job done with halfhearted followers who will not pay the price.

In the first parable Jesus is saying: Sit down and reckon whether you can afford to follow me. In the second He’s saying: Sit down and reckon whether you can afford not to.

Total commitment means there’s no space to squeeze through the doorway to the Kingdom if we’re cluttered with ifs and buts.

When most people become Christians they never really know what they’re taking on. But, in the walk with Jesus, the need to put Him before everything and everyone else comes up again and again. Failure to do this leaves us lukewarm and joyless, no faith at all really.

Jesus warns about the perils of deciding to follow him without understanding the cost of discipleship, He doesn’t want us to be caught unawares. He asks if we’re sure we want to follow Him, or is the price more than we can pay? The enthusiasm might be there but do we possess the resources to carry it through to completion? Discipleship’s serious business. If we’re not true disciples, Jesus can’t build the tower and fight the war.

A soldier was brought before Alexander the Great to be court-martialled for desertion. 'What’s your name?' asked the Commander. 'Alexander' was the reply. 'Change your name or mend your way' replied the Emperor. The soldier had to live up to the name he shared with his commander. We’re called to live up to the name of 'Christian'. To try and live like, and for, our commander.

If we’re daunted by Christ’s commands let’s remember we’re not left to fulfil them alone. “He who called him to the steep road will walk with him every step of the way and be there at the end to meet him”. He was on the way to the cross when He spoke these words, He never asks us to do anything for Him that He’s not already done for us. He wants us to know exactly what we are getting into. He wants no false expectancy, no illusions, no bargains. He wants to use us as stones for building His church, soldiers for battling His enemies, He is looking for quality.

But Jesus doesn’t force anyone to be a disciple. It's perfectly possible to be a follower without being a disciple as it is to be a camp-follower without being a soldier, a hanger-on without pulling one’s weight.

Someone mentioned to a great lecturer about a young man who’d said he was his student. The lecturer said he may have attended my lectures but he was not one of my students.

Unfortunately the Church is handicapped by having many ‘distant’ followers and so few real disciples. But the real losers are those who don’t know the overwhelming value and joy that comes from having counted the cost and sacrificed our lives to Him.

Perhaps the Church has made it a little too easy for so many not to become disciples by avoiding preaching on hard passages like this.

We’re called to count the cost of discipleship. Perhaps the words at the beginning of the marriage service may help? It is 'not to be entered upon lightly or selfishly, but reverently and responsibly'. Amen.