The cost of discipleship is the central theme of the Gospel text from Luke, chapter 9. In the text Jesus has "set his face towards Jerusalem." He was journeying toward Jerusalem in order to fulfill God's plan for his life, a plan that involves a cross and crucifixion on Calvary.
As Jesus travels towards Jerusalem, he encounters three would-be followers. Along the road the first man said, Lord I'm ready to follow you wherever you go. Jesus replied "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head."
To another Jesus said, "follow me," and the man replied, "I'll come along but first I need to take care of some family business. I have to bury my father." To this, Jesus replied, "Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the Kingdom of God."
Jesus was pretty harsh with these fellows. Now let's be reasonable. He could have cut them some slack, couldn't he? Come on, what does he expect? Burying one's father, going home to say goodbye to family and friends, are perfectly normal things to want to do. Yet in his words to his would-be followers, Jesus is making it quite clear what the cost of following him is.
As modern-day followers of Jesus, we, too, stand under his words. We, too, must face the cost of discipleship. Our journey, the Christian life, parallels the journey of Jesus to Jerusalem. Jesus is telling us, up front, that our journey with him will not be an easy one. If we follow in the way of Jesus, we can not expect to have an easier road to travel than the Master does. For as the Father has sent Jesus, even so he sends us. Signing on with Jesus means that everything becomes secondary to serving the Kingdom of God and sharing the gospel. Following will cost us. He tells us we will be less secure than foxes and birds.
Jesus is letting his followers know the urgency of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom's call is more urgent than the need to bury our parents and more urgent than saying farewell to friends. The reason the text strikes a chord of dissonance in us is because family and friends are important. They are the most important things in the world, in terms of our human affairs. By saying they are secondary to the Kingdom, Jesus is telling us that God's affairs take priority over human affairs, no matter how important they may be.
In his words about counting the cost, Jesus is not trying to be a "heavy." He is not being "mean," he's being Lord. "To have a Lord, is to have a Lord." Meaning, one's primary allegiance is to that Lord. Service to the Lord takes priority over everything else.
Jesus is not against "burying the dead," nor is he anti-"family values." He was speaking to those would-be followers of his own experience. He, too, was serving God. He, too, made the Kingdom his top priority. He, too, left his parents. He, too, went away from his hometown Nazareth, and all his friends. He knew of what he spoke. He had counted the cost. He would not ask any would-be followers to do things he, himself, had not already done. Or to go to places he, himself had not already gone.
As Christians on the verge of the 21st Century, it would be easy to think the cost of discipleship has been lowered. We don't have to literally follow the Lord. I mean, really. After all, we've come along way, baby!
There are almost a billion Christians in the world, not just a small band of followers like back then. We have large and complex church structures, giant cathedrals, tons of bishops, loads of deacons, and an abundance of sisters. The pews are filled to the brim in many of our "mega parishes." We have church agencies and charities; we even have church-run Web pages and "God-link" computer networks. Relax, Jesus, take a load off, you've got plenty of modern high-tech disciples out there with lots of megabytes. Thus, as individuals, we don't have to sweat it. We don't have to worry about leaving home and hearth. All the bases are covered!
Unfortunately, the cost of discipleship is not time-conditioned. We are under the same word as the first disciples. We, too, are less secure in the world than foxes and birds. If we feel more secure than foxes and birds, perhaps we are spending too much time burying our dead, chatting with friends, and looking back over the plow.
In our second reading from Galatians, Paul tells us of the freedom we have in Christ Jesus. He says, "For freedom Christ has set us free, stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery." The freedom of God, the freedom of Jesus, the freedom Paul was talking about is not freedom from the cost of discipleship, but freedom for it.
We do not plow and look back; plowing means going forward. Life in Christ is a journey. Our hymns teach us this as well. "Onward Christian Soldiers," "Lead On O King Eternal," "He Leadeth Me, Oh Blessed Thought," "O Jesus, I have Promised..."
The Journey of life in Christ is always forward and is never easy. Yet the Lord who has called us to follow, will stay with us along the way, of this we can be assured.
In the words of the hymn:
"O Jesus, I have promised to serve you to the end; Remain forever near me, my master and my friend;
I shall not fear the battle if you are by my side, Nor wander from the pathway if you will be my guide.
"O Jesus you have promised, to all who follow you. That where you are in glory, your servant shall be too.
And Jesus I have promised to serve you and the end; O give me grace to follow, my master and my friend."